38 minutes:12 seconds
Sarah Morris’s seventh film is an intimate portrait of an individual in the city of Munich. Dr. Georg Sieber was the head psychologist of the Olympic Police. Sieber was present on Connolly Street on the tragic morning of September 5th, 1972, when members of the terror group Black September attacked and took hostage the members of the visiting Israeli Olympic Team. Later that morning he resigned from his position. Sieber was hired by the International Olympic Committee and Munich Police to project possible scenarios that would jeopardize the safety of the Olympic Games and prepare the security training that they would require. One of the scenarios written by Sieber was an almost exact prognosis of what was to fatefully play out in reality. Continuing her investigation of the concept of the “peripheral” character, it becomes clear that Sieber had proposed an alternative method of navigating the situation that could have led to a different outcome. In 1972, Morris mixes police surveillance footage of demonstrators and archival photos of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, with shots of the Munich Olympia-park and a candid interview of Sieber who has a long-standing career as a psychologist and is an expert on international security matters.
The film, shot on 35 mm, investigates the issue of projection and planning and its potential failures through this specific instance in history. It exposes a subjective parallel view radically different than the widely received ideas surrounding the events of the 1972 Olympics.
Sarah Morris, 1972, Timecodes, 2008
Especially in this case, there won’t be a historical truth in the sense of a reality. Historical truth is only the sum of subjective perceptions, interpretations and thoughts, which can be slightly proven by comparing dates and comparing statements and documents. But the real truth remains an ideal, a dream, something, which isn’t real… “Next question please.”
In Germany we had the problem, which is surely the same in the United States, England, and everywhere, that the police, through its military and paramilitary operations, were breeding enemies and aggression. Our idea, which then in fact was proven to be right, was that if the police managed to do without military operations and military tactics and if the police simply went along with the demonstrators, who have the right to demonstrate, and were in direct contact with the demonstrators, this would simply make a lot of aggressive demonstrations superfluous. And that was the case. At least in Munich, we were successful in that there were hardly any aggressive acts during demonstrations. It was different in other cities where the old patterns were being adhered. You have to differentiate between two things. On the one hand, there was my membership with the SDS where I was welcomed as an interested and fairly educated student and which I then soon joined. It was a really interesting student group, which was not militant. On the other hand, there’s something, which we today consider a conflict in the past. A conflict is really when the two ends of two whips get entangled. Good coachmen don’t sit down and talk with these whip ends or try to untie the knot, they simply cut them off.
And so at that time I did not see a conflict, nor did I, in actual fact, see society drift apart. I only saw that the police, no matter where, in Bremen, Hamburg, Berlin or Munich, where I was based, were dealing very awkwardly with the students and the demonstrations and obviously did not see a possibility of dealing with these events in a fairly rational, sensible and efficient manner. That was the reason why I started to write a proposal to clients of the police, for example to Hansi Vogel, the Lord Mayor of Munich, who also was the first to accept the offer.
Of course, that’s it in a nutshell. I didn’t see a problem and I could easily have remained a member of the SDS while at the same time working for the police. I did not see any particular difficulties in doing this. But the problem was, of course, that the leaders of the SDS in particular found this very suspicious because they established the police as their enemy, whereas the police did not conceive of the SDS as an enemy. For them, it was more the government, sometimes journalists, papers, and the media, who portrayed the SDS as the enemy. I did not see it that way and I did not have a problem with being an SDS man and planning police operations in a more sensible and humane fashion.
That’s the way I saw my work. It is totally clear that when a demonstration is announced, an unprepared police force reacts at first with police vans, a lot of manpower, horses, water cannons and all sorts of means in order to get this demonstration under control. My offer to the Lord Mayor said that we were going to replace these expensive police methods with very simple and efficient methods.
At that time, we developed a completely new method of operation for the police, which worked on the assumption that you’ve already lost if you use force. This meant that the police tried to make do without using force. This new method of operation was given a name; it was called “integrated operation.” The police officers were supposed to invisibly integrate themselves in the demonstration. It all worked very well and at the beginning, we had a lot of problems with politicians, who did not want to accept that the police had dispensed with using force. That’s why we found a formula, which satisfied everyone. The formula read, “Psychological means take precedence over the use of direct force.” For us psychologists, this meant that if psychological means take precedence, then we don’t need to use force at all. And for conservative politicians this meant, “OK, we’ll use a little bit of psychology and then we can still enforce it by using force.”
But it worked well in the years ‘68, ‘69, and ’70. That was also the reason why the National Olympic Committee, the NOC, asked us whether we were prepared to train the security of the Olympic Games in the same manner. They had placed their hopes in the Munich police with its modern methods and now wanted these modern methods to be used by the security at the Olympic Games. That was the reason we got that job. And so, during that time, I was the Munich police psychologist, and at the same time I was the psychologist to the Olympic security.
Perhaps it all sounds a bit fantastic, but in reality everything was very plain and simple. We asked a lot of questions and did research throughout Germany to find out which the critical points for the police are. What do the difficulties look like? And as things came together, the answers were quite simple. For example, if someone pushes someone else into the water, into a fountain, this could be the beginning of a huge disaster but it could also quickly be taken care of. Or another example. A plane approaches and tries to hit the Olympic arena. That is a very extreme example, but we discussed, collected and classified all these things and in the end we had a whole range of scenarios, which were then studied. For which scenarios are the Olympic security responsible? They had to be scenarios for which no weapons were needed and where it wouldn’t be clear whether it was a criminal offense or not. Then we had a second category, for which the police were responsible. In the case of criminal offense, extreme aggression with bodily harm, the police have to take action. A third category was supposed to be the military level. And that’s the way we slowly found out which scenarios we had to train for and which scenarios the Olympic security were not supposed to train for. And that’s the reason why we, for example, wrote down attacks by one of the then more than 15 European “terror organizations”. The ETA works in a different way to the IRA, the Italian Red Brigade works in a different way to the RAF and so on. In the whole of Europe, there was a whole range of typical procedures. It was absolutely amazing because, and this was probably writer’s luck, there was one scenario which described how the PLO would attack. Exactly such an attack took place looking like from a PLO manual, and in the end it was this that made these Olympic Games so famous. Secondly, the attack by a group belonging to the PLO was documented at least a hundred times in the papers, on television shows, in books and so on. You attack before sunrise, which in Europe is at 5am, you go in a group, you climb a fence, and fences are easy to climb, you don’t need a drunk American for that, you can easily manage alone, then you go to your destination and take up your position in this house or wherever it is, take hostages, and then you start negotiating and operating. This is exactly what happened. And it wasn’t difficult to write such a scenario because it was really well documented.
I don’t believe architecture is able to influence terrorism as it is nowadays described. That would be the same as saying that architecture can influence the military. Terrorists are nothing more than military units without government. And for military units, architecture is completely insignificant. It’s nothing they think about or which could influence them. But for sports venues and large assembly rooms, the architecture is enormously important because it decides whether, in the case of panic, people have to die or not. I could determine quite quickly what really happened that morning. The telephone woke me at 5:15 am, that was the time, and since nobody else was on the clock, it had to be a PLO attack. I took my moped and drove there, it’s not far from here, and as soon as I got there I found important people, and strangely enough, top officials. And slowly, ministers and federal ministers started to arrive. They were, of course, all visitors of the Olympics and were quickly brought from their hotels. So I arrived early on in this room, which later on was defined as the crisis management room. Here, the head criminologist, Schmidt, who was the chief of the criminal investigation department in Munich, at once explained that it was a special situation, because the Israelis were of the opinion that their compatriots were being attacked by Arab terrorists. Because of this, they insisted that we only do what they tell us to do. That meant that the operation was supposed to be controlled from Israel. And that’s the way it started. That means that the whole thing was controlled in a way as if it was happening somewhere on the Israeli-Palestinian border and not in Munich in an Olympic village and in the middle of an Olympic scene. But I don’t think it was naive, it was like that.
The first thing the Israelis must have done was to inform the television and the press, because, “We want the world to know that Israel is being attacked in Germany.” “Once again.” That was perfectly clear. Later some people confirmed it. During the discussions in the morning, everybody fully understood that Israel wanted it this way. OK, then. And secondly, we never negotiate impulsively (Phone rings) Sieber. Hello. I don’t have time at the moment. We’re shooting a film until 4 pm. Bye.” Anyhow, it wasn’t customary to begin negotiations straight away and to improvise and in our experience it was of great importance to prepare these things well, and that the right person was chosen who could speak the language of the perpetrator in an empathetic manner. And then we could already see this petite woman who was supposed to negotiate with the terrorists. But nobody had previously considered the psychological situation of such a group. And you couldn’t tell anybody that we knew about it. And it was perfectly clear how it was going to happen. And I very quickly said, “If we don’t have anything to say anyway, if we’re only supposed to do what the Israelis tell us, then I’m not needed here.” And since I had the impression that there was going to be a bloodbath, directly at 8 o’clock I officially explained that I quit my job and that this was going to end in disaster because the operation was not properly controlled at all. And that was the end for me. I spent the rest of the day at my office watching ZDF. And then I phoned the head of the security and the head of operations of the police and asked what was going on. And they said, “We’re not told anything, but we’re on TV. If you watch ZDF you’ll get all the most recent information.” And then I drove home and watched ZDF at home.
Well, the design of the Olympics wasn’t Otl Aicher’s design but rather the design of Mr. Behnisch. Behnisch was the architect and, as far as I know he designed the flags and the colors that were used which Otl Aicher then latched onto. It was supposed to be a spring festival, a warm spring festival, a cheerful festival and that’s how they became known as the “cheerful games.” I think it exhilarated the people and also really motivated them because it was exceptional and not at all what was expected of the Germans. Germans are always perceived as very serious, as military, and then there’s the Prussian culture, which of course is a prejudice. The Olympics were a very good opportunity to show that Germans are completely normal and rather Mediterranean. After all, the Romans occupied our country for a long time.
So it was a case for Scenario #26. That was completely clear. They were from the PLO and the building was that of the Israelis. It has to be remarked that at the beginning we said that all nations were supposed to be housed according to their sport not according to their nationality. We very early on said that it was a great risk to house the Spanish in one building, the Israelis in one building and so on. But that wasn’t accepted. The NOC said, “No, the Israelis attach great importance to being together as a nation. And all the others must therefore do the same.” That’s just an aside. In the situation that I was in that morning it was absolutely clear that something like that was bound to happen. Germany was by chance the location for a High Noon situation. It was pure chance. It could also have happened at the airport in Rome or somewhere else. And we also had three ministers there. The Minister of the Interior, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Minister of Justice were there. And so for me it was perfectly clear that either there had been a deal beforehand or they had very quickly realized that this was OK. But it was explained very logically that the hostages were Israelis, and the attackers were Arabs and that the Israelis, if they wanted to and didn’t have any confidence in us, should say what was to be done. And that’s obviously exactly the way it went. What I always have heard later was that the Germans made suggestions and the Israelis said no. And, of course, they could always say, “We’ve got more experience than you.” That was also something I heard very early that morning. They said that they had many experts who knew everything about the PLO and about how Arabs are, etc. And so the Germans were very well behaved takers of orders, which they then executed. That has nothing to do with responsibility. It’s a legal question.
To this day, to the present day, it is not indisputably clear how we would react the next time. If twenty English people were held hostage by Latin American terrorists and if that took place in Bonn or in Berlin, then it would not be clear whose responsibility it is to act. Can the German police work by discussing everything and then acting correctly? Or are they forced to bend to the will of the hostages’ nation? To this day this problem has not been solved. And that’s why you don’t hear much about it. That means I have to explain two things here. First, a police operation in such a situation cannot be calculated and you can’t say whether it will work out fine or not. This means that even if the German police had been in charge of the situation, if they had been in control of the situation, it could have just ended in the same bad result. I simply said that we would have done it differently. We would have applied different methods and now the worst result imaginable had in actual fact come to pass. Perhaps we would have managed a little bit better. It couldn’t have been done any worse. It could not escalate more, and when all the hostages have been killed. This is the most negative result imaginable. I don’t want to claim that we would have done everything better and that we would have saved all of the hostages. But for such a negative result we would not have needed advice from Israel. That must simply be said.
In the autumn of 1972 we lost our whole company. 80% of our clients were the Minister of the Interior, the police, the fire service, border guard and so on. After the Olympics nobody wanted to work with us anymore because I had quit my job and I had been the first to criticize the operation. We then practically re-established the company, we found new clients and new tasks and today we’re very glad that it’s all over. That was a very simple story. We were looking for a new name for this new market and the new development. I asked a friend in Paris, “Which three words are similarly pronounced and also understood in all European languages?” He then gave me a long list with about 30 words and I said, “We’ll take the first three.” Intelligence, System, Transfer. Those are the three words that are most frequently used in the European languages and are also understood.
When such big events occur we always have to remember that we really live in a democracy. So in Germany there is a mix-up between different strategies. For example, as an answer to the events of 1972, Germany established a special command, which was very famous and important for a long time, but it also became clear that this special command couldn’t achieve anything. They were somewhat successful but you can’t turn the police into a military unit and you can’t wage a war with a police law. That’s the problem, which wasn’t solved, but the people were satisfied. The only effect is that the hardliners among us are happier and are able to live with us.
It was, of course, perfectly clear that everybody who reads the paper or watches television associated a police psychologist in Munich with the name of Sieber. But what followed was quite funny. The public began to confuse my name with the name of the chief of police. That means that Dr. Schreiber was increasingly called a psychologist and I was increasingly addressed as the chief of police. And that still happens even today. Many letters bear the wrong address because some people think I was the chief of police and Schreiber the psychologist, and the other way around. That’s very difficult and always reminds me of Romy Schneider who shot the film Sissy when she was very young and remained Sissy till the end of her life.
© 2015 Sarah Morris