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Moral Art vs. Moralizing Art: “Munich” and Violence 12 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Cinema, Ethics, History, Judaism, War & Terrorism.

A movie that successfully asks difficult and complex moral questions is rare. It is far too easy for art to fall into moralization, rather than morality. Moralizing art tells us the right answer, so that believers feel comforted in their moral superiority and unbelievers will see the error of their ways and experience a conversion. But moralizing art is never good art. Rather than fostering an opening of the heart and mind, encouraging a careful and compassionate consideration of difficult issues, it feeds us the moral outcome as if we were children in Sunday School. In order to make its point, moralizing art must rely on piecing together images and ideas in nearly propagandistic ways; in movies, this means easily-recognizable and readily intelligible representations that require no subtlety of thought, setting up situations that emotionally resonnate but are not in fact realistic, and most aggregiously in film, giving us two-dimensional characters that are actually no more than stereotypes. This year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, "Crash", is such a moralizing film, reducing characters to stock types, and putting them in situations where, of course, their Evil is made clear. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times wrote today a great response to "Crash's" boosters: Race relations in today's Los Angeles simply don't work the way they are portrayed in the film. For me it is far more simple: "Crash" is moralizing art, and therefore bad art. It hits the viewer over the head with dumbed-down, simplistic moralisms, which aren't helpful at all in understanding the realities of race relations or drawing moral conclusions about race.

Moral art, unlike moralizing art, must be firmly anchored in realistic situations, must represent human beings in their complexity, their moral ambiguity, and show that in real life, morality is not clear and easy, but messy, dirty, and often bloody. Real human beings make morally wrong decisions constantly. Good people do bad things, and vice versa. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is a much more successful moral film. What I found impressive from the first 20 minutes of the film is the equanimity with which the violence was portrayed. There was no difference in style, technique, or point of view between Palestinian-perpetrated and Israeli-perpetrated violence. The film focuses on the Mossad group that is hunting down and killing those whom the Israeli government had pointed out as the planners of the Munich murders. The characters (and the audience) must grapple with the possibility that what the Mossad assassins were doing was, in fact, immoral. At the most basic level it asks what kind of response to violence is justifiable.

Because of the focus on the Mossad group, the audience is never asked to consider the moral issues from the Palestinian side. And so the movie fails as an examination of the nearly 100-year-old Palestine-Israel conflict (war?). Although it might be too much to ask a film about a group of Israeli assassins to equally humanize and explore the Palestinian point-of-view, I found the moments when Palestinians were represented to fall back into the moral ease of stock characters giving stock speeches. For example, as the team cases out a French-Palestinian's apartment to plant a bomb, his wife delivers a shrill speech about Palestine's suffering; and again, a PLO agent working with the KGB delivers an even more shrill speech to the Bana character. To the extent that these two scenes work at all, it is because of the effect they have on the main characters, who are visibly troubled by confronting real human beings whom they must kill. But these scenes do little to humanize the Palestinians for the audience. So this is not a good film about Israel-Palestine, and should not be interpreted as such. But that should not be grounds to dismiss "Munich" as a failure.

Rather, where the movie succeeds as moral art is in the gradual transformation of the main characters, as they confront what they have done and the implications of violence for violence's sake. When you talk with a man in his home and listen to his wife talk about the suffering of her people, and listen to his daughter play the piano, what then does it mean to murder him? What if he wasn't even involved in the crime you are murdering him for? And most poignantly in the film, what does it do to you to kill him? In other words, does perpetrating violence, even when you believe yourself to be morally justified, come back to damage you, to destroy your own moral self.

Some have dismissed the film as only so much "liberal Jewish handwringing," but if I were Spielberg, I would take that as a compliment. What is most remarkable and humane and worthy about liberal Judaism (and for that matter, liberal Christianity and liberal Islam) is its willingness and indeed its insistence on moral handwringing. Religion that teaches moral absolutes, a black and white world, is a religion that will easily fall into violence, be it social, cultural, or the infliction of bodily harm. Easy morality allows violence against "enemies" and clearly defines who those enemies are: anyone who is not like us. Liberal strands of Judaism, over the past 200 years or so, have stepped out of tribal formulations of ethnic identity and asked what it means to be a Jew among human beings. From an early script of "Munich" available online (the dialogue in the finished movie—where punctuation doesn't count—was more precise and polished):

We're Jews, Avner, Jews don't do
wrong because our enemies do wrong.

We can't afford to be that.. .
decent anymore.

I don't know that we ever were that
decent. Suffering thousands of
years of hatred doesn't make you
decent. But we're supposed to be
righteous. That's what I was
taught, that's Jewish, that
beautiful thing. That's what I
knew. Absolutely.
And I think I've lost that. Avner.
I've lost that too.

Oh that's, that's —

That's everything. I've lost
everything. My, my soul.

Ultimately, the film shows men who are transformed by killing. They become paranoid, haunted, detached. They are morally mangled as they systematically kill other human beings. I suspect that on both sides of any conflict the oucome is the same, unless you have forced yourself to believe in the facile morality that justifies without question or reflection the perpetration of violence. I suppose the ultimate question, and perhaps the most fearful one, is whether someone who believes the facile morality, someone who refuses the moral question and kills or maims believing they are doing the Will of God or that they are fulfilling their patriotic duty actually feel the impact of taking human life. Palestine-Israel or U.S.-Al Quaida: one soldier facing one sniper—one insurgent with one hostage—one suicide-bomber on one bus—one military pilot and one apartment building—one assassin and one target.



1. diana s. - 17 March 2006

The problem with Munich is it wasn’t true. That really bothered me a lot. Especially when the real Mossad members came out and talked about how if they had had feelings like that they would have been kicked out of the organization.

2. Todd - 18 March 2006

I’ve read a bunch of the critiques of the film and I don’t find them compelling. Most simply for me, this is a work of art, a narrative, based in historical events, but fictionalized. I didn’t go into the film expecting journalism, academic history, or even a documentary, any more than I expected “Glory” to be a historical account of the 54th Negro Regiment. Art (especially film) often takes historical content as part of the “Things” it arranges for us. Neither Spielberg nor Kushner’s intention was to make a documentary; rather, they were making a work of art, intended to poke at the assumptions we make about war, terrorism, spying, murder, and ethnic conflict.

3. diana s. - 19 March 2006

yeah. i thought about the film as art myself and how Spielberg captured the moral dillema in the film well. I just felt beaten up by it. That doesn’t mean it was a bad film. It think it was just too close to home for me. For some reason I was pissed off that it wasn’t true. Maybe because I’m angry that people can do such horrible things for their governments and how the governments train them to be okay with it.

4. honestpoet - 11 April 2007

Excellent post. I can’t comment on the movie, because I haven’t watched many grownup movies in, oh, about eleven years.

It doesn’t always work, though, Diana, when the governments train them to be okay with it. My husband’s a psychiatrist, and one of his patients was a man who’d killed Irish children as part of the English’s attempt to force the IRA into disarming (the children belonged to a high-ranking member). The English had felt justified in their act, in order to quell further violence, but clearly it was wrong. And the man who’d done his duty by the crown was broken by it.

Violence is always some kind of failure (though I admit I’d resort to it if necessary to protect myself or my own).

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