If you aren’t from planet Earth, you might not have known that the Olympic Games just wrapped up in London this past Sunday. However, since you’re reading this, it’s likely that you were aware of these games and perhaps even swelled with pride as an athlete from your home country took home a gold, silver or bronze medal. It’s also likely that you heard some mention or saw footage of the 1972 Olympic Games which took place in Munich, Germany, and that coverage likely was of 11 Israeli athletes taken hostage and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the Black September organization. On the eve of the 40th anniversary of what was undoubtedly the biggest tragedy in Olympic history, I decided to delve into Kevin MacDonald’s Oscar-winning One Day in September about this event.
Having heard about the Munich event since I was a kid (I was born in 1974), I never knew the whole story behind it all. MacDonald did such a great job presenting the Israeli athletes and their back stories, in particular fencing coach Andre Spitzer (whose wife and daughter make an appearance), that it wasn’t hard to be invested in the film as the tale of their demise unfolded. While giving a tremendous amount of screen time to the Israeli side of the story, MacDonald might well have devoted more time to the Palestinians as it would have been a good chance to hit home the complicated nature of the relationship between Israel and the Palestine Liberation movement, something that is as pertinent to today as it was back then.
With the table set, MacDonald puts forth an interview that really shocked me from Jamal al Gashey, one of the three terrorists who survived the ordeal, who emerged from hiding in North Africa to tell his side of the story. The paranoid al Gashey, who was disguised, still fearing for his life, described in some detail how the operation went down, and from what I understand. He said, “I’m proud of what I did at Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously … before Munich, the world had no idea about our struggle, but on that day, the name of Palestine was repeated all around the world.” To see someone be so brash about being responsible for the murder of 11 people is unsettling. He even points out that the Palestinians were helped into the Olympic Village by American athletes that were returning late after a night out on the town.
With the Germans providing no Army or armed security for the Olympic Village with jitters still existing in the world regarding an armed German presence after their role in starting two World Wars, the perfect situation existed for this type of act of violence to occur. The fact the Jewish blood was again spilled on German soil made this act of violence all the more symbolic and disturbing.
The best part of this documentary is that MacDonald and his fellow crew members were able to create such an air of suspense even though I knew what the outcome of the ordeal was. His use of diagrams highlighting what should have happened at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base and what did actually occur really shed light on what an absolute disaster the operation to stop the terrorists was. The Germans were ill-equipped to handle any type of scenario such as this from start to finish and this is confirmed when it comes out how the three terrorists that survived were able to leave Germany after they had been arrested and jailed for their involvement in the incident almost uncontested. The revelation al Gashey sets forth would be truly unbelievable…if it weren’t the truth. The flippancy of the German generals and officials about this disaster is also mind boggling. How can one, even after all of these years, laugh about this tragedy as they do in their interviews?
All in all, this documentary is well crafted. However, I will echo the same issue that Roger Ebert had with this film and that is we are never really shown who the Palestinians were/are, ideologically speaking, and why this was such an important event for them shy of the quote listed above by al Gashey. This film added to the dialogue about the event and ultimately, that’s what a good film does. Even though he is not Errol Morris, MacDonald is still a fine documentarian.