MUNICH, GERMANY -- In the rapid-fire opening scenes of Steven Spielberg's new film Munich, the audience is instantly launched back to Sept. 5, 1972, when all eyes turned toward this city and the horror that unfolded at the Olympic games here.
"The Munich Massacre," as it would come to be called, began at 4 a.m., when a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September invaded the rooms of a group of Israeli athletes, and ended the next day with all 11 athletes dead. However, the bulk of the film has very little to do with the Olympics or with the city of Munich. Instead, it follows assassins as they travel around the globe in an attempt to avenge the killings.
But even if Spielberg's decision to show so little of Munich makes sense -- the movie is less about the Palestinians' actions than about how terrorism inevitably begets more terrorism -- it's also a disappointment, especially for anyone eager to understand more about the city and the dark cloud of history under which it has often struggled.
The Munich of today is a place alive with intriguing tensions: In the heart of Germany's most traditionally Catholic and conservative Bavarian region, it nonetheless continues to attract an increasingly younger and more yuppified population -- and, with those yuppies, all the attendant hip bars, high-end restaurants and trendy art galleries. It's also a city that seems to cherish many aspects of its history, even as it still hasn't entirely reckoned with some of its history.
Spend a few days here, and you don't necessarily come to any easy conclusions: It's a vibrant, inviting city that inevitably stirs up many mixed feelings -- and a journey into the past that is at once clear-eyed and fuzzy
Beer and bonhomie
The sixtysomething waitress is narrow and bony, and the lines on her face suggest many years spent disapproving of others' behavior. She's bedecked in a traditional German dress that even one of the Von Trapp children might find a tad kitschy (which probably goes a long way toward explaining her dour disposition).
OK, the service here at Weisses Brauhaus isn't likely to go over well with the Zagat set. But the German Brauhauser (beer hall) and Biergarten (beer garden) tradition dates back hundreds of years, and stepping into one of the dozens of beer halls that line Munich's central area, the Marienplatz, you get the feeling that you have entered a time machine.
At the cavernous Hofbrauhaus, which bills itself as the world's most famous beer hall, hundreds of patrons cram together at wooden tables, loudly clinking their liter glasses of beer and singing along (even more loudly) to traditional German folk music. The food is hearty (think lots of sausage, sauerkraut and some sort of concoction that resembles potato salad); the seating is elbow to elbow, family style; the beer flows copiously, as the waiters and waitresses - wearing Hansel-style knickers and Gretel-style dresses - speed through the room, elbowing out of the way tourists who dare to stand and gawk.
In America, this kind of restaurant would be nothing more than an enjoyable cheesy tourist attraction, a la Medieval Times. In fact, there's a Hofbrauhaus outpost in Las Vegas, across from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
But what's striking about Hofbrauhaus and Weisses Brauhaus is how many locals clutter the tables. Historically, beer halls were as much civic meeting places as they were social settings. (I was hardly surprised to learn from my guidebook that Hitler held some of his earliest meetings at the Weisses Brauhaus; the beer hall displays that sort of cramped, smoke-filled, alcohol-sloshed atmosphere - not unlike American fraternity basements - that lends itself to group-think.) And they still seem to be places where a local soccer team's victory is celebrated, or where a group of friends gather for a spirited night out. In short, Munich seems to be a city that is much too proud of its Bavarian heritage to let it fade into the history books. But it's not a place that's drowning in Old World nostalgia either, like, say, Vienna.
In that spirit, there is perhaps no greater pleasure in all of Munich than spending a long afternoon wandering through the Marienplatz. The cobblestone streets are lined with stores and stalls selling meats, sausages, vegetables, fruits, wines, cheeses, pastries and flowers, all of it so fresh-looking that the owners of Whole Foods would probably want to hide beneath a rock and weep with jealousy.
If you get hungry (and you will), you can easily put together a gourmet lunch - a chunk of cheese from one stall, a freshly prepared prosciutto sandwich (on pretzel bread, natch) from another, a bottle of Rhine Valley riesling from a third - for less than 20 euros ($23.95) and enjoy it in the middle of the bustle of shoppers and merchants.
You might feel like you're wandering through 18th-century Bavaria, but this is no Epcot-style display put on for tourists. It's a living, breathing atmosphere that begs to be relished and savored.
The bus carrying us from the subway station through the town of Dachau is packed with people - so crowded that you have to cling to complete strangers in order to maintain balance. It's a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in early November, and my first thought is that all of these people (like me) are traveling to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial.
It's only much later - after reading my guidebook and talking to our Dachau tour guide - that I learn that the reason the bus is so packed is that the suburb of Dachau has become, in the past decade or so, an extremely popular neighborhood for Munich residents. Its location halfway between the airport and the city center makes it especially desirable.
If it seems strange that so many Germans would feel perfectly comfortable living in a town most famous for its concentration camp, it also speaks to how many modern-day Germans seem to deal with the grimmer aspects of their nation's history. For all of the city's evident historical pride on display in the Marienplatz, a different sensibility seems to rule elsewhere. It's not so much that modern-day Munich denies its Nazi past as it is that it appears, from my brief visit and the few people I spoke with, that they would rather not have to contend with it. (When I mentioned to two Germans I met later in my trip that I spent an afternoon touring Dachau, both gave me the same puzzled, "Now why would you want to do that?" expression.)
Built in 1933, the Dachau concentration camp was one of the first established by the Nazis, and its physical layout became the model for dozens of other camps throughout Europe. If you've visited other concentration camps, particularly Auschwitz in Poland, all of this will looking horrifyingly familiar: the imposing wrought-iron entrance gates; the watchtower; the train tracks that run nearby, to carry new prisoners there daily; the banal-seeming barracks that appear no different from those that populate summer camps in bucolic towns in America.
Visiting Dachau is a sometimes-frustrating experience: Many of the original buildings and barracks were destroyed in the immediate aftermath of the war, so much of what you see is re-created. You also get an unseemly sense of the post-war political realities that went into creating and sustaining this camp as a memorial site. (An International Dachau Survivors' Committee was established, but there was much fighting between German, French and Jewish factions. The site finally opened to the public in 1965.)
In one modernist sculpture that honors the fallen prisoners, for instance, colors represent the different groups of people who were killed there - including Jews, Gypsies, political dissidents and so forth. Absent are any mentions of at least two other groups - gays and criminals - who also went to concentration camps.
But a visit to Dachau is still fascinating, especially in its details. You learn that the camp - which was never really used for widespread exterminations but instead was a "work camp" - housed its own brothel, where female prisoners sometimes worked and where male prisoners were sometimes sent as a reward. You also learn that long after the war, the camp was used for various purposes, including as a prison and for housing Eastern European refugees, until finally survivor groups convinced the German government that a memorial should be established there.
And in a faraway corner of the camp, near where barracks once stood, just over a fence, you see perhaps the most telling detail of all, a row of perfectly ordinary suburban houses that seem to have been built within the past two decades. For these Munich residents, the Dachau concentration camp is literally in their back yard.
"When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears were realized tonight. ... They're all gone."
Those were the somber words spoken by ABC sports announcer Jim McKay, early on the morning of Sept. 6, 1972, announcing to the world that the kidnapping of the Israeli athletes at the Olympics had ended in horrifying bloodshed. You hear them again in Spielberg's Munich, and they lose none of their impact. Munich was the first German city to be awarded the Olympics after World War II, and they were intended, in part, to signify to the world a rebirth for West Germany.
Instead, the terrorist killings placed another black mark on this city's history, which found itself under heated criticism for what many called a botched response on the part of the German government and police to the kidnappings.
The first thing you notice as you approach the Olympic Park now is how quiet and contemplative it all seems - a pastoral oasis from the busy freeway, and all the symbols of globalization, that exist just beyond the park grounds. (The BMW headquarters, a blue-and-gray tower composed of cylinders stacked atop one another, is nearby. It was built to coincide with the 1972 Olympics, though the dedication of the building didn't take place until the spring of 1973).
The second thing you notice is that Bon Jovi is playing here in February. Olympic Park is now a major civic center for Munich, with sporting events (especially soccer), trade shows and concerts keeping the main venues - including the 75,000-plus seat Olympic stadium and the 14,000-seat Olympic Hall - filled throughout the year.
The best reason to visit is to soak in the architecture: The famed "webbed" domes that partially cover each of the venues. Although they are composed of glass and steel, the effect from a distance is that of a vast spider web, stretching across the entire park. At the Olympic stadium, this gleaming steel is offset by the bright green of the stadium seats and lawn - a stark and beautiful contrast between modernism and earthiness.
The main thing missing from the Olympic Park? Any sense of what happened here in 1972. Other than a modest memorial to the slain Israeli athletes - so modest I walked past it twice before recognizing what it was - you would have no idea that the Olympics ended in tragedy. (Back at home a few weeks later, surfing the Olympic Park's Web site for any mention of the killings, I couldn't find anything there, either.)
Munich, finally, seems to have a selective memory. It's a place whose unwillingness to fess up to the past is precisely the thing that keeps it pulsing into the future. You understand why Spielberg stayed away. (Literally: He shot his film in Paris, Budapest, Malta and New York.) It would take at least a three-hour movie, if not one much longer, even to begin to reckon with such a city's inner conflicts.
Christopher Kelly writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
IF YOU GO
Once you arrive, you can avoid a potentially steep cab fare (the airport is about 30 minutes outside the city center) by taking the easy-to-navigate subway. The S-8 train takes you directly from the airport to Munich's main train station for 8.10 euros (about $9.50). Just follow the many posted signs.
Where to stay
A number of clean, affordable hotels are within walking distance of the train station and about a 10-minute walk to the Marienplatz. (Hotels closer to the Marienplatz will cost a bit more.) I stayed at the Hotel Deutsches Theater, just next to the Deutsches Theater -- nothing especially fancy, but it certainly did the job. (And the creaky, cramped elevator was an Old World delight.) Booking through expedia.com, I found a room for about $80 a night, with continental breakfast included. (Be careful to book the Hotel Deutsches Theater on Schwanthaler Strasse; there's a similarly named hotel just around the block that's reportedly not as nice.)
You can't swing a dead cat in the Marienplatz without striking at least one or two beer halls. Hofbrauhaus (089/290-1360/www.hofbraeuhaus.de) is the more touristy destination. I also recommend Weisses Brauhaus (089 290-1380). A liter of beer will set you back about 6 euros (about $7). Food ranges from 5 to 15 euros (about $6-$18).
You can make the trip to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial yourself -- by subway and bus, or by taxi -- and have a perfectly valuable and edifying experience; the signage at most of the exhibits is in four languages, including English. But when traveling to places steeped in such history and detail, especially in foreign countries, I prefer to opt for an English-language guided tour. I took one offered by Radius Tours, conducted by a knowledgeable and thorough British guide who has lived in Munich for four years. (In fact, he was perhaps a bit too thorough; on a cold and rainy afternoon in November, a four-hour outdoor tour pushes the limits of one's endurance.) Ticket price was 19 euros (about $23). Tours leave from the main train station, where Radius has a small office near track 32. (089/5502-9364 munichwalks.com)
If you're planning to be in Munich for its annual Oktoberfest celebration -- this year's dates are Sept. 16 to Oct. 3 -- remember to book rooms well in advance and expect to pay a lot more for a room.
I wholeheartedly recommend the detailed Rick Steves' Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Partly for Steves' wry writing style and encyclopedic knowledge of German cities (some of which made its way into this article), and also for his spot-on recommendations (the pension he recommended in Berlin is one of the best bargains I've ever encountered in Europe). A 2006 edition should be available at the end of this month from Avalon Travel Publishing ($19.95). If you're looking for a more Munich-centered guidebook, try Frommer's Munich & the Bavarian Alps ($16.99)