For a long time I pondered which movie I should focus my next One Shot on. Usually I stumble upon some unseen film and connect with a certain shot, but occasionally I stumble upon older movies, which I’ve seen numerous times, but never thought of as a subject for One Shot.
Munich (2005) is one such film. It’s one of Steven Spielberg’s more controversial and lesser-known films. I remember seeing the movie in the cinema back in 2006 and being impressed by it, but not blown away. I, like many at the time, expected a real emotional roller-coaster about the troubling history of terrorism and conflict, something along the lines of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, but Munich turned out to be a much more difficult film to feel. It’s ambiguity in its narrative and characters made it difficult to immediately relate to it and be touched by it.
The movie told the story of an Israeli counter-terrorism team who, as a response to the terrorist attack on its athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, embarked on a covert operation to assassinate the people behind the attack . In the film we see the team succeed in their assassinations but gradually fail in their humanity. At the end of the film it’s impossible to not seriously question the actions of Israel and we’re left with an uneasy feeling of doubt as the team’s leader Avner ends in exile in the US.
Almost a decade later the movie resurfaced in my thoughts and I decided to re-watch it, and maybe also analyze its cinematography more closely. I knew Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński also filmed Munich and I remembered that his work felt kind of unique in its 70’s styled techniques. Muted colors, gritty textures and documentary-style camera movement, like long zoom-shots, were what I remembered.
A decade onwards
I did appreciate the movie more than I did back in 2006. I don’t think it’s as effortlessly effective in its storytelling as Spielberg’s greatest movies, but I really respect the depth and nuance of its story. Actually, in reflection, Spielberg’s other ‘serious’ movies, in comparison, feel pretty straight-forward and easy. There’s never any doubt, for example, who the bad-guys are in Schindler’s List (1993). Munich explores layers of moral ambiguity and you continually shift your sympathy for the main characters.
But what resonated most with me after watching the movie again was that it contained a number of scenes so powerfully directed that it really felt like some of the most tense political-thriller material I’ve ever watched. The movie actually also entertained me with its suspense.
Part of that is down to how brilliant Spielberg can manipulate the language of film to excite us. He stages the assassination scenes with clockwork-like precision as he carefully cuts between different viewpoints and uses simple props like telephones and lamps as focal points of tension. At times Munich feels like Spielberg doing his best impression of Alfred Hitchcock.
The dreamlike cinematography
But equally important is the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński. He seemingly blends realism with a kind of dreamlike aesthetic. At times Munich feels realistic and grounded, but at other times it feels more fantastical and distanced from reality. Kamiński again uses the Bleach-Bypass technique he popularized with Saving Private Ryan (1998) to desaturate the image, but also to let the light sources bleed over into the darker parts of the image. Light sources start to glow and backlighting (a classic Kamiński technique) drowns the foreground subjects in shafts of soft lightning. It feels more romantic and dreamlike than it feels realistic.
Because Munich is not as factually historic as, for example, Schindler’s List (the broad strokes of the plot are recorded history, but the details of the actual assassinations are unknown), I can imagine Kamiński wanted to create a sort of distance between reality and the film and therefore suggest that he and Spielberg are only interpreting the facts, not actually showing them.
The One Shot
Besides the tone and style of his cinematography Kamiński also shows himself to be a great composer of shots in Munich. After the repeat viewing I really start the notice how the film cleverly uses composition and mise-en-scene to relate character-details, themes and plot.
For example, at one point late in the movie, as the leader -and main character- Avner is slowly losing his connection to his humanity and distant family, that feeling is perfectly captured when he is filmed waiting on someone. Kamiński films Avner’s reflection as he stands in front of a shopping window which displays an ordinary kitchen setting. Anvil’s reflection is superimposed on the kitchen-scene. Immediately you understand his sense of distance to an ordinary family-life. His reflection is projected unto the kitchen, but he stands outside, separated.
Also noteworthy is the moment where Avner must detonate a bomb in a hotel by switching off a lamp in his own hotelroom. The mundane lamp becomes a harbinger of terror and we see Avner looking at the lamp with doubt and fear. The lamp appears to be almost twice the size of Avner, signifying its importance. As he switches off the light the bomb goes off, but at the same time, metaphorically, the light in Avner’s dark room turns to black. As if he switched off a part of his optimism and hope.
But my favorite shot is the following one. Here, after another assassination, Avner ends up in a gunfight with Palestinian militants and starts shooting at its leader. Another man is already wounded and slowly crawls away.
What I saw in this shot was a perfect summary of the themes of Munich. We see the up-close violence between the Israeli and the Palestinian, and because of the composition of the shot, they look to be absurdly close to each other. There is almost no separation between them. Given that in a previous scene they seemed to create a bond, it really feels like a visual statement informing us just how absurd their ferocious violence seems, as they appear so close together.
Secondly, in the foreground we have the mortally wounded man crawling towards us. We, as viewers, see this man and his terribly bloody wound, and it shocks us, yet Avner and the Palestinian man pay no attention to anyone else besides themselves. They are so focused on killing each other, they are unaware of the collateral damage around them.
As a final touch, we prominently see the hotel sign in the distance, ‘Hotel Aristides’. Aristides was also a famous greek figure in history, nicknamed Aristides the Just. In a scene which seems void of any justice, this feels like a sly and slightly cynical reference..
All in all, I was impressed with the shot on an aesthetic level, but really appreciated it in relation to the themes of the movie. Shots like these, which don’t disrupt the narrative, but take a moment to inform the keen observer of the thematic undercurrents really impress me and motivated me to call this one out as a One Shot.