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Only as Itzhak Stern, Oskar Schindler’s Jewish accountant in Schindler’s List, has he ever withdrawn into any role I’ve seen.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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.