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A Moving, Tragic 'Day'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2000


    'One Day in September' A scene from "One Day in September," which chronicles the 1972 day when Palestinian terrorists struck the Olympic village in Munich. (Sony Pictures Classics)
The 1972 Munich Olympic Games were supposed to mark a new dawn in Germany, not the era of global terrorism.

But at 4:40 in the morning, on Sept. 5, 1972, everything changed. The dreams of Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz and thousands of other Olympic athletes turned into a global nightmare, as eight Palestinians infiltrated the Olympic village to hold 11 Israelis hostage.

In the space of a few hours, the prospect of executed Jews – in the same country where Hitler had once beamed at the spectacle of his master race Olympians – had become frighteningly imminent.

"One Day in September," Kevin Macdonald's straightforward but nonetheless powerful documentary, which won last year's Academy Award for Best Documentary, Features, relives this modern-day tragedy of errors, as confused city officials bargained with hardcore terrorists known as the Black September group, and the world watched helplessly on television.

Ultimately, the German authorities did more harm than good. Pretending to honor the terrorists' request for safe passage out of the country by jet, they ambushed the terrorists at Furstenfeldbruck, a military airport some 20 kilometers from the Olympic village. But with little organization on the German side, too many things went wrong. At the end of a bloody, confused melee, all 11 Israelis were dead. So were five of the eight terrorists and one German policeman.

Macdonald, a British filmmaker, uses a well-assembled compilation of archival footage, music and interviews with many of the central characters – including Jamal al Gashey, the only surviving terrorist, who does not reveal his face to the cameras for obvious reasons.

The televised images of these steely, determined terrorists (while they're still holed up in the Olympic village) peering furtively from their windows and group leader "Isa" negotiating with the Munich mayor while holding a pinless grenade in his hand remain burningly immediate. And even though history has recorded the terrible 21-hour outcome, we cling to hope for the athletes huddled inside, as the deadline draws nearer-that heartbreakingly impossible deadline.

The gunmen's demands for the unconditional release of 236 political prisoners (including Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Bader of the German Red Army Faction) by noon amounted to a death sentence for the Israelis.

Tel Aviv had a long-standing policy of zero tolerance when it came to negotiating with terrorists. And the German authorities, who had no SWAT teams and refused assistance from Israel's crack security forces, evidently fancied themselves as master negotiators and emergency tacticians. How wrong they were.

The director uses al Gashey's testimony in effective and chilling ways. We are forced to follow much of the action from his point of view as he recounts how he trained in northern Africa, flew to Germany (still unaware of the mission to be), took in a few Olympic events, then waited for directions from his superiors. When the mission became clear to him, he was filled with pride. He remains so, despite the terrible things that happened.

Al Gashey's version is more than eclipsed by the testimony of his many victims, including Ankie Spitzer, widow of Andre Spitzer, the Israeli fencing coach who died at the hands of his captors, and Gad Zabari, an Israeli wrestler who managed to escape from the gunmen at the very beginning of the crisis. Zabari owes his life to Moshe Weinberg, an already-wounded wrestling coach who jumped on a shooting terrorist and was killed.

We hear also from the German side, including Munich Mayor Walther Troger, Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber and Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who fomented several ill-conceived attempts to thwart the Palestinians. One such plan involved storming the occupied building, until they realized the terrorists were watching their "secret" operation on live television-courtesy of an East German television crew.

Their worst plan, of course, was the final one. In the harsh light of retrospect, the tragic has acquired a more debilitating state of pointlessness. What the events of September 1972 have taught anyone – victims, assailants, the media, the world community – remains elusive, at best. The Israeli-Palestinian stalemate continues unabated. Al Gashey remains in hiding. And revelations have surfaced that the Germans (after the Munich debacle) staged an air hijacking so that the surviving terrorists could escape the country. We can only watch this movie with the discomforting certainty that tragedy, all too often, finds itself linked with unfortunate stupidity.

"One Day in September" (Unrated, 92 minutes) – Contains documentary footage of violent and tragic events.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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