*This article contains spoilers

From the beginnings of cinema, sex has been a recurrent but taboo subject, which film narratives suggested by means of well-known symbols (married couples never shared a bed in Hollywood films till the 60s). However, the sexual liberation movement of the 70s changed forever the notion of what was acceptable or not to show on screen. Sexually explicit scenes have been common currency in television and cinema ever since. However, has this implied a challenge to the power relations associated to sex? Are female characters allowed to express themselves freely as sexual beings? Or are they still presented in subservient position, depending on the desires of the male? Have films reduced sexual freedom to showing more flesh while leaving patriarchal structures intact? In this article, I will analyze the relation of sex and power in Munich(2005), Spielberg’s latest film.

Are female characters allowed to express themselves freely as sexual beings?

Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape, first published in 1974, was a landmark book for feminist film criticism. Using a sociological point of view, Haskell analyzed the images of women in cinema and how did they reflect the society that produced the films. She concluded that female sexuality was regarded as a threat by patriarchal society. Then, in order to repress that threat, cinema narrative patterns would “punish” (by violent death, rape…) those female characters who showed an active sexuality and deviated from traditional female roles (mother, wife, devoted lover), which would in turn be celebrated. Haskell also pointed out that during the 70s, coinciding with the arising of women rights’ movement, film heroines were more likely to suffer abuse and humiliation than their counterparts from earlier decades (i.e. the violent rape in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs [1972]). She analyzed those scenes of violence as expressions of fear of the new woman, and the need of the male to reaffirm his power.

Around four years ago, while I read From Reverence to Rape for first time, an episode of BBC drama Spooks provoked controversy because it depicted the murder of a female agent, whose head was submerged in boiling water. Many viewers felt that the scene was too brutal for a 9pm slot. What was really shocking, however, was that the episode followed closely the narrative pattern that Haskell had criticized in the 70s: in earlier scenes, the female agent had transgressed acceptable codes of sexual behaviour by making sexual advances on an engaged male colleague. Consequently, the narrative violently punished her. Have cinema and society changed so little? Is the power of woman’s sexuality still seen as a threat in the 21st century?

Haskell’s theory certainly comes to mind when watching Munich(2005), the latest offering from Steven Spielberg. The film deals with the massacre of twelve Israeli athletes at Munich Olympic games in 1972, and the violent revenge that a group of undercover Mossad agents (under the direct command of Israeli government) takes on the supposed perpetrators.

Is the power of woman’s sexuality still seen as a threat in the 21st century?

Munich presents itself as a film without heroes or villains. Characters are ambivalent. Audiences are invited to understand their actions and simultaneously feel horrified by them. The protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana) is an honest family man who repeatedly questions the legitimacy of his mission, while at the same time he leads the killing squad with the ruthlessness of an assassin. This ambivalence, however, does not extend to the female characters, who play secondary roles in the plot: the women from the French Mafia family are mere pieces of furniture, while the presence of Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir is reduced to a cameo. Her scenes emphasize her role as “mother of the nation” (and surrogate mother to Avner) rather than head of state.

On the other hand, the two main female characters accommodate to the stereotypical duality virgin/ whore. Daphna, the protagonist’s pregnant wife (played by Israeli star Ayelet Zorer), literally represents the motherland Avner swore to protect. She is a “supportive” wife, who never questions if her husband has the right to leave her with a baby on the way to fulfill his killing mission. She obediently accepts his decision of moving to New York, far from her family and friends, and never reproaches him anything. Rather than a character, she functions as the final prize of his quest (he will only be allowed to go back home after successfully completing his mission).

On the other hand, Jeanette (Marie-Josee Croze) is another member of the professional killers community. Like a human Religious Mantis, this hitwoman uses seduction to kill her targets. Her assassination by the Mossad agents is not part of the mission, but an act of revenge for the death of Carl, a member of the team whom she had offered sex in a bar.

Not surprising given its subject matter, scenes of brutal violence are core in Munich. However, two scenes in particular stick in the mind. Their common link is that both show the male protagonist being sexually violent to the female.

the assassination of the hitwoman visually resembles a gang rape

The first is the assassination of the hitwoman, which visually resembles a gang rape: a naked and unarmed Jeanette is surrounded by the three men and repeatedly shot with phallic Zip air pump guns. Her naked corpse is voyeuristically displayed before Avner finally covers her up. In contrast to other killings, the team shows no remorse or guilt, quite the contrary. Why does she deserve so much rage? We are not very far from the idea of “reaffirmation the male ego” described by Haskell. Before killing Carl, Jeanette tried to seduce Avner. Although he resisted, the narrative makes clear that he wanted her. “I saw her first”, says Avner when he thinks she is having sex with Carl. Jeanette must die because her overt sexuality represents a threat to the power of the male. Even if it was for a moment, she made the protagonist show weakness and wish to be unfaithful to his wife/motherland.

In the other scene, almost at the ending of the film, Avner is shown roughly making love to his wife Daphna. This is intersected with scenes from the Munich massacre, which seem to be haunting him. The act of lovemaking is his way to exorcise his internal demons. The idea of sex as catharsis also features in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), a film whose plot vaguely parallels Munich: a wife (Maria Bello) has to cope with the fact that her husband and father of her children (Viggo Mortensen) was a gangster in the past. In the second half of the film, they have a violent fight in the staircase, which turns into torrid lovemaking. The camera alternatively shows both participants, equally active and aggressive. On the contrary, in Munich there is no interaction between the couple. Daphna is not even seen for great part of the scene, as the camera concentrates on Avner’s face and thoughts.

Munich follows 70s narrative patterns

When I watched Munich with friends from both sexes, those two scenes were the most commented on. Significantly, negative reactions were unanimous: “Pointless”, “Humiliating”, “An excuse to show a naked woman” were several of the opinions about the hitwoman killing. One of the boys was convinced that Avner was raping his wife in the final scene, while the intersection of the sexual act with the shooting of the Israeli athletes was branded as offensive.

In conclusion, Munich not only has a 70s setting, but it also follows 70s narrative patterns by showing female sexuality as something that the man has power to either repress or use to his convenience. However, the fact that audiences react negatively to this pattern proves that times have certainly changed.

Maria Seijo-Richart lives in Leeds.