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21 Hours at Munich; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

21 hoursOriginally aired 7 Nov 1976
Written by Edward Hume and Howard Fast

Directed by William A. Graham

Starring William Holden, Franco Nero, Shirley Knight, and Anthony Quayle

My rating: ★★ stars

Bleak recreation of the hostage crisis and subsequent massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

Jim McKay, ABC reporter covering the Munich Massacre, 3:24 AM German time, 6 September 1972

It’s been 50 years since the shocking events at the Munich Olympics when 11 members of the Israeli delegation (athletes, coaches, and officials) were taken hostage and killed by members of the Black September terrorist organization. The terrorists were attempting to gain the release of 234 Palestinian fedayeen imprisoned in Israel (plus two others held by West Germany). The refusal of the government of Israel to negotiate with the terrorists led the West German police to attempt an armed rescue of the hostages. The attempt went horribly wrong, and all the hostages, as well as five of the terrorists and one police officer, were killed.

eric falk

Attention to detail: Actor Erik King portraying weightlifter Yossef Romano, who was killed at the beginning of the crisis. Inset: Romano.

The 1976 made-for-television film 21 Hours at Munich dramatizes this tragedy with an almost obsessive attention to detail and accuracy. It has the advantage of being shot in the exact locations where the events occurred only a few years earlier, so places in the film look as they did at the time. People all over the world had watched the events unfold live on television, so many potential audience members would have expected a dramatization to match their memories of the event. Even I, who was not yet born at the time, have seen photos of the real incident, most notably that of the gunman on the balcony of the apartment building in the Olympic village where the athletes were held. Before seeing the movie, I had an image in my head of just how the balaclava sat on his head. The film faithfully recreates these details with minimal dramatic license as if the filmmakers felt a duty to get the story exactly right. According to reviews, the book the film is based on, The Blood of Israel, by French journalist Sergei Groussard, presents the material in minute detail.

The film adopts a journalistic tone, with a dramatic objective point-of-view. We don’t see into the mind of the characters. How they act depends on the roles they play in the events, rather than on any personal drive. The film doesn’t speculate on the internal lives of the people involved in the events. The main character, Manfred Schreiber (William Holden), acts the way he does, not because of the kind of person he is, but because he’s the Munich Chief of Police. I almost hesitate to use the word “character” because these people in film the remain at a distance and have not been fleshed out with any internal traits (but I will use the word to make this review less wordy). In fact the only character with a driving internal motivation is the terrorist leader, codename “Issa” (Franco Nero). And the only reason he is given one in the film is because the real-life Issa revealed his background to negotiator Anneliese Graes (Shirley Knight) during one of their conversations during the stand-off.

In this respect, the film deviates from the source material. Although I have not read the book, online reviews claim it fully characterizes the lives of the slain Israelis, making a connection between them and the reader. The film avoids this. Very little time is spent depicting the Israeli delegation members as people. We get a few details of the sports they’re involved with and a few seconds of the fencing master calling home before being taken hostage, the barest suggestion that they have lives and families they will leave behind. Then, one scene in the middle of the film shows an unnamed Israeli coach, who I believe is the character played by Ullrich Haupt (as Ulrich Haupt), looking through the pictures of the hostages. He identifies them all to the police and makes comments about the backgrounds of a few. This is the only time all the hostages are named. Haupt’s performance, although only three minutes, is touching. I imagine the filmmakers made the choice to focus so little on the hostages as individuals so that the audience could view the film at an emotional distance. Given that it was made only four years after the incident, the audience would surely be expected to know how it ended. The filmmakers perhaps thought that emotional distance from the hostages would allow the audience to watch the film without feeling too uncomfortable. In fact, however, I struggled to get through the film; all the while, I was thinking, “I know how this ends.”

The 1999 documentary One Day in September depicts the same story, but, even though it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, I could never bring myself to watch it. The only reason I chose to watch 21 Hours at Munich is the presence of William Holden. He has a very tricky job in the film. His character, Manfred Schreiber, made the decisions that led to the deaths of 15 people—the nine hostages who survived the original attack, five of the terrorists, and one police officer. And, yet, he has to convey intelligence and competence. Schreiber’s decisions always seem to be the best ones that could have been made in a given situation. Noted British character actor Anthony Quayle plays Israeli intelligence officer Zvi Zamir, who acts as a contrary voice to Schreiber, suggesting alternative plans, but Schreiber’s responses always seem reasonable, and Zamir’s alternatives don’t seem any better. Holden plays Schreiber as a consummate professional who is not an expert—because no one was an expert in this utterly novel situation.* Holden meets this challenge ably. The problem with his performance is that he never for a second seems German. It’s easier to buy British Quayle as an Israeli and Italian Nero as a Palestinian. Holden just comes off as so goshdarned American.

Shirley Knight, also an American, acquits herself better as the German Graes, perhaps because she looks like the stereotype of a German woman. Knight was a phenomenal actress. Even though she was twice nominated for an Oscar and won three Emmys (out of eight nominations), she remains generally unknown. Every time I see her, I make a note to seek out more of her performances. (If you’re interested in her work, check out her Emmy-winning performance in Indictment: The McMartin Trial. She’s astounding. Had it been a theatrical film, I think she would have easily won Best Supporting Actress over Mira Sorvino.)

Knight has the advantage in this film that her role is meatiest of leads, giving her the opportunity to show a range of thoughts and emotions that Holden’s role, for one, didn’t allow. One might be tempted to criticize the filmmakers for gender essentializing and making a woman the emotional anchor in the film. However, it’s Graes’s position as negotiator, whose job was to show sympathy for both the hostages and the terrorists, that led to this emotional content; the filmmakers are just depicting events as they happened. Of course, Graes is chosen to be the negotiator precisely because she’s a woman and Schreiber believed a woman would be better able to connect with the terrorists emotionally, so gender certainly plays a part in her presence at least. (In reality, how Graes came to be involved in the incident is disputed, with one report having her sent by Schreiber and another suggesting she volunteered for the task.)

Ultimately, the film doesn’t overcome the initial conundrum—we know how this ends. Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 2005 film Munich begins with the massacre and focuses on the Israeli government’s subsequent efforts to locate and assassinate the surviving terrorists and planners. The accurate, journalistic recounting of the event itself in 21 Hours at Munich provides no redemption, no uplifting moments, no hope for the viewer to take out of the experience. It’s a bleak, hard slog to a painful, inevitable conclusion.

*It was this event that led many governments to form anti-terrorism law enforcement units so that they could better meet situations like this one.

PAINFUL MISTAKE: In a film so dedicated to getting every detail of the event correct right down to the shoes the characters were wearing, it’s painful to see the script make the most basic of mistakes in calling Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wresting coach who was killed as the hostages were being taken, “Moshe Weinberger.”

13 comments on “21 Hours at Munich; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

  1. […] Pop Culture Reverie stops by to remind us of another of Bill’s TV ventures with 21 Hours at Munich (1976). […]

  2. I only recently learned of this TV Movie due to Kino Lorber releasing it on Blu ray. The blu ray has been in the back of my mind for a while as a maybe purchase, and now I think I’m more inclined to pick it up because someone who really knows what they are talking about has reviewed it! 🙂 Personally I knew nothing of this incident (I’m not a sporty person), and did not realize the movie was based on a real life event. THANK YOU for saying the characters are not so much characters- as someone who does watch a lot of “inspired/ based on true people and event” shows/ movies, I really understand its a portrayal of a person. They are giving their best interpretation of real life people in real life events! Yeah I would not believe Bill to be German either- he is a quintessential American! Its kind of like Robert Redford in Out of Africa- he is supposed to be British- when Redford like Bill is American! I wanna check this tv-movie out now is it seems to be the best screen adaption of the event. Thanks for writing up about this and see you around in the blogathon world! -Emily

    • I’m not that into sports, but I am into the Oscars. I don’t think I knew of the event before the documentary One Day in September won the Oscar. I think that’s how I learned of it. The documentary is said to be extraordinary. As I said, I could never bring myself to watch it.

      I forgot to add in my initial posting that the filmmakers were able to use the exact locations where the events occurred. I’ve added that info now.

      Personally, I would try to get the film through interlibrary loan instead of buying it. It’s not the kind of film that lends itself to repeat viewing.

  3. You’ve convinced me to see the film AND read the book. I don’t know much about this horrible incident, but you’ve really piqued my interest.

    A thoughtful and insightful review.

  4. In presenting a thoroughly accurate account of this terrorist attack, the producer turned it into a cut-and-dry documentary. My feeling is that correct details are important but not at the expense of abandoning the human interest stories. Nero, who plays the villain, is given more back story and ironically ends up being more dynamic than the other characters. Holden is solid and as usual impressive, but without being allowed to exhibit his personality or personal life, his character suffers from inertia.

    • That was my impression as well. I think that’s why the film can’t overcome the “we know how this ends” problem. It’s not offering anything but the events, and the events don’t end well. If it had presented some perspective or emotional connection, the viewer might have gotten more out of it.

  5. That was a great read and a strong text, Robin. I’m one of those people who watched that tv movie without a lot of expectation and who turned out to be agreably surprised by it. I agree with you however that it has its flaws. Holden, as much as I love him, indeed doesn’t “feel” German at all and I it’s true that not a lot is said about the hostages. Thanks a lot for taking part in the blogathon!

    • When I look at pictures of Manfred Schreiber from the time, I can see why Holden was chosen. He has the same kind of lined face that Schreiber had (and certainly the gravity to be at the center of the film). It’s just that lack of a German “feel,” as you said, that’s a problem.

  6. Great review! You picked my curiosity. I’ve seen both One Day in September and Spielberg’s Munich, but I haven’t seen this one yet. It sounds like the movie has some flaws, but that’s okay, I’m curious to see the movie’s perspective on the tragedy so close to the actual events. Plus, I’m a huge fan of Shirley Knight.

  7. I remember that photo of the gunman, too–it seemed like it was everywhere when I was growing up (BTW, I believe the complex where it happened is now an apartment building, but I could be wrong). It’s in everything ever made about Steve Prefontaine, too. This movie looks amazing, even if they did make a pretty big mistake with Weinberg’s name.

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