Playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (left) speaks with Stanford students who attended his talk on "Munich," Oct. 19, 2022 (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (left) speaks with Stanford students who attended his talk on "Munich," Oct. 19, 2022 (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

At Stanford, screenwriter Tony Kushner reflects on ‘Munich’ and the controversy surrounding it

In 2004, after the HBO miniseries “Angels in America” won 11 Emmys, a record at the time, screenwriter Tony Kushner began receiving lots of calls from Hollywood. One of those calls came from Steven Spielberg’s longtime producer, Kathleen Kennedy. A meeting between Kushner and Spielberg was set up, followed by an invitation for Kushner to rewrite the script for a film the famed director hoped to make about the massacre of members of the Israeli delegation at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and its aftermath.

A playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for the first part of the stage version of “Angels in America,” about the AIDS epidemic, Kushner initially declined the opportunity, telling Spielberg, “It’s a fascinating subject, but I’ve never written a screenplay. It’s a lot of people getting shot and killed, and all people do in my plays is talk.”

Spielberg eventually convinced Kushner to take the gig, and the resulting film, “Munich,” hit theaters in 2005.

Kushner, 66, recounted that story during a talk Wednesday at Stanford University’s Oshman Hall. The event, co-hosted by the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, was held in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Munich tragedy, in which Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group infiltrated the Olympic village and murdered 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and referees. Last month, Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier officially apologized “for the lack of protection of the Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich and for the lack of clarification afterwards.” The German government also promised relatives of the victims about $28 million in compensation.

Eric Bana stars in “Munich” as Avner, a former Mossad agent tasked by the Israeli government with tracking down and killing the Palestinian men responsible for planning and carrying out the attack. A pre-James Bond Daniel Craig plays one of the Jewish hitmen in Avner’s four-man crew. In addition to many pulse-racing action sequences, the film depicts the psychological toll that Operation Wrath of God, as it was known, took on the Israelis in their quest for justice. Spielberg called it “the most depressing movie I’ve ever made,” according to Kushner. It was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and best adapted screenplay (by Kushner and Eric Roth) but did not win any.

During his talk, Kushner reflected on the making of the film — he said he was frantically rewriting scenes during filming in Rome, Paris, Malta and Brooklyn — and the controversy over what some argued was the moral equivalency it presented between the Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli assassins. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis criticized the movie for spreading “the message that Israel was brutal, bungling and immoral in its reaction to the massacre.” The right-wing Zionist Organization of America called for a boycott of “Munich,” deeming it an anti-Israel film.

“The thing that rescued us were the film critics,” Kushner told the packed auditorium of students and community members. “As a theater person, I’m not accustomed to liking critics very much. But film critics are really pretty smart, and they wrote these beautiful things about the movie and turned the conversation around. I was moved by that. This is a work of art, not a polemic. It’s not propaganda, and there’s a distinction.”

He shared other factoids about the making of the film, including that the title was a mistake. Kushner had written “Munich” on the first page of a draft of the script to serve as a placeholder for the opening scenes, which take place in the Olympic Village. Spielberg mistook it for his title and loved it.

Kushner’s favorite line, he said, is delivered by Golda Meir: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”

Upon rewatching the film last year, Kushner said he noticed something profound for the first time: “There isn’t a single person who dies in the film — and there are a lot of people who die in the film — whose death you’re given permission to enjoy. Absolutely no one. It basically says over and over … you’re not allowed to enjoy the destruction of human beings at all. It’s forbidden.”

That makes watching the film “a very strange experience,” he added.

There isn’t a single person who dies in the film whose death you’re given permission to enjoy.

“Munich” purports to be “based on true events,” but in his 2018 book “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman asserts it’s a myth that Israel hunted down the terrorists responsible for the massacre. Kushner noted that he wrote the screenplay based “on the information that was available when I started doing the research.”

Since “Munich,” Kushner has written three more Spielberg-directed films: “Lincoln” (2012), “West Side Story” (2021) and the forthcoming “The Fabelmans.” He also wrote a screenplay about the kidnapping of a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, by the Vatican in 1858, which Kushner said he hopes Spielberg will make one day.

In response to an audience question about whether he feels a responsibility to write about identity groups he belongs to, Kushner, who is Jewish and gay, replied, “I certainly don’t feel a responsibility to represent anyone, because I don’t feel that I’m a particularly good representative of anything.” He is, however, interested in “identitarian politics” and “in the moment at which identitarian politics begins to shade over into tribalist politics.”

After the talk, J. asked Kushner for his reaction to Stanford’s apology, issued earlier this month by the university’s president, over its efforts to limit Jewish enrollment in the 1950s. “It’s about time,” he said. “Good for them for apologizing. It’s good to hear it coming from Stanford, especially given the whole sort of right-wing idea now that teaching the truth about the past is somehow committing violence against young people who should be spared knowing that injustice exists in the world.”

Amir Eshel, a professor of humanistic studies and comparative literature at Stanford, was a 7-year-old living in Haifa, Israel, at the time of the Olympics massacre. “I’ll never forget that day and the days after,” he told J. after Kushner’s talk. “This event just went through the entire Israeli population. It just brought out Holocaust memories all over again — Jews being chased and killed in Germany in such a tragic manner.”

Of Kushner and Spielberg’s film, he said, “I think it’s an invitation for us to think, to reflect, to remember and to ask difficult questions, which I think is what good art is all about.”

“Munich” is available to rent from Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube and other streaming services.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.