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Revisiting the Horror at the '72 Munich Games


Nightmarish public events awaken an aspect of human nature that's frustrated more often than not: the need to find out just what went down. We may never know beyond a doubt, for example, if Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but as far as learning exactly what transpired during the tragic kidnapping and deaths of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, an unnerving, highly dramatic documentary called "One Day in September" lets us in on all the secrets.

When "One Day" defeated the much-loved "Buena Vista Social Club" to take last year's best documentary Oscar, those who hadn't seen it suspected it had won because of its worthy subject matter alone. Nothing could be less true. As directed by Kevin Macdonald, this utterly compelling behind-the-scenes account of that horrific event unfolds with a potent sense of authority and authenticity. This is a story that can't help but involve us, one we can't turn away from even for a moment.

For one thing, the chain of events it exposes is almost beyond believing, a roller-coaster saga not lacking for heroes, villains, incompetents and dupes, a narrative balancing International Olympic Committee hubris, Israeli bitterness, Palestinian pride and boggling German ineptitude and malfeasance.

Macdonald and his team have done a remarkable job not just amassing a thorough collection of significant archival footage, but they've also gotten almost everyone critical to the situation to speak on the record--some for the first time--about how that particular nightmare evolved.

We hear from German officials, including military men and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, then the German minister of the Interior. We hear from the only member of a key Munich police squad ever to talk: While his colleagues were all threatened with loss of pensions if they spoke up, he had none to lose. There are international journalists who witnessed what happened and, from the Israeli side, everyone from wives and children of the murdered athletes to Zvi Zamir, the former chief of Mossad, the super-secret Israeli intelligence organization who required, according to the press notes, "six months of persuasion and arm-twisting" before he agreed to talk.

Yet if there is one person whose testimony is critical to this film's success, it is Jamal al Gashey, the only member of the Palestinian Black September terrorist squad still alive. Getting him to speak on camera for the first time apparently took a considerable amount of determination, fortitude and luck, but the film wouldn't have the authenticity and balance it has without his story.

When Al Gashey talks about how "the Palestinian revolution" empowered him after a young life spent in squalid refugee camps, when he talks about feeling "very proud that for the first time I was able to confront the Israelis," we hear an early version of a Middle East dynamic of reciprocal violence that continues to be played out to this very day.

"One Day in September" starts with a German travelogue that presents Munich as it wanted to be seen in 1972, "a kind of German paradise . . . where tradition and modernity exist happily side by side."

Unspoken in this is Munich's place as one of the birthplaces of Nazism, or international memories of the last German Olympics, the Nazi-controlled 1936 Berlin event. But those events were very much factors in Germany's decision to counter a militaristic image by having light security in the Olympic village.

For the eight Palestinians disguised as athletes and helped over the village fence by inebriated Americans sneaking in after curfew, the Olympics provided a perfect world stage to publicize their views. The aim of the terror squad, a naive one considering Israel's historic absolute refusal to bargain, was to hold Israeli athletes hostage and trade them for 200 political prisoners.

Making extensive use of contemporary footage and sportscaster Jim McKay's voice-over on ABC television (which holds up remarkably well), "One Day in September" shows how the siege inside the Olympic village played out, and gives early signs of German feebleness in the transparent ruses they used to attempt to sneak into the building where the athletes were held hostage.

The last third of the film concentrates, with the help of computer-generated re-creations (as well as graphic and bloody photographs) on what happened when the Palestinians and their hostages moved to a Munich airport. It reveals a level of almost criminal German naivete and incompetence that seems especially striking given the way that, as one journalist put it, "everyone was transfixed by a myth of utter German ruthless efficiency." When Israeli Mossad chief Zamir throws up his hands in bitter frustration and says "unbelievable," it's impossible not to agree.

* MPAA rating: R, for some graphic violent images. Times guidelines: brutal still photographs of corpses.

'One Day in September'

A Redbus Film Distribution presentation, an Arthur Cohn & A Passion Pictures production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Kevin Macdonald. Producers John Battsek, Arthur Cohn. Executive producer Lillian Birnbaum. Cinematographers Alwin Kuchler, Neve Cunningham. Editor Justine Wright. Music Alex Heffes. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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