Spielberg's 'Munich' reopens old German wounds

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Filmmaker Steven Spielberg has torn open another old wound in Germany just as the country where the Holocaust was designed and the 1972 Olympics massacre happened prepares for the world's spotlight again.

The American's new film "Munich" was launched in 400 cinemas across Germany on Thursday after weeks of intense media coverage that revived unwanted memories of the shockingly inept handling of events that led to the slaying of 11 Israeli athletes.

Magazine cover stories and endless newspaper reports about "Munich" have rattled Germany -- though perhaps not as deeply as Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's List" -- as it gets ready to host the World Cup soccer tournament.

Some doubts about the country's ability to manage a tournament of the world's 32 top soccer nations have crept into the air, deflating confidence about its organizational skills in the run-up to its first major sporting event since 1972.

Palestinian gunmen killed two Israelis at the Olympic Village and took nine hostage on September 5, 1972. The Germans negotiated for hours before the hostages, five gunmen and a policeman were killed during a failed airport rescue attempt.

"Terror erupted in the middle of one of Europe's richest cities and the whole world watched on live television as Jews were once again killed in Germany," wrote Stern magazine in an eight-page cover story.

The best-selling weekly informed its German readers, most of whom do not associate Munich with the terror that struck the 1972 Olympics, that Israel leader Golda Meir later wrote the "disgraceful actions of the Germans made her 'physically ill."'

The film may be about Israel and the PLO, but Germany's woeful security and their amateurish police response have come into focus just as they were hoping to show the world a better Germany for the World Cup starting June 9.

"It was the West German government that was not able to protect the visitors from Israel," Michael Wolffsohn, a German Jewish leader and historian at the Germany army's military academy in Munich, told German radio, touching a raw nerve.

Spielberg's film also portrays the bungling by five men sent by Meir to track and kill members of the guerrilla group blamed for the raid. The assassins killed an innocent waiter.

"Munich created a national Israeli trauma," Spielberg said in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine published on Monday.

"I think Israel's prime minister had to react to the incredible provocation of Munich. Jews were killed in Germany and at the Olympics. It was an act of such historic dimension that it could not be left unpunished. In principle, I believe, she did the right thing."

The mass coverage of the film's release in Germany has been intense and has even begun to prompt a mild backlash.

"We've already shown you so much this week about Spielberg's film 'Munich' that today we promise you a 'Munich-free zone' here," said an ARD television host on Thursday.

Just as Spielberg's "Schindler's List" about a German industrialist who saved 1,100 Jews from concentration camps stirred a fresh round of profound soul-searching over the Holocaust, "Munich" has struck a chord.

"'Munich' is a watershed film for Spielberg the way 'Schindler's List' was before it," wrote the daily Die Welt.

A wealthy city of 1.2 million, Munich is the fun-loving Bavarian capital filled with yuppies who ski in the nearby Alps or sail on pristine lakes. Fortunes have been made in booming high tech industries. Unemployment is low and rents are high.

But dark memories that could mar Munich are blotted out -- in contrast to Berlin where the Nazi past is inescapable.

"Munich, despite objections being raised on it, is certainly the most inspiring and thoughtful film that will reach us this year from Hollywood," wrote Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.

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