The 1972 Olympics was supposed to erase bitter memories of the 1936
Olympics, which was to showcase German superiority as an important part
of Hitler's propaganda campaign for the Aryan race. At least early commercials promoting the idyllic Munich setting indicated as much, and early results made it look like the 1972 Olympics would go down in history as the Olympiad dominated by swimmer Mark Spitz and marked by the controversial upset of the United States basketball team.
That was until that black night of September 4.
Indelibly associated with the Munich Olympics of 1972 are gruesome images of Building 31 with a masked terrorist peeking over the balcony. Within a day's time all eleven Israeli hostages will be killed along with five of the eight Palestinian terrorists.
And now more details can be shed with Kevin Macdonald's 1999 documentary One Day in September. Macdonald makes a strong case that the IOC and German officials badly bungled the hostage situation and cost lives.
While we would expect archive footage (snatches of the chilling Munich standoff are shown whenever a sports show covers Olympic history) and anticipate interviews with surviving friends, family, and associates of the Israeli athletes held hostage, the most surprising footage is the interview with the lone surviving terrorist, Jamal Al Geshey. At the time of filming he was hiding out in Africa somewhere with his wife and family (Israeli assassination squads have killed the other two survivors).
Without the Geshey interview footage and without some shocking revelations about German officials, the documentary would have little value, other than for some HBO Olympic history special. But those inclusions spice up a subject that has been covered numerous times through video clips over the years. Additionally, horror fans may enjoy the over the top bloody corpse scenes that television audiences were thankfully never allowed to witness (to balance the blood Macdonald follows with images of sunflowers and the daughter of one of the slain athletes to bring out the tears).
It is rather fascinating to witness the surviving terrorist and learn tidbits about terrorist training in Libya and how the members of Black September behaved before the hostage situation occurred. Among the details: the terrorists didn't know their target until shortly before they invaded the Israeli apartments, and at 3 AM they were helped over the compound wall by drunken American athletes sneaking in past their curfews.
Perhaps even more shocking than Geshey's narrative are new insights that destroy Germany's reputation for efficiency and organization. To avoid looking like a police state, the Olympic compound lacked trained security, and the German officials had no contingency plans for this situation. Of course, you may argue that the officials can't anticipate such terrorist acts, but when you consider that the Olympics has always been a worldwide showcase and that politics have always plagued the event, that argument doesn't hold water. The IOC and many Olympians are not so subtly criticized as the games initially continue through the crisis. Meanwhile many athletes are casually sunbathing and relaxing beneath the compound as the ominous terrorists loom overhead.
The German bungling of the situation comes off like a Coen brothers project. German police (some of whom had never fired a gun before) dress up in athletic sweatsuits and begin to surround the compound. Of course this receives live television coverage, and only at the last minute do they realize that the Palestinian terrorists are watching their movements on the TVs in their rooms.
Later attempts at rescuing the hostages are foiled with garbled German communication. Instead of playing out the required James Bond script, German officials insert a Keystone Cops scenario instead and forget to include a happy ending. The police find themselves three snipers short, their snipers shoot their own people, and various other plans go awry, so it's no surprise when the climactic confrontation ends up in a bloodbath with no Israeli survivors. Certainly the Israeli secret service would have had much better results had the German officials allowed them to proceed as requested. (Well, that's a no-brainer given the German results)
To top off the unbelievably inept German response come even more shocking revelations that the German government actually made a secret deal with the Palestinians, handing over the three surviving Palestinian prisoners during a suspicious plane hijacking containing only 12 passengers. Geshey confirms this while a couple of German officials acknowledge that the accusation is probably true.
Despite the interesting visuals documenting official IOC indifference to the crisis, the Geshey interviews, and Keystone Cops sequences starring the German police, I would have preferred more information about the Palestinians. We see Arabic people treating the dead Palestinians as heroes and hear Geshey proclaim his pride in taking part in the infamous act since it made the Palestinian cause a household word, but we are left with a number of unanswered questions. Was publicity for the Palestinians the main reason for the hostage takeover, or were there other reasons? What do Palestinians consider so heroic about this raid? Why were the East Germans helping the Palestinians?
Of course, extensive background knowledge of the Middle East would be required for in-depth appreciation of the situation, but the documentary only gives rudimentary coverage to the Palestinian point of view, so the average person can't be expected to understand the political implications. Instead the film only offers a small sample—just enough to arouse curiosity and to see the Palestinians as evil fanatics.
If nothing else, One Day in September is riveting. It's also disturbing to realize that this is no James Bond fictional piece—this is the real deal, and there are no heroes. And at least now the film is available to see on video and DVD, which wasn't the case when it won the Oscar for the Best Documentary of 1999. It's a worthy film that grows more relevant with Olympic games approaching and terrorist attacks becoming more and more routine news items.