Beautiful blonde fräuleins point out the sites while whiskered men in feathered hats and Lederhösen hoist steins of beer. “Willkommen!” The promotional film welcomes the world to the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
The cheery optimism of that video was shattered on Sept. 5 at 4:40 a.m. when a group of Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Olympic Village, killing two Israeli athletes and taking another nine hostage. A stunned world watched the events unfold on television. By the time the siege ended 21 hours later, all of the hostages were dead, as were five of the terrorists and a German policeman.
“The serenity of the Munich Olympics have become the one thing the Germans didn’t want them to be—the Olympics of terror,” an ABC News anchor told viewers that day. The Games devised to promote peace and brotherhood had become a political battleground with gruesome casualties.
Most people remember only the general events of that day in September. The Germans and the International Olympic Committee have never been forthcoming about the crisis, which is hardly surprising given the rampant ineptitude revealed in the documentary. Now, almost three decades later, Arthur Cohn’s gripping documentary thriller fills in the shocking details, revealing for the first time what really happened during those 21 hours. One Day in September—documentary filmmaking at its best—is a riveting look at an international incident that went terribly wrong and ended in massacre on a Munich tarmac. What Cohn’s documentary uncovers is as unsettling as the dramatic events themselves.
The film, directed by Kevin Macdonald, vividly recreates that fateful day using archival footage, much of which had been sealed for 28 years. He so perfectly captures the emotional intensity of escalating events that you forget you already know the outcome. This is drama at its most suspenseful, where real lives lie in the balance.
Offering new insights are interviews conducted with families of slain athletes, German police and officials, as well as the only surviving Palestinian terrorist, who speaks publicly for the first time about what he did in Munich. Jamal al-Gashey, who was only 18 at the time, talks candidly about the intense training he and the other members of the Black September group underwent in preparation for the attack.
Their mission was to take hostages, who could be exchanged for 236 political prisoners being held in Israel and elsewhere. Al-Gashey claims his group had no orders to kill, but “things went wrong.” Israeli coach Moshe Weinberg and weight lifter Joseph Romano were shot when they tried to overcome their captors. Weinberg’s body was thrown to the pavement, while Romano was left lying in a pool of blood as a warning to his fellow hostages.
Though today he lives in hiding for fear of his life, al-Gashey views the tragedy as a victory for bringing the Palestinian cause to the world. “We had to use your showcase to show our case to so many,” he says.
Juxtaposed with his comments are moving segments with Ankie Spitzer, the widow of slain Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer. Like others, she puts a painfully human face on the tragedy remembered by the world only as a fleeting headline. Ankie stoically recalls receiving the news that her husband was one of the hostages, and the nerve-wracking 21 hours that followed as she anxiously awaited news of his fate.
Interviews with the former Munich chief of police, mayor of the Olympic Village, German minister of the interior, mayor of Munich and Munich policemen only show how ill-prepared officials were to deal with the crisis. Eager to dispel their militaristic image, the Germans purposely kept security at the Games lax. They had no armed security guards, no anti-terrorist squads, no trained storm squad and no plans for handling disaster. Former German Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher talks about offering himself as a substitute for the Israeli hostages, saying, “You don’t understand what happened to the Jews in our country.”
Rescue and ambush attempts are constantly abandoned by officials and thwarted by TV crews and throngs of curious onlookers who get in the way. A last minute rescue attempt is canceled when planners discover that an East German crew is televising the operation live, with terrorists inside the Israeli quarters watching every move on a TV set.
The International Olympic Committee doesn’t come off any better. Interviews show them as concerned foremost with continuing the Games, despite the unfolding tragedy. Only after public protest did IOC officials finally suspend competition, though as soon as a memorial ceremony was held for the slain athletes, the Games resumed.
At the Munich airport, poor planning and failure to communicate resulted in the total confusion that led to the final tragedy. Snipers don’t know how many terrorists they’re up against; there is no communication between snipers on the building and those on the tarmac; and German police forget to call in the armored tanks for backup. When they finally arrive, they open fire on a sniper and helicopter pilot, whom they mistake for terrorists. News reports that the hostages have been rescued are soon recanted when a wounded terrorist throws a hand grenade. The final collage of footage makes for a chilling sequence.
One Day in September, a carefully constructed and exhaustively researched telling of this remarkable story, covers all the bases, putting the 1972 tragedy into a context that it’s never been afforded. With the 2002 Winter Olympics fast approaching, it should be required viewing for the IOC and the Salt Lake organizers.
One Day in September (R) HHHH Produced by Arthur Cohn. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Narrated by Michael Douglas.