On Sept. 5, 1972, at 4:10 a.m., nine Palestinian terrorists snuck into the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany, where that year’s Summer Games were being held. In order to gain entrance to the compound, they had to scale a small unguarded wall and were aided in their effort by a small group of American athletes who were returning to their quarters after a night of boozing. The Americans had no reason to suspect that the Palestinians, who were wearing track suits and carrying their weaponry (machine guns, hand grenades) in normal-looking sports bags, were anything other than fellow delinquents and their aid was offered in the spirit of international camaraderie.
Shortly after that, two members of the Israeli Olympic contingent were dead and nine others were being held hostage, with the Palestinians demanding the release of more than 200 political prisoners, most being held in Israel.
The ironic, surreal and somewhat ghastly scene of the Americans helping the terrorists is a small detail near the beginning of Kevin Macdonald’s tense documentary, One Day in September, but it sets the tone for the unfolding absurdities to come. Although Macdonald uses a variety of talking heads — the two poles of involvement being represented by the widow of one of the murdered Israeli athletes, and the one surviving Palestinian terrorist — he also relies heavily on contemporary news footage and commentary, keeping the focus on a nervous present tense. Although this approach doesn’t allow room for much historical context — (what was the relationship of these Palestinian terrorists to the general Palestinian liberation movement? How did Israel’s post-Munich response affect that country’s international relationships and image?), it effectively conveys the human tragedy, the sense of waste and futility.
The greatest irony of the story is that the West Germans had planned for the Munich Olympics to be an important symbolic event in the process of their post-WW II rehabilitation and re-entry into the world community. Their response to the hostage crisis was excruciatingly inept, a fatal mix of hubris, naïveté and unpreparedness. One of the German negotiators’ opening gambits when dealing with the terrorists was to appeal to his (nonexistent) sense of historical decorum — surely the Palestinians could see that it would be in bad taste to be killing Jews on German soil after all that happened during the war. From there it seems an inevitable slide to the final carnage.
This is one of those stories that doesn’t seem to embody any sort of lesson — just layers and layers of intractable stupidity and horror.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.