“It’s a film, it’s a film, it’s a film - t’s not a documentary,” says the legendary Israeli actress, who has a small but critical role in the movie. “It was done by a great director, a great filmmaker, and a man who loves Israel.”
Almagor plays the mother of the lead Mossad assassin in Munich, which focuses on the Israeli government’s secret mission to kill the terrorists responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre (Operation Wrath of God). She speaks glowingly of her on-screen son, Australian actor Eric Bana.
“When I come to a set, I come to do my work, so I appreciate and respect actors who concentrate on what they have to do - that’s what I like about Eric,” says Almagor. “He’s highly intelligent, very polite, very good partner, and he looks just like an Israeli. I’m completely unknown to an actor like him, but he had no airs and was very good to work with.”
Gila Almagor (Photo: Gerard Alon)
Of course, to Israelis and aficionados of Israeli cinema, Almagor is a superstar. Her résumé includes such memorable Israeli films as Sallah Shabati (1964), Siege (1969), The House on Chelouche Street (1973), Operation Thunderbolt (1977), Life According to Agfa (1992) and Passover Fever (1995).
Munich isn’t Almagor’s first Hollywood screen credit; she appeared in the 1982 miniseries A Woman Called Golda with Ingrid Bergman, and four years later, she acted opposite Tom Hanks in Every Time We Say Goodbye. Almagor has also appeared in numerous theater productions in Israel and abroad, having made her debut at age 17 in The Skin of Our Teeth at the Habima Theater.
Actor and a writer
Almagor’s first book for young adults, the autobiographical The Summer of Aviya, was incorporated into the Israeli public school curriculum and adapted into both a film and a touring one-woman show (she brought the stage production to Broadway in 2003). The book’s sequel, Under the Domim Tree, was also added to the Israeli Education Ministry’s required reading list and adapted into a film in which Almagor starred.
Her accolades include Hadassah’s Woman of Distinction Award, the Israeli Film Academy’s lifetime achievement award and the highest Israeli civilian honor, the Israel Prize. In addition to performing and writing, Almagor, 66, also founded the Gila Almagor Wishes Foundation, which grants requests to child cancer patients, and received the President’s Merit Award for Volunteers.
She lives in Tel Aviv with Yaakov Agmon, her husband of more than 40 years and the former chief executive officer of Habima, with whom she raised a stepson, Idan, and an adopted daughter, Hagar. For five years, Almagor held the arts and culture portfolio on the Tel Aviv-Yafo City Council, and says, “I can assure you - what you can see in one night in Tel Aviv you can hardly see in New York or London.”
'You are what we prayed for'
For Almagor and the other Israeli actors in Munich, working with Spielberg was a career milestone. “This was a gift, a dream, to work with a man like Steven Spielberg. We’re a small community of actors, and everybody was taken with his personality and his generosity and his curiosity about our lives in Israel.”
Munich attracted controversy before and after its release, much of which baffled Almagor. “The negative buzz against Munich started long before the film came out,” she recalls. “People who never saw the movie spoke out against it - I was so shocked.”
Remember Munich (Photo: Reuters)
“This film makes you think about revenge and endless bloodshed,” Almagor says. “You cannot kill Israelis and get away with it, and I’m totally against terror, but when the Mossad started the operation, nobody thought that it would go on for years. We hit them, they hit us; they kill us, we kill them…We are here to live. We raise our children and we hope for better days, and every day, we are losing our best sons and they’re losing their sons - this is what bothers me so much.”
Toward the end of Munich, Almagor’s character delivers what the actress calls “the most pro-Israeli words one can say.” The character tells her son: “Everyone in Europe died -most of my family…I didn’t die because I came here. When I arrived I walked up to the top of a hill in Jerusalem and prayed for a child. I never prayed before but I was praying then, and I could feel every one of them praying with me.
"You are what we prayed for. What you did you did for us - you did for your daughter, but also for us. Every one of the ones who died, died wanting this. We had to take it, because no one would ever give it to us - a place to be a Jew among Jews subject to no one. I thank God for hearing my prayer…Whatever it took, whatever it takes, a place on earth - we have a place on earth. At last.”
Like her character in Munich, Almagor lost many relatives in the Holocaust. Her mother lost 147 members of her extended family in Poland. Almagor’s mother and uncle escaped to Palestine and one of her cousins survived Auschwitz; the rest of the family perished.
Almagor’s family history, as well as her membership on the Yad Vashem board of directors, have made her especially grateful to Spielberg for his efforts to keep the memories of Holocaust victims alive. “What he did for the Jewish people with Schindler’s List and what he did afterward with the video bank of survivor memories…We owe him so much. To say that he is anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish is nonsense.”
The Munich scenes set in Israel, including Almagor’s, were filmed in Malta, but she wishes they were shot in the Jewish state. “I thought, ‘Look how much money Malta is getting now because this work isn’t being done in Israel,’” Almagor recalls.
She hopes peace will bring more Hollywood productions to Israel. “I hope that we will have better days. There was a time when many big international productions were shot in Israel. We have so many talented actors and technicians and people who have lots of experience in filmmaking. Just come - everybody’s welcome.”
At the end of Munich, the main character leaves Israel behind to settle in Brooklyn, N.Y., something Almagor terms “very sad.” She says, “I would like to think that after a while in Brooklyn, he’ll be back because the best place - the only place on earth and the best place under the sun - is here. After the army, our youngsters go to remote places - to the jungles, to India, to South America - and after a few years they come back, because as I said in the movie, it’s the only place where we can live as Jews among Jews with no conditions. This is our place.”
This is a paradise
In the Feb. 19 edition of Yedioth Ahronoth, Spielberg called Almagor “amazing” and added, “I would like to bring her to the States to work here, once I find the right role for her.”
When asked if she will return to Broadway, Almagor responded, “I might. I love doing my work and wherever it takes me, I go.”