Another Look at Eichmann
As I was sitting here preparing my new lecture on Hannah Arendt, I received an email telling me about the new film Eichmann film, “Operation Finale”. What struck me is that this is the second time in five years that while preparing to teach about Arendt, a film is released in which her presence is felt. The first, of course, is the wonderful biography directed by Magarethe von Trotta and starring the amazing Barbara Sukowa and now this. Surprisingly, these films do not make my job easier since they give me added resources. While the names Arendt and Eichmann come together often in the same breath when looking at either personage, this new film is all Eichmann. I must say that “Operation Finale” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and I would love to know what Arendt would say about it.
“Operation Finale” is the story of Peter Malkin and his role in capturing, guarding, and transporting the man who orchestrated the Final Solution to Jerusalem and it is a thrilling adventure even knowing how it ends.
Director Chris Weitz pushed all the right buttons to give us a tense psychological drama that rarely vacates the room where Malkin and Eichmann spent nine days in a battle of wits. He has chosen a wonderful cast to tell his story. Oscar Isaac is Malkin, a man whose courage overrides. Lior Raz is the Mossad’s chief, Isser Harel; Mélanie Laurent is Hanna, a guilt-ridden doctor who cannot help but wonder if the Hippocratic oath covers the forced sedation of a Nazi war criminal. Nick Kroll is Rafi Eitan, the operation’s straight man whose covers injury and pain with jokes. Almost all of the agents that were sent to Argentina to capture Eichmann had lost loved ones because of him and nearly all have, at one time or another, to go into his room and end his life.
Weitz lets them all simmer together. Inside the safe house, dinners lead to tense confrontations as the team, like the audience, struggles to deal with the man they must guard and have tied to the bed in his underwear and who shows no remorse about what he did. There is no banality of evil here. Sir Ben Kingsley’s Eichmann is imperious, menacing, and vulnerable at the same time and even “when sitting on the toilet, surrounded by Mossad agents and delivering a monologue about defecation. Klaus (Joe Alwyn), Eichmann’s son reminds us that his father had done no wrong and that the pain that he feels as a son for a missing father is very real
“Operation Finale” is a dance between captor and captive, and Isaac and Kingsley shine as two men who understand that they’ve no choice but to allow the other his humanity. To convince Eichmann to sign the papers needed to get him on the flight to Tel Aviv, requires his consent. To get this, Malkin has to allow his prisoner a shot at dignity, be that a smoke and a shave or real emotional intimacy. Eichmann, in turn, tries to find favor with Malkin by asking him about his sister Fruma who had been executed in a forest by the machine Eichmann had helped design. Eichmann begs for news of his own family and lets out a blood-curdling scream when he realizes that no harm has come to his wife and his sons. Eichmann manipulates empathy as he struggles to convince Malkin that he’s capable of feeling his pain. But he may not be: in flashback we see him as a manipulative ogre wearing eyeliner, an SS uniform, and an overcoat as he stands “haughtily above pits stacked with bodies, like a ghoulish rock star on a stage looking down at his fans”. This is the picture that stays with us. As the two men try to figure each other out, so do we, making this a film filled with suspense even for those who have read all there is to read about Eichmann’s trial and execution.
This is both a cinematic and emotional achievement. Weitz allows us to entertain Eichmann’s reasoning as well as Malkin’s, and he trusts us to find our own way out after having spent time listening to a personable and very convincing Nazi. This film is a study in unruly “and the extremes we sometimes go to when we strive for or run away from our just deserts.”
Hannah Arendt said that the longer one listened to Eichmann, the more obvious it became that he did not have the ability to speak or to think from someone else’s point of view. He could not be communicated with and this was not because he was a liar but because he “was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” Weitz sees Eichmann differently and his Eichmann is demonic because he knows exactly how to think from the standpoint of his interrogator, and knows, too, how to use this skill as a weapon. He sees no reason to empathize other than to gain an upper hand and this makes him all the more human and all the more terrifying. He and others like him can cause death and misery even though they are capable of not doing so. There are men like this everywhere.
To combat this kind of wickedness is to put no burden on our emotions and to be free to explore our own emotional reflexes. “Operation Finale” lets us do just that.