Munich, shot by Janusz Kaminski, ASC, explores the corrosive effects of retribution on an Israeli assassin tracking the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the 1972 Olympics massacre.

Based on events that followed the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, Munich addresses the red-hot topics of terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The incident brought terrorism to worldwide television for the first time, leaving the chilling image of a ski-masked terrorist on a balcony scorched in the world’s collective memory. Directed by Steven Spielberg and photographed by longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, ASC, Munich is based on George Jonas’ book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, which recounts how Israel’s secret service, the Mossad, secretly assembled a group of assassins to kill the Palestinian terrorists involved in the Munich attack. The picture’s protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana), leaves his young family in Israel to travel with a team of four men around the Mediterranean and Europe, hunting down the terrorists and eliminating them. As their work continues, Avner begins to doubt his mission. “There’s nothing romantic about being a government-sponsored assassin,” says Kaminski. “These assassinations are premeditated and cold-blooded, and Avner begins to question the team’s purpose.”

In a telephone interview with AC, Kaminski reflects that the task of re-creating historical events offers a cinematographer a range of possible approaches. Whereas Schindler’s List was characterized by a sober mise-en-scène and stark black-and-white imagery (see AC Jan. ’94), the approach for Munich was more “distanced,” says Kaminski. “We wanted this to feel like a movie, bigger than life. Our goal was not to simply re-create reality. The subject matter is too fresh, too relevant to what’s happening today. We wanted a bit of distance and didn’t want viewers to think we were doing a propaganda movie. Whereas there’s a clear knowledge of who the bad guys are in Schindler’s List, this film is more ambiguous, more complex. We didn’t want to make a simple moral statement.”

Although the filmmakers initially planned to shoot in many of the locations where the story takes place — including sites in Germany, Israel, Greece and France — an unfavorable exchange rate led them to use Malta for many Mediterranean locations and Budapest for many European locations. Some sets were built, such as one depicting the Olympic Village, but most of the film was shot at real locations. As producer Kathleen Kennedy explains, “This was a ‘find it and fix it’ operation for production design and set dressing,” she says. “There wouldn’t be rafters to hang lights from, so prerigging was going to be difficult, and we planned to use a lot of natural light wherever possible. Janusz wanted to treat some sequences with a bleach bypass, so there was the additional challenge of having some of the negative specially processed in Europe and then timing and printing the release prints in the States.”

Kaminski notes that the period set dressing did much to define the film’s look. “The moment you create that Seventies feel, it all begins to feel a little theatrical — it feels like a movie no matter what photographic style you apply. But there are many scenes in the film that also feel very realistic. Most of us on the production remembered that period quite clearly; it doesn’t have the distance of something that happened 70 years ago.”

Kaminski created a blend of looks to represent the different periods and locations. The semi-documentary footage of the Munich assault was treated with bleach bypass, and the results are almost colorless. The initial reaction to the event unfolds in a world “full of texture, a little bit decayed, with chipping paint,” says the cinematographer. “Then we go to full color with hard sunlight to introduce the characters who are still naïve and innocent. When Avner is thrown into the world of espionage and assassinations, his transformation is reflected through lighting, color and texture.”

As the hit team carries out its mission, the action shifts rapidly from one city to another, and Kaminski decided to define each location with a specific color and texture to help orient viewers. “Our heroes travel a lot, and each city has a different color. Beirut is very blue-green, Rome is slightly warmer, Paris is less saturated and New York City is grainy.” An assassination in a hotel in Nicosia is awash in a “dirty yellow-green color” provided by a grid of colored fluorescents that Kaminski’s crew added to the building’s façade. This same green-yellow tone appears more subtly in other locations, reflected on a car windshield or piercing through a veiled window in Avner’s dingy hotel room. The potent color choice, says Kaminski, was instinctive. “Yellow felt right, and I chose it spontaneously. I wasn’t afraid of making the colors too strong.

“As our characters go to Europe and start to comprehend the weight of their actions, the image becomes grittier, bluer, grainier,” he continues. “There are scenes that almost look like we made a mistake, because the manipulation of the negative and the light creates something very grainy and raw. The highlights are bright and burning and the shadows are almost nonexistent.”

Negatives are an important component in Kaminski’s palette, and he used a combination of Fuji and Kodak stocks to help achieve Munich’s diverse looks and moods. His stocks on the show were Kodak’s Vision 500T 5279 and EXR 200T 5293 and Fuji’s Super F-125T 8532, Super F-250T 8552 and Super F-250D 8562. “We shot all of the Middle East material on Fuji, and I actually shot a lot of interiors with the Super-F 125T because I had the means to light at those locations. Fuji is also a very good emulsion for bleach bypass because it retains a good grain structure during the process. I really like Fuji, but unfortunately, many American labs are calibrated to work with Kodak. When you apply Kodak corrections, Fuji responds differently and you have to reprint. This complicates things for the labs and the studios. But once you get someone who knows how to print Fuji properly, it’s a beautiful emulsion. The color saturation is different — Kodak is very American, a little loud, whereas Fuji is more pastel. Even when Fuji is blue, it’s warmish, but if you print it blue, it will go very blue.”

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.