erik lundegaard

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One Day in September (1999)

One expects an Oscar winner for best docmentary to be less melodramatic than this one.

Directed by:
Kevin Macdonald

Edited by:
Justine Wright

Featuring:
Michael Douglas — narrator
Ankie Spitzer
Jamal al Gashey
Gerald Seymour
Alex Springer
Gad Zahari
Shmuel Lalkin
Manfred Schreiber
Walter Troger

Academy Awards:
Best Documentary

Quote:
"I can't imagine his voice. I can't imagine him calling my name."
—the now-grown daughter of an Isreali weightlifter killed in 1972

September details the kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, but director Kevin Macdonald overdoes the ominous background music, narrator Michael Douglas frequently allows his voice to get tremulous with anger, and one sequence, in which we quick-cut between Palestinian terrorists and the Olympic games blithely continuing, has an MTV quality to it, complete with hard rock background.

The documentary begins well. We are shown a German promo for the Olympics, complete with beer-swilling Bavarian babes and skipping children in leiderhosen, and it suddenly hit me: Was this the first time the Olympics returned to Germany after World War II? It was. In effect, it was Germany's welcome back to the international community, and the Germans were trying to put their best, non-authoritarian face forward. Security was lax. No policemen. Officers mingled with the crowd wearing light blue suits. Thus one history lesson (the danger of too much authority) makes room for another (the danger of too little authority).

On the morning of September 5, eight Palestinian guerillas snuck into the Olympic village and took 14 Israeli athletes hostage. Their demands? The release of 200 Palestinian prisoners. The Germans were desperate for a peaceful resolution — the last thing they wanted was more Jewish blood on their hands — but Israel refused to negotiate with the terrorists. The Germans offered the Palestinians money; it was rejected. One German negotiator pleaded, "You know our recent history. What was done to the Jews by the Germans. You must understand this makes the situation here particularly difficult... Why don't you let them go and take me instead?" He was refused.

Meanwhile the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed the games to continue; after harsh criticism they abruptly changed their minds. The terrorist deadline was extended from noon until 5 pm. Israeli anti-terrorist squads arrived, but the Germans maintained authority, even though they were — to the astonishment of the Israelis, who grew up on images of a nightmarish German precision — wholly incompetent. An attempt to storm the village failed when the proceedings were broadcast live on East German television, tipping off the terrorists. Eventually the terrorist demands changed to a jet getaway, which led to the final showdown at the Munich airport.

One Day in September is notable for including the first interview with the only surviving terrorist, Jamal al Gashey, photographed in disguise, who remains proud of his activities that day. Its subject is a good one, but its execution is unnecessarily melodramatic. Still, a not-bad history lesson for Americans who think the greatest tragedy of the '72 Games was the Russians stealing Olympic gold in basketball.

—July 6, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard