Olympic catastrophe recalled in 'One Day in September'
NOTHING LOOKS more like a harbinger of doom than film footage of an old festival. In the riveting documentary One Day in September, the 1972 Munich Olympics awaits trouble under cloudless blue skies. The city's boosters show us a tourist Munich, a city of dazzling blondes carrying trays of beer glasses. The Nazi nightmare is dead and buried. The city appears to be "open and modern and shorn of its past," as British journalist Gerald Seymour puts it.
But One Day in September takes us on a sidetrack, paralleling two personal narratives.
First is the story of Jamal Al Gashey. He is the last living Black September terrorist who, 28 years ago, participated in the kidnapping of the Israeli track and field team at Munich. Alternating with Al Gashey's account is the memoir of Ankie Spitzer, the wife of a fencing coach captured by the Palestinians.
These two histories are joined in a tragedy symbolized by a famous image: a ski-masked figure peeking over a brutal modern concrete balcony at the Olympic Village.
One Day in September tells the less familiar side of the story: how the various branches of the German government--military, municipal, Bavarian, and federal--completely muffed the crisis. They might as well have left the job to some junior high school hall monitors.
The security force at the Village were baby-blue polyester-clad docents, unarmed and untrained. The local police had no SWAT team. The various military organizations were uncoordinated. First they gave in to the kidnappers' demands out of desperation. Then the German authorities planned a pair of clumsy ambushes. Journalists were apprised of the first of these two surprises, and they duly broadcasted the planned assault. (No one stopped to think that the terrorists might be watching their own standoff on television.)
Narrated by Michael Douglas, One Day in September tells its story with the sharp editing and drive of a Bond movie. Computer graphics show us exactly how the finale occurred at a suburban airport in the dead of night. The hostage drama was extensively covered, so director Kevin McDonald (who won the Best Documentary Oscar for this film last year) has a wealth of material to cut from. He has vintage ABC Wide World of Sports broadcasts and what looks like segments from the 1973 documentary Visions of Eight as resources. You can talk about Leni Riefenstahl at the '36 Olympics, but the '72 Olympiad had Kon Ichikawa and Arthur Penn on hand filming the athletes.
The music selected also builds up the exhilaration and tragedy of the Olympics. The contrast of "Joy" by Apollo 100 and "Immigrant Song" by Led Zepplin are musical cues that contrast the Olympic festivities with the kidnapping drama. For that matter, those two songs sum up the 1970s: burbling idiot delirium and war screams. (McDonald also borrows, just as appropriately, some of Philip Glass' doomsday arpeggios from Koyaanisqatsi.)
One Day in September is an alternative to the diluted, falsified politics of negotiation in Thirteen Days. But the lesson isn't complete, though McDonald ends on what might (to the simpleminded) be considered an upbeat closing note about the Israeli Secret Service's vengeance.
Al Gashey mentions that he became a radical from being born in Lebanon's Shatilla refugee camp. Years after the Munich attack, Shatilla suffered a bloody massacre staged by clients of the Israeli army (under the watch of Israel's recently elected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon). Thus the documentary doesn't tell us enough about how the Israeli/Palestinian strife was carried on to the next generation.
'One Day in September' opens Friday, April 13, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. For details, see or call 707/525-4840.
From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.