Early Zionist writing evoked the tragic male hero, bound by the cruel destiny of his people and himself. It’s true of many contemporary works, including Kushner and Spielberg’s Munich.

Munich_500.jpgPhoto via Flickr by Duncan Chen

Tragedy and Contemporary Culture

Since roughly the Lebanon War of 1982, the influx of post-Zionist critique and the general shift in Israeli culture toward greater reflection and introspection—by feminists, New Historians, and artists in general—have undermined the predominance of tragedy in Israeli culture. In what can be loosely classified as “male awakening narratives,” contemporary works, particularly in film, have taken to plots in which the tragic hero gradually and painfully gains access to the symbolic role he has been made to assume on behalf of the group and works toward questioning, if not completely rejecting, this position. It is the awareness of the suffering caused by the tragic hero to an Other—the “enemy”—rather than to the self, which typically brings about this awareness and tentative refusal.

It began perhaps with the Greeks. Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet trace the rise of an autonomous individual who nevertheless is unfree and bound to the destiny of his people. Early Zionist literature—such as Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s poem “In the City of Killing,” depicting the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903—evokes a similar tragic hero bound by the cruel destiny of his people and fated to self-sacrifice on their behalf. The image of a mythic hero driven to his demise by internal and external forces beyond his control is often pleasing to audiences, Aristotle and Nietzsche believed, infusing spectators with a range of emotions that range from awe to guilt, pity to love. Though this relationship to the tragic male figure was more prevalent in the early national period, its traces are still palpable in many contemporary works, including Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s 2004 film Munich, depicting Israel’s vengeance for the killing of its athletes during the 1972 Olympic games.

Munich consciously exposes the collapse of images of past and present Jewish humiliation in the Israeli imagination.

In that film and Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky’s Walk on Water (2004), tragic themes, such as ancestral sin, destiny, heroism, and responsibility, are so explicitly and exaggeratedly portrayed that the sacrificial ritual of the male hero is plainly exposed. Munich, which is set after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972, features Avner (Eric Bana), a young Mossad agent who is chosen by the then-Prime Minister Golda Meir to lead a team whose clandestine mission is to assassinate PLO operatives linked to the Olympics massacre. Avner is at first ambivalent and irresolute about his role; yet like Bialik’s poet-witness, he is finally compelled to feeling and action through an act of witnessing—this time of the televised massacre of the Israeli athletes. “Will they ever stop?” sighs a weary Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), drawing a direct line between the Russian mob of the 1903 pogrom and the Palestinian attackers of 1972.

Structurally, the events of Munich mirror Kishinev exactly: the humiliation of Jewish men, the failure of the “authorities” (German/Russian police) in charge of protecting the Jews, the visual images of bloodied Jewish bodies broadcast for the entire world to see. As in Bialik’s poem, the horror of these images is highlighted through quick imagistic shifts between animate and inanimate objects—the dead breast and the healthy sucking infant of Kishinev, or in Munich, the televised seconds that pass between the image of anxious Israeli athletes huddled together on a van and those same athletes shot and brutalized, their limp corpses piled on top of one another in the very same van. These are the images that Avner first witnesses, and which continue to haunt him throughout the film to the very end when, having successfully completed his mission, he becomes bitter and paranoid, eventually breaking from the national community on behalf of which he has fought.

Munich consciously exposes the collapse of images of past and present Jewish humiliation in the Israeli imagination; this exposure, embodied by the exaggerated representation of Avner as a pawn tossed about by his father and mother (war hero and Holocaust victim, respectively), the circle of older, cunning generals who are his operators, and a shrewd, weary Golda Meir, reveals the true underpinning of Avner’s “destiny” and tragic status and calls them into question from the very beginning. The film also refuses to mask the violence that trails tragedy. At the beginning of Munich, Avner appears to be another tragic hero—handsome, inarticulate, doomed by his identity—but the violence done by and to him, unlike the violence done by and to Uri, is in fact portrayed in graphic detail. The film plays out Bialik’s dream—the dream of a tragic hero who avenges the blood of his people—to its logical conclusion, only to come out on the other side: self-defense turned into unchecked aggression, justice for the victims turned into blind revenge. Avner’s killings breed further Palestinian attacks and multiply the injury on all sides, triggering a growing level of paranoia even in the protagonist himself. That the Jewish Hamlet has metamorphosed into a King Lear is, supposedly, the film’s cautionary moral message.

Yet we should also note that even while he is critiquing the dangers of unchecked Dionysian-style violence, Spielberg makes the film’s violence as appetizing as any other Hollywood war/gangster movie. Not only does the group become increasingly more deceptive and violent, but the degree of their attachment to their people grows accordingly. As James Schamus observes, it is through this violence that the men are inducted into the nation, as with each additional assassination of a PLO operative, Avner and his gang become more visibly “Jewish,” asserting their tribal loyalty over and against an initial alienation from it. In a peak moment we view Steve (Daniel Craig), a blond and blue-eyed South African member of the assassination team who initially expresses doubts about the mission, ecstatically shouting: “The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood.”

Munich continues to propagate a kind of pleasure associated with the joy of empowerment.

Yet it is not Munich’s excessive violence that speaks to the popular imagination as much as its implementation by the quiet, unassuming, innocently beautiful Avner. In his reticence, boyish charm, and anguished eyes, his middle-class normality, Avner makes an unlikely and therefore a fascinating killer. Spielberg makes a direct reference here to The Godfather, which draws its profound magnetism from the exact juxtaposition between the shaking hand of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and the cold-blooded assassination that it triggers, between the quiet, handsome, civilized young man and his brutal savagery. Within the context of his team, Avner is also juxtaposed with the hotheaded Steve, a Sonny Corleone to Avner’s Michael, a fanatic bully who serves to further glamorize the tragic grandeur of the saner, more violent other. As in The Godfather, Spielberg implicates the audience exactly by making the bearer and recipient of violence an arresting young man whom identity and destiny have thrust to the other side of the law. And as Avner’s mission proceeds, it increasingly turns more glamorous and complex, grabbing the spectator for its own sake; Avner becomes invincible, we expect him to, and though he is presented by the end as disturbed and disillusioned, the spectator cannot fail to register his heroic growth—how much better dressed, more confident, more slick, and more attractive he is, his body the object of an increasing number of close-ups as the movie progresses. Spielberg draws on an existing affective field around the empowered, heroic male figure in popular culture, even as his sympathetic portrayal of the bombing victims presents a disturbing critique of Avner’s enterprise.

That Avner is an Israeli Jew is everything in this context, for the film demands both in its underlying assumptions and its explicit story line that Avner’s image and actions be read across the bar of a long Jewish history of helplessness and victimization. For this reason, and despite its critical message, the film continues to propagate—especially for mainstream Jewish audiences—a kind of pleasure associated with the joy of empowerment. By continuing to display Avner’s beauty, strength, and charm and juxtaposing it with the unattractiveness of his “Diasporic looking” deliverers (whose gaze often directs audience focus on his body), it further distributes the pleasure and allure of the tragic male spectacle. It is in this sense that the film’s condemnation of the masculine Jewish national subject by Spielberg and Kushner, both American Jews, is inevitably also marked by an a priori desire that, in spite of itself, competes with and partially cancels the effect of the hero’s narrative of self-awareness and the rejection of tragic violence.

Mikhal Dekel is an Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The City College of the City University of New York. Her book, The Universal Jew: Masculinity, Modernity, and the Zionist Moment, is due to to be published this month by Northwestern University Press.

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