Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Banality of the Eichmann Trial

How the architect of the Final Solution, an otherwise unremarkable bureaucrat, became a star character for film

Thomas Doherty
October 09, 2018
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Eichmanns, from left, Ben Kingsley in 'Operation Finale' (2018); Thomas Kretschmann in 'Eichmann' (2007); Werner Klemperer in 'Operation Eichmann' (1961); Robert Duvall in 'The Man Who Captured Eichmann' (1996).Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Eichmanns, from left, Ben Kingsley in 'Operation Finale' (2018); Thomas Kretschmann in 'Eichmann' (2007); Werner Klemperer in 'Operation Eichmann' (1961); Robert Duvall in 'The Man Who Captured Eichmann' (1996).Collage: Tablet Magazine

Adolf Eichmann, the once faceless organization man and point person for the annihilation of European Jewry, may now be the most famous face, save one, of the Third Reich. The formerly obscure factotum has come to personify the ordinary German bureaucrats who wrought unspeakable horror, not as bloodthirsty hands-on executioners, but as quotidian desk jockeys—the kind of efficient middle-level management every modern state needs to make the trains run on time.

Eichmann’s steadily rising profile is very much a postwar phenomenon. His name first started cropping up with his more notorious partners in war crimes during the first round of the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-1946. In 1950, feeling the heat around the corner, he escaped to Argentina with the help of ODESSA, the underground network of former SS men, and the connections of a friendly Franciscan priest. Working as a factory foreman at a Mercedes-Benz plant, he lived peacefully in a suburb of Buenos Aires under the name of Ricardo Clement, but his real identity was well known among the thriving community of by no means ex-Nazis who had found a secure berth in the right-wing nation. In 1960, after years of oddly lackadaisical monitoring, agents from Mossad and Shin Bet finally acted and snatched Eichmann as he walked off the shuttle bus that took him home. After 10 days in a safe house in Buenos Aires, they smuggled him out of the country on an El Al airliner. In 1961, before live television cameras, the State of Israel put him on trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity, or rather the subset that was the Jewish people. He was hanged the next year, his ashes dumped in the Mediterranean Sea.

The thrilling cloak-and-dagger aspects of Eichmann’s capture and the cathartic release of the trial propelled the subaltern SS officer into the uppermost ranks of name-brand Nazi henchmen. Yet where Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler reeked of sadism and fanatical devotion to the cause of a Judenfrei Reich, the affectless Eichmann lacked sharp outlines and vivid colors; he was the last guy you’d pick out of a police lineup for mass murder. The mismatch between the smallness of the person and the enormity of his crimes seemed vertiginously out of whack, almost an insult to the dead millions. Along with the publication in 1961 of Raul Hilberg’s administratively minded The Destruction of the European Jews and the television (1959) and later film version (1961) of Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg, the Eichmann case prompted a redirection of historical, philosophical, and artistic inquiry into what was only beginning to be called the Holocaust—away from the charismatic villains of the Third Reich to the little men who made the fine machinery of the Final Solution hum.

Operation Finale, directed by Chris Weitz and written by Matthew Orton, is the most recent entry in a surprisingly rich canon of screen scenarios inspired by the Eichmann case. The SS Obersturmführer (roughly equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army) who always remained embittered about never being promoted to Standartenführer (colonel)—has exacted a posthumous revenge on his superior officers by outranking them handily in film depictions. (Intriguingly, Operation Finale—which title aside will certainly not be the final Eichmann-inspired film—arrives in the wake of Jose Padilha’s 7 Days in Entebbe, another celebration of Israeli derring-do: For Americans, perhaps, both films offer something their own military-intelligence operatives, from Vietnam to Somalia, have been unable to deliver: an audacious extraction of human assets.

Sad-eyed heartthrob Oscar Isaac plays Mossad agent Peter Malkin, whose account of the case in his 1990 book, Eichmann in My Hands, written with Harry Stein, serves as the blueprint for Weitz and Orton’s sort-of-based-on-the-true-story adaptation. Malkin was one of the agents who actually pounced on Eichmann and held him down so his Mossad confederates could bundle him into a kidnap vehicle. A sardonic but dedicated avenger, Malkin is haunted by the death of his beloved sister Fruma, who perished in Poland in any one of a number of ghastly ways rendered in flashback—hanged from a tree? shot in a pit? gassed in a mobile van? The possibilities are endless and endlessly tormenting.

In a brief prologue, an Israeli assassination team targeting escaped Nazi war criminals breaks into a cottage in postwar Austria, drags a man from the bosom of his terrified family, and shoots him point blank in the woods. Problem is, the hit men have hit the wrong Nazi. Morton’s cold-blooded comrade Moshe (Greg Hill) shrugs, no big deal, a Nazi is a Nazi, but Malkin is badly rattled. The dynamic between the pair recalls the dueling sensibilities in Stephen Spielberg’s Munich (2005), another moody thriller about Israel’s quest for extraterritorial retribution: the man of conscience (Eric Bana) and the ruthless soldier (Daniel Craig), whose lust for vengeance has made him a mirror image of the enemy. After all, the Mossad raid on a happy German home at Yuletide echoes nothing so much as Gestapo thugs ransacking the house of a Jewish family.

Cut to several years later when a chance encounter puts Eichmann back on the Israeli radar. His son Klaus (Joe Alwyn), who unlike his father looks like he belongs on a Wehrmacht poster, unwittingly exposes himself to a deep-cover Israeli operative living in Buenos Aires with his Jewish-born but Catholic-reared daughter (Haley Lu Richardson). “When does she get the bad news?” quips a Mossad wise guy. The girl gets in touch with her roots and fingers Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) for the Israelis.

When Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale) personally orders the forcible rendition of Eichmann, he explains the stakes for the Jews and the state of Israel. Malkin and his crew hardly need the lecture, having just finished a grim game of one-upmanship, where each tallies the number of family members lost in the Holocaust.

After the green light from Ben-Gurion, the engine of a heist film kicks into gear: A crew of experts with various expertise (the brains, the muscle, a doctor to inject a nonlethal sedative) rehearses the precision choreography needed to steal an object of rare price. Defying genre expectations, the mission goes off with barely a hitch.

At this point, the plot machinations get somewhat creakier. El Al balks at violating Argentine sovereignty, an obstacle that forces a delay in the extraction plan. Eichmann and his captors will be locked together for days in close quarters, in a not very safe house in Buenos Aires, the prisoner bound and blindfolded, the Mossad agents desperate to clear out of hostile territory with their prize catch. This long second act is the heart of the film. Ostensibly, it is about convincing Eichmann to agree voluntarily to be tried for his war crimes in Israel, effectively signing his own death warrant, but it is really about the role reversal of hunter and prey and the connective threads that develop between Malkin and Eichmann.

Helpless in the hands of the people he worked to exterminate, Eichmann is infantilized and humiliated, spoon-fed and watched every moment, even while defecating. Despite the utter impossibility of a Stockholm syndrome on either side, small gestures—a gift of a cigarette—and larger ones—Malkin shaves Eichmann with a straight razor without shedding a drop of blood—create a kind of intimacy. In what may be the film’s best moment, Eichmann, sitting on the toilet, blindfolded, tells a joke of Third Reich vintage to his captor audience: that the ideal Nazi is as strong as Goebbels, as slim as Goering, and as blond as Hitler. At the punchline, Moshe snorts in laughter, then abashedly suppresses the smile. Does a self-deprecating sense of humor—a comedic trope owned by the Jews—make the Nazi more human?

Meanwhile, a clock set by Hollywood is ticking. As the Israelis struggle with Eichmann, the local Nazis search frantically for one of their own, racing through the streets, breaking into homes, and terrorizing the locals as if Buenos Aires were Berlin in 1938. In Operation Finale, the Argentines are background extras in their own country: The conflict is strictly Jews versus Nazis.

Drugged and propped upright, Eichmann is transshipped, Weekend at Bernie’s style, out of the country onboard El Al, though not before some last minute pseudo suspense on the runway before takeoff. A coda in Jerusalem reenacts the opening of the Eichmann trial, but when the end credits roll, director Weitz relinquishes his screen space for authentic footage from the trial, merging fiction and fact, showing the iconic image of the real Eichmann encased like an infectious specimen in a glass booth.

Even before the trial was over, the stark still image of Eichmann under glass—the transparent cage framing the lone prisoner within—seemed to demand expansion on the motion picture screen. The very first Eichmann exploitation film was virtually contemporaneous with the trial: Operation Eichmann (1961), directed by R. G. Springsteen and written pseudonymously by Hollywood Ten alumnus Lester Cole. Derided in Variety as a “cheap, incompetent, and quickie affair,” the film was banned in Israel to avoid prejudicing the proceedings. (For Americans of a certain age, the presence of Werner Klemperer as Eichmann and John Banner in a supporting role—the bumbling Colonel Klink and the “I-know-nothink!” Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes—short-circuits any deep emotional investment.) More gripping treatments include Robert Shaw’s 1968 Eichmann-inspired play and 1975 film The Man in the Glass Booth, directed by Arthur Hiller; and a pair of well-regarded and well-remembered TV movies, The House on Garibaldi Street (ABC, 1979) and The Man Who Captured Eichmann (TNT, 1996), the latter also based on Malkin’s book.

For all the stage and screen treatments of the Eichmann case, it is, of course, a meditative work of journalism that forever filters our lens on the man in the glass booth—Hannah Arendt’s brilliant, maddening tour de force of courtroom reporting, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1964), published first in The New Yorker and then expanded into book form. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany herself, Arendt was the very model of the laser-focused postwar intellectual provocateur. She did not, to put it mildly, let ethnoreligious solidarity get in the way of her dispassionate, clinical critique of Israeli justice and Nazi pathology. Her volume can still incite shouting matches at meetings of the Association for Jewish Studies.

For many Americans, Arendt’s subtitle was the enduring takeaway from the Eichmann case. “Despite the best efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a `monster,’” Arendt asserts, mulling the mind-messing disconnect “behind the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” Arendt toyed with the notion that the defendant was “a clown,” but ultimately decided he was merely a clerk. Contrary to the claims of the prosecution, he was not “the most abnormal monster the world had ever seen,” but a creature even more fear-and-trembling inducing. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Italicizing what she must have known would be a catchphrase for the ages, Arendt summed up her own judgment on Eichmann—and in many ways the regime that never lost his loyalty—as a textbook case of “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

However, while the banality of evil may keep an assembling line for murder running smoothly, it brings cinema to a screeching halt. In Operation Finale, as in every other Eichmann-inspired fiction film, the casting alone is a rebuke to Arendt. Ben Kingsley, an actor who has never been less than mesmerizing, sheds the intertextual weight of Gandhi (1982), Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989), and Schindler’s List (1993) to turn in his most chilling performance since Sexy Beast (2000). He is aloof but alert, a calm predator coiled to strike, the antithesis of banal. Weitz, Orton, and the actor keep the viewer guessing—not about Eichmann’s culpability but his character: SS executioner salivating at the kill or paper pusher who might as well have been processing widgets.

Yet not even Kingsley’s big screen portrait as Eichmann will overshadow the performance of the original on the small screen. For 19 weeks, from April 11 to Aug. 4, 1961, Israelis were glued to their sets for a pioneering experiment in court TV—gavel to gavel coverage of the nation’s only candidate for Trial of the Century. A two-hour compilation of the hundreds of hours of television footage, the French documentary The Specialist (1999), directed by Eyal Sivan, is a convenient source for the raw material, but most scholars believe it should come with a viewer-beware label due to Sivan’s deceptive editing and soundtrack sweetenings. In The Eichmann Trial (2011), a useful corrective to the Arendt-centricity of all things Eichmann, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt labeled it a “putative documentary.” Hillel Tryster, director of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive at Hebrew University, was harsher, calling it nothing less than a “perverse fraud.”

Though televised so that the world might see and the images might be preserved, the Eichmann trial was not a made-for-TV show, still less a show trial in the Stalinist sense of a rigged verdict and forced confession. Yes, it was television, but educational television, staged as a history seminar with real-life players from the past given featured roles as Exhibits A. Instructive it was: Words like survivor, Kristallnacht, even Holocaust as a universal referent for the genocide of the Jews—all become common parlance after the trial.

Though not accorded the blanket coverage available to Israelis, Americans could watch trial highlights via edited updates on videotape, the new preservation medium for television footage. Predictably, the New York area was especially well served: WABC-TV ran half-hour daily newscasts with historian Jim Bishop as anchor-narrator. CBS correspondent Bill Corrigan, who acted as pool editor for the live feed for the three American networks, observed Eichmann as carefully as Hannah Arendt and came to the same conclusion. “Eichmann didn’t have horns,” Corrigan recalled. “He looked so ordinary in that glass booth.”

The Eichmann trial might have been bigger news stateside, but the unfinished business of the last war was soon superseded by the more pressing concerns of the Cold War: On April 12, 1961, the day after the trial convened, the flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to be sent into space and orbit the earth, wiped the Eichmann trial off the front pages. On April 17, the Bay of Pigs debacle further diminished attention. By the time the verdict was read and Eichmann received the sentence he had meted out to so many others, only a hard core cadre of 30 correspondents remained from the original 400 who had come to Jerusalem to cover the trial. The horror stories from the survivors had gotten repetitious and the defendant was so—what’s the word?

Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 and Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century.