One Day in September

UK 1999

Reviewed by Peter Matthews


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

This documentary blends archive footage and interviews with witnesses to relate the tragic events at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich. On 5 September, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic village apartments and took 12 Israeli athletes hostage. A wrestling coach was killed while tackling a terrorist who belonged to Black September, a group connected with the PLO. They demanded the release of 236 political prisoners or the hostages would be executed at noon. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate.

With just minutes to spare, terrorist leader Issa extended the deadline and demanded a jet. Two helicopters were organised to take the Arabs and Israelis to a nearby military airport where undercover policeman and snipers lay in wait. When the Palestinians disembarked from the helicopters, the snipers opened fire and a 90-minute gun battle erupted. By the end, most of the terrorists were dead or wounded. Two surviving terrorists killed the Israelis with a hand grenade and a round of bullets. The three remaining terrorists never stood trial. Two were assassinated in the late 70s by Israeli hitmen. The third, Jamal Al Gashey, appears as a witness in the film.


One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald's sensational new documentary about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, tightens the screws almost from the start. The first few minutes lull you with kitschy infomercial tourist shots of the time-tykes frolicking in lederhosen as a voiceover announces this earthly paradise as the site of the Olympic summer games. But just when you're sniggering at the travelogue clichés, there's an abrupt cut to black. Ominous music rises on the soundtrack, while a babble of panicky news bulletins is heard, culminating in the sickening rattle of machine-gun fire. The mood swing is like a steel trap snapping shut and is preliminary evidence that One Day won't have the pontificating respectability of most feature-length documentaries. There's nothing remarkable about its hybrid format of talking heads, found footage and recreations, but what makes the movie startlingly original is how this historical material has been shaped to squeeze your emotions the way fiction does.

The two certifiable classics in the genre of films about the Olympics - Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia and Kon Ichikawa's idiosyncratic Tokyo Olympiad - inevitably place the accent on muscular striving and transcendence. Macdonald shows little of the athletic events at Munich because his real interest lies in their ulterior value as propaganda. The German hosts hoped to expunge memories of the Third Reich by showing off their smart new liberal democracy, while the Israelis were keenly aware of the symbolic role they played as historical survivors. And of course the hostage-taking was designed as a grand initial coup by the Palestinians themselves. The guerrillas could hardly have been more literal in their iconoclasm, the murdered athletes providing an obscene riposte to the vaunted Olympic ideals of health, peace and international brotherhood.

Refusing to take sides, the movie whips along with the cold-blooded excitement of a police procedural. Only here the investigation uncovers a level of official bungling that would be farcical in another context. From the evidence, it appears Germany's enforced demilitarisation after the war left it wide open to acts of terrorism. Macdonald and his research team catalogue each tragic misstep in the rescue operation so that the final massacre arrives with the inexorability of fate. Since the ending is known, the film doesn't generate suspense exactly - more like a feeling of helpless dread. The queasy atmosphere recalls the political thrillers (Z, State of Siege) Costa-Gavras specialised in 30 years ago, and Macdonald employs comparable pressure tactics: helter-skelter editing, a portentous score, jittery POV camerawork (in restaged bits such as the escape of the one surviving hostage) and post-production wizardry that slows down, speeds up or freezes the original coverage for rhetorical effect. Unified by its narrow time frame, One Day aims at a continuous dramatic grip, yet except in one or two places (a homely snap of a weightlifter and his daughter followed by a police photo of his bloodied corpse) the treatment doesn't come across as manipulative. The witnesses have been encouraged to relay their part in the story as simply and incisively as possible. Indeed, one could possibly fault the film for not going beyond exemplary reportage. The subject is kept on such a remarkably short leash you never feel it expand into regions more poetically resonant. One Day may lack the creepy ambiguity of an earlier docu-thriller, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, some of whose stylistic tics it shares (Macdonald made a doc about Morris). But for lean efficiency of presentation and sheer momentum, it's a brilliant movie.


Kevin Macdonald
John Battsek
Arthur Cohn
Directors of Photography
Alwin Küchler
Neve Cunningham
Justine Wright
Alex Heffes
Production Companies
An Arthur Cohn & A Passion Pictures production
Executive Producer
Lillian Birnbaum
Associate Producer
Andrew Ruhemann
Executive for the BBC
Nick Fraser
Production Co-ordinator
Shanti Ramakuri
Production Manager
Alice Henty
Post-production Supervisor
Dean Watkins
Production Consultants
Jo Ralling
Alan Reich
Lynn Goldner
Khalil Abed Rabbo
Monica Maurer
Felix Moeller
Archive Researchers
Lin McConnell
Felicitas Stark
Additional Cameras
Hans-Albrecht Lusznat
Philippe Bellaiche
On-line Editor
Ian Moffat
Graphics/Title Sequence
Ravi Swami
Peter Richardson
Passion Pictures
Additional Score
Craig Armstrong
Music Supervisor
Liz Gallacher
"Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin; "Child in Time" by Deep Purple; "It's Not Too Beautiful" by Beta Band; Johann Sebastian Bach's "Joy" by Apollo 100; "Express Yourself" by Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band; "Glasgow", "Rise", "The Saint", "Short Piece 5", "Short Piece 11", "Short Piece 12" by Craig Armstrong; "Facades", "Compassion in Exile (3b x 1)", "Closing", "Reting's Eyes" by Philip Glass; "Symphony No 2" by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; "Minus 61 in Detroit" by David Holmes; "God Moving over the Face of the Waters" by Moby; "Heat"
Sound Recording
Wilm Brucker
Amir Boverman
Ankie Spitzer
widow of André Spitzer
Jamal Al Gashey
Gerald Seymour
ITN news reporter in 1972
Alex Springer
son of Jacov Springer
Gad Zabari
Israeli wrestler
Shmuel Lalkin
head of Israeli Olympic Delegation in 1972
Manfred Schreiber
Munich Chief of Police, in 1972
Walther Troger
Mayor of Olympic Village in 1972
Ulrich K. Wegener
Hans Dietrich Genscher aide-de-camp in 1972
Hans-Dietrich Genscher
German Minister of the Interior in 1972
Schlomit Romajo
daughter of Josef Romano
Magdi Gahary
adviser to Arab League
Zvi Zamir
chief of Mossad, 1968-1974
Dan Shillon
Israeli Television journalist
Heinz Hohensinn
Munich police
Esther Roth
Israeli Olympic Runner in 1972
Hans Jochen Vogel
Mayor of Munich, 1960-1972
Anouk Spitzer
daughter of André Spitzer
Michael Douglas
Redbus Film Distribution
8,512 feet
94 minutes 35 seconds
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011