New views of the tragedy at the '72 Munich Olympics

Director Kevin Macdonald was four years old on Sept. 5, 1972, the day eight Palestinian terrorists from the Black September movement invaded the Israeli housing compound at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Eleven Israeli athletes died in the ensuing shootout, and the aftermath still echoes through Middle East politics today.

It was a tragic, but defining moment for the Olympics, not least because it was the first to be televised live around the globe.

"The world was watching," Mr. Macdonald says. "So it became this incredible drama for everybody in their living rooms, in America and in Europe, sitting there, watching, [and asking] 'What is going to be the outcome of this?' "

Now Macdonald, a documentary filmmaker, has brought the events of that day back to television on the eve of this summer's Olympics. His film, "One Day in September," nabbed an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature this spring, but has not had a wide theatrical release. The producers decided TV would create the broadest audience for what HBO officials say is one of the most important films the pay channel has ever offered (airing Monday, Sept. 11, 8-9:30 p.m.).

"It's about a world 28 years ago that was not ready for acts of international terrorism, and it shows the blunders of a people who are not ready to deal with the brutality of what happened there," says Sheila Nevins, executive vice-president of original programming at HBO.

This film is important on several fronts, she adds: It is an effort to ensure that the world doesn't forget; it's also a vivid indication of how dramatically times have changed (German police had to call off a rescue attempt through the compound ventilation shaft after a terrorist walked out and announced that they'd watched the preparations on TV, a scenario nobody had encountered before).

But perhaps most important, it is an unprecedented exploration of the day's events.

All the major participants are on film, giving their accounts of what took place - including the last living terrorist of the original eight who stormed the compound, who remains in hiding.

"We decided, from the very beginning, that in order to have an even-handed document, we needed the [person involved at] the time," says producer Arthur Cohn, a Hollywood veteran and the only producer to have won six Oscars.

While Macdonald still won't reveal what he calls the extraordinary lengths to which he went in order to get this testimony on tape, Mr. Cohn says that many others were difficult as well. "While Kevin was successful in tracing the Arab terrorist, we had an uphill battle to get all the other protagonists to appear in the film," he says.

Cohn says they are the first to get Zvi Zamir, the head of Israel's secret service, Mossad, to speak about the tragedy. Mr. Zamir tells "us the views of the Israeli secret service," Cohn says. The film also includes interviews with the German minister of the interior, the head of the Munich police as well as the head of the Olympic Village.

The documentary also contains revelations that couldn't be told until after the end of the cold war: While the West Germans were playing host to the world's athletes, the East Germans were helping the Palestinian terrorists with logistics and weapons.

"We had the heads of the Stasi, which is the secret police of [former] East Germany, confirm to us the collaboration with the terrorists," Cohn says.

Some Israelis have objected to elements of the film, although less to the presence of the Palestinian terrorist than to depictions of loved ones who died.

"The only 'trouble' we had from Israeli sources were from two of the 11 families, who felt that it is not right to show the corpses of the murdered athletes, and it would be nice to remember the athletes the way they lived," Cohn says.

While the producer, who financed this film himself, says he would not eliminate the photos, he did compromise. Pictures that showed signs of torture were softened.

But Cohn felt strongly about their inclusion. "If you don't show the terror, you don't know what happened," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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