Through a day and night of unbearable suspense, eight terrorists invaded the Olympic Village in Munich and took 11 Israeli sportsmen hostage, killing two outright.
After hours of tense negotiations, a bungled German rescue effort ended with the remaining nine Israelis and five of the terrorists dead on the tarmac of the Munich airport. After a memorial service, the games resumed in full force.
In "One Day in September," a remarkable film combining the thriller genre with documentary authenticity, many of the surviving principals on the German, Israeli and Arab sides reconstruct the bloody events and reveal what went on behind the scenes. In the process, the film answers questions that have puzzled investigators for more than 27 years.
The 90-minute film, narrated by actor Michael Douglas and more than two years in the making, has so far been shown only at a private screening at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. However, it has been named among 12 contenders for Oscar honors in the documentary feature category, a list that will be winnowed down to five finalists on Feb. 15.
The driving force behind the film is Swiss-based producer Arthur Cohn, creator of the classic "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," last year's "Central Station" and a string of prize-winning feature movies.
Cohn said that he was initially advised by all "experts" against trying to resurrect such an old, half-forgotten piece of history, but two factors persuaded him to go ahead.
One was the plea by his son Emanuel, one of Cohn's three children, who left Switzerland to volunteer for the Israeli army and now studies at Bar-Ilan University.
"My son told me -- no, he drove me crazy -- that the film had to be made, and made by men of courage, and that he wanted his father to show such courage," Cohn recalled in an interview.
The final convincer came when Jamal Al-Gashay, the sole survivor among the eight terrorists of the Black September group which had carried out the Munich massacre, was tracked down by Kevin MacDonald, the film's director, and John Bettsek, Cohn's British associate.
Al-Gashay lives in hiding in an unnamed Third World country with his wife and two children and agreed to be interviewed at length, though his face in hidden in shadows while on camera. (Besides the five terrorists killed in the Munich airport shootout, two others were later hunted down by Israel's Mossad and killed.)
Cohn's legendary persistence enabled his team to dig out never shown archival footage and persuaded other lead personalities in the bloody 1972 drama to tell their stories.
Among them are Zvi Zamir, the then director of the normally super-secretive Mossad, who was on the scene in Munich, the German heads of the Olympic Village and the police force, Israeli athletes who escaped the massacre, and the widows and daughters of some of the victims.
Unforgettable among the latter are Ankie Spitzer, the Dutch wife of slain fencing coach Andre Spitzer, and Shlomit Romano, daughter of murdered wrestling coach Joseph Romano.
Cohn, though a committed Jew, decided that the only way to make a credible film was to allow the Palestinian side to present its perspectives and arguments.
On the German side, while some bungled the rescue effort, others proved heroes. One is the federal interior minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, who offered to take the hostages' place and tried to explain to Isa, the head terrorist, that Germany, because of its past, had a special responsibility for the safety of Jews.
The two-year research digging by Cohn's team also produced some startling revelations. One concerns an early rescue attempt by German police volunteers to infiltrate the hostage quarters from the roof and through utility ducts.
The rescue, it is now revealed, was foiled by agents attached to the Communist East German team, who filmed the operation from an opposite building and, through sophisticated communication techniques, transmitted the deployment of the police to the terrorists.
The three surviving terrorists after the airport shootout were taken prisoners by the Germans and held for trial. However, less than two months later, other terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa plane and demanded the release of the three Arab prisoners. German authorities complied immediately.
While German incompetence at the airport shootout, which smacked of Keystone Cops antics at times, contributed to the tragic outcome, Cohn considers it unfair to fault German intentions in trying to save the Israelis.
Rather, he assigns much of the blame to the International Olympic Committee, which pressured the Germans into hasty and ill-prepared action, so that the Olympic Village could be cleared and the athletic events resumed after the unpleasant interruption.
The heaviest pressure was exerted by Avery Brundage, the IOC's American president. This was the same man, by the way, who as head of the American Olympic Committee in 1936, fought relentlessly against a U.S. boycott of the Nazi Olympics in Berlin.
Current plans call for a world premiere screening in Israel in mid- April, with all proceeds to go to the surviving families of the 1972 Munich victims.