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Arts and Culture: Olympic Massacre Retold by Victims and Victimizer

January 31, 2000
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On Sept. 5, 1972, Arab terrorism meshed with memories of the Holocaust to forever stain the Olympic flag.

During a day and night of suspense, eight terrorists invaded the Olympic Village in Munich and took 11 Israeli sportsmen hostage, killing two outright.

After hours of tense negotiations, a bungled German rescue effort ended with the remaining nine Israelis and five of the terrorists dead on the tarmac of the Munich airport. After a memorial service, the games resumed in full force.

In “One Day in September,” a film that combines the thriller genre with documentary authenticity, many of the surviving principals on the German, Israeli and Arab sides reconstruct the bloody events, reveal what went on behind the scenes, and answer questions that have puzzled investigators for more than 27 years.

The 90-minute film, narrated by actor Michael Douglas and more than two years in the making, has so far been shown only at a private screening at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, but it is in the running for an Academy Award nomination.

The driving force behind the film is Arthur Cohn, a native and resident of Basel, Switzerland. He is the only producer in motion picture history to have won five Oscars, including one for the “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” His “Central Station” won a Golden Globe last year, and honors at the Berlin Film Festival and from the British Film Academy.

Cohn said that he was initially advised against trying to resurrect what “experts” said was such an old, half-forgotten piece of history. But two factors persuaded him to go ahead.

One was the plea by his son Emanuel, one of Cohn’s three children, who left Switzerland to volunteer for the Israeli army and now studies at Bar-Ilan University.

“My son told me — no, he drove me crazy — that the film had to be made, and made by men of courage, and that he wanted his father to show such courage,” Cohn recalled in an interview.

What finally convinced him was when Jamal Al-Gashay, the sole survivor among the eight terrorists of the Black September group, was tracked down by Kevin MacDonald, the film’s director, and John Bettsek, Cohn’s British associate.

Al-Gashay lives in hiding in an unnamed Third World country with his wife and two children and agreed to be interviewed at length, though his face is hidden in shadows while on camera.

Besides the five terrorists killed in the Munich airport shootout, two others were later hunted down by Israel’s Mossad and killed.

Cohn’s legendary persistence enabled his team to dig out never-shown archival footage and persuade other lead personalities in the bloody 1972 drama to tell their stories.

Among them are Zvi Zamir, the then director of the normally super-secretive Mossad, who was on the scene in Munich; the German heads of the Olympic Village and the police force; Israeli athletes who escaped the massacre; and the widows and daughters of some of the victims.

Unforgettable among the latter are Ankie Spitzer, the Dutch wife of slain fencing coach Andre Spitzer, and Shlomit Romano, daughter of murdered wrestling coach Joseph Romano.

Cohn, though a committed Jew and scion of an old Zionist family, decided that the only way to make a credible film was to allow the Palestinian side to present its perspectives and arguments.

On the German side, while some bungled the rescue effort, others proved heroes. One is the federal interior minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who offered to take the hostages’ place and tried to explain to Isa, the head terrorist, that Germany, because of its past, had a special responsibility for the safety of Jews.

The two years of research by Cohn’s team also produced some startling revelations. One concerns an early rescue attempt by German police volunteers to infiltrate the hostage quarters in the Olympic Village from the roof and through utility ducts.

The rescue, it is now revealed, was foiled by agents attached to the Communist East German team, who filmed the operation from an opposite building and, through sophisticated communication techniques, transmitted the deployment of the police to the terrorists.

After the airport shootout, the three surviving terrorists were taken prisoner by the Germans and held for trial. However, less than two months later, other terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa plane and demanded the release of the three Arab prisoners. German authorities complied immediately.

The film throws light on long-standing suspicions that German authorities, eager to be rid of their unwelcome guests, worked in collusion with Black September to manage the hijacking.

While German incompetence at the airport shootout contributed to the tragic outcome, Cohn considers it unfair to fault German intentions in trying to save the Israelis.

Rather, he assigns much of the blame to the International Olympic Committed, which pressured the Germans into hasty and ill-prepared action so that the Olympic Village could be cleared and the athletic events resumed.

Avery Brundage, the IOC’s American president, exerted the heaviest pressure. As head of the American Olympic Committee in 1936, Brundage fought relentlessly against a U.S. boycott of the Nazi Olympics in Berlin.

The emotional impact of “One Day in September” is heightened by a musical score of 1970s hits, masterly editing by Britain’s Justine Wright and the creative direction of MacDonald, a grandson of Hungarian Jewish screenwriter Emeric Presburger.

The film, which has not been reviewed but which one influential Los Angeles film critic described as an “instant classic,” was made in collaboration with London-based Passion Pictures.

Current plans call for a world premiere screening in Israel in mid-April, with all proceeds to go to the surviving families of the 1972 Munich victims.

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