It was the experience of reporting in Jerusalem on the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker that led the philosopher Hannah Arendt to coin her famous phrase “the banality of evil.”
Eichmann — by some reckonings Hitler’s deadliest lieutenant and the architect of the Holocaust, decorated by the Nazi regime with high honors, including the War Merit Cross and the Iron Cross — turned out under inspection to be, not a psychopath, an evil genius or a monster of hate, but something more inconceivable. Unreflective, unoriginal, uninsightful and plain uninteresting, he was, simply, an insipid functionary, a dull little man.
Accounts of the daring 1960 Israeli covert operation into Argentina, where Eichmann was living in Buenos Aires under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement, to spirit him to Jerusalem for trial describe a pathetic, timid soul who hardly dared to move without his captors’ orders.
Eichmann’s need to be told what to do anticipated his insistence at his trial that everything he had done in the service of the Third Reich was only him following orders. In defiance of the conventions of fiction and cinema, he was a figure one could despise, but hardly dread or fear in himself.
While I’m certain the chameleonic Ben Kingsley could play a baffling mediocrity like this, I’ve never seen him do it. He tends to go larger than life, not smaller. Whether playing heroes, monsters, mentors or ambiguous men, Kingsley is nearly always among the most vibrant figures on the screen.
Only as Itzhak Stern, Oskar Schindler’s Jewish accountant in Schindler’s List, has he ever withdrawn into any role I’ve seen. Kingsley’s Stern was insightful and less passive than he seemed, but he was a small man, dwarfed by circumstances, in the shadow of the flamboyant Schindler.
Eichmann and Stern are obviously antithetical roles, but a similar restraint might have served Kingsley well in evoking a figure of such legendary mundaneness.
But Operation Finale is Hollywood, so we get Kingsley in larger-than-life mode: formidable, masterful, commanding, self-possessed, as a movie villain worth his salt should be.
Directed by Chris Weitz and written by first-time screenwriter Matthew Orton, Operation Finale offers an efficient, sometimes gripping, fictionalized account of the discovery, capture and extraction of Eichmann.
In the process, it brings some earnest thought to moral questions about justice and violence, starting with a wrenching prologue in which an effort to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice goes appallingly wrong. Later, when Eichmann is located over a decade after the end of the war, it’s not immediately obvious that capturing him is still a high priority for Israel amid more pressing concerns — and the argument that carries the day there is not a moral one.
We also see signs of resurgent antisemitic sentiment in Argentina — sentiments with contemporary resonances that the film has little interest in exploring. (A Catholic priest joining in condemning Jews at a neo-Nazi meeting is one of the few religious references. An elderly Jewish mother scolding her grown son about answering the phone on Shabbat offers a glimpse into devout Orthodox Jewish observance.)
How historically grounded is this telling? That’s a complicated question, since the facts of the operation are in dispute, even among the participants. At least three agents published somewhat conflicting accounts — each maximizing the author’s own contributions.
The most colorful and popular version, and the one that inspired Operation Finale, is that of the man who physically grabbed Eichmann on the street: Mossad agent Peter Malkin, played in the film by Oscar Isaac.
In his book, Eichmann in My Hands, Malkin wrote about developing a clandestine relationship with the prisoner over the 10 days or so that they spent in a safe house. Disregarding mission rules, Malkin removed Eichmann’s blindfold and chatted with him, plying him with cigarettes and wine and even grooming and shaving him, ultimately inducing him to sign a document stating his willingness to be brought to Jerusalem for trial — or so Malkin said.
That narrative was bitterly disputed by expert interrogator Zvi Aharoni, played in the film by Michael Aronov. Aharoni, who initially identified Ricardo Klement as Eichmann, insisted that Eichmann signed the document for him without resistance and denied that Malkin even spoke German. (Malkin claimed to have communicated with Eichmann in a blend of broken German and Yiddish.)
Team leader Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) never wrote an account, but he credited the least inaccurate version to spymaster Isser Harel (Llior Raz).
While I’m listing team members, Mélanie Laurent’s character, anesthesiologist Hanna Elian, is a composite of two real people: the real team’s lone female member, Yehudit Nesiahu, who helped to run the safe houses, and the male doctor, Yonah Eilan, whose task was to sedate Eichmann for transportation when necessary. Because Operation Finale is a Hollywood riff on Malkin’s account, Hanna and Malkin have a romantic past.
The film accurately depicts Malkin as an amateur painter, passing time at the safe house creating works with Holocaust motifs. Perhaps he was a good storyteller, too. At any rate, it’s a good story.
Many details, including Eichmann grotesquely reciting the Shema — the affirmation of Jewish faith from Deuteronomy that is one of Judaism’s most important prayers — reflect Malkin’s account, though the context and meaning of these elements often shift in the retelling.
Yet where Malkin agreed with other accounts in depicting Eichmann as a feeble nonentity, Operation Finale makes the exchanges between the prisoner and his captors a powerhouse battle of wits, a cat-and-mouse game in which the identity of cat and mouse is an ever-shifting question.
In Malkin’s telling, Eichmann was so helpless that, after seating him on the toilet, his captors had to order him to relieve himself. In the film, when Eichmann asks permission to use toilet paper, it’s a passive-aggressive power move: He’s forcing his captors to take responsibility for his every action.
There’s more than an echo of The Silence of the Lambs in Isaac and Kingsley’s interactions. Eichmann is said to have, like Hannibal Lecter, intimidating powers of persuasion; his captors are warned that he convinced doomed prisoners to board Nazi death trains willingly. Like Lecter, Eichmann has a trick of drawing one in with seeming humanity before springing an appalling verbal assault wherever one is most vulnerable.
Though no untried trainee, Malkin has, like Clarice Starling, a secret trauma that Eichmann homes in on. The dynamic of quid pro quo versus not wanting Adolf Eichmann inside your head is very much the subtext of their exchanges.
This can make for compelling drama, especially when played with the intelligence and charisma that Isaac and Kingsley have in abundance. Yet in making Eichmann another darkly iconic Hollywood master of manipulation — alongside Lecter, De Niro’s Max Cady (Cape Fear), Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade (3:10 to Yuma) and Heath Ledger’s Joker — something of the moral truth of the Third Reich’s impersonal evil is lost.
Schindler’s List has been criticized for its depiction of Ralph Fiennes’ SS officer Amon Göth as a psychotic killer, which was far from typical of the Nazi machine. That portrayal at least has some basis in history.
Operation Finale isn’t a bad film, but it’s an unsatisfying one. It works on its own terms, but it lacks a sense of thematic resolution, a moment of truth. It tells a decent story well enough, but what does it want to say?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.