When I was young, my parents had a good friend named Tzvika. He was a bald man with big eyes and a wide smile, the sort of uncle who can make a room cheerier just by walking in and saying hello. I always assumed he was some sort of artist, because he showed me drawings he’d done many years earlier, haunting pastels etched with fury on the pages of a travel guide to Buenos Aires. He’d gone to Argentina, my parents told me later, to kidnap a man named Adolf Eichmann and bring him to justice in Israel.
Tzvika is better known as Peter Malkin, and the story of his role in capturing, guarding, and transporting the architect of the Final Solution to Jerusalem is the subject of Operation Finale, a wildly thrilling new film.
If the adjective strikes you as inappropriate given the weighty subject matter, consider all the ways in which the director, Chris Weitz, might’ve failed. He could have, for example, taken the same tedious route as José Padilha in 7 Days in Entebbe, slathering the screen with thick layers of symbolism that neither move nor inform; that movie cross cut the raid on the terminal in Uganda with a modern dance performance, delivering one of the most unintentionally comical moments in recent cinema. More pedestrianly, Weitz might’ve have opted to reduce the film to just one of its elements, giving us a tense psychological drama that rarely leaves the airless room where the Israeli spy and the fugitive Nazi spent nine days engaged in a battle of wits, or else a fast-paced caper of subterfuge and narrow escapes, a sort of Argo with Nazis. But Weitz is one of the most underrated directors working today, and—as he had shown in About a Boy, say, or the deeply moving A Better Life—he understands that interesting films, like interesting people, contain multitudes. When the premise goes low, he goes high, allowing his characters their flaws and imperfections even, or especially, when those rub up against the plot.
And what a wonderfully flawed bunch he has at hand. At the helm is Oscar Isaac as Malkin, impressively true to the man I knew, a playful improviser whose courage is always one step ahead of his good sense. He’s supported by Fauda’s Lior Raz as the Mossad’s saturnine chief, Isser Harel; Mélanie Laurent as Hanna, a guilt-ridden doctor who wonders what part of the Hippocratic oath covers the forced sedation of a Nazi war criminal; and the deeply moving Nick Kroll as Rafi Eitan, the operation’s straight man whose good-natured jokes mask wells of anxiety and pain. Nearly all of the agents dispatched to Argentina to retrieve Eichmann had lost loved ones to his murderous orchestrations, and nearly all are struck, at one point or another, by the urge to tiptoe upstairs to the German’s room and indulge in the satisfaction of brutally ending his life.
Weitz lets them all simmer together. Inside the safe house, drunken dinners give way to tense confrontations as the team, like the audience, struggles to come to terms with the blindfolded man they must guard, tied to the bed in his underwear and expressing not a note of remorse. If you’re hoping to see the banality of evil on display, you’re out of luck: Eichmann is played by Sir Ben Kingsley, who manages to be simultaneously imperious, menacing, and vulnerable even when sitting on the toilet, surrounded by Mossad agents and delivering a monologue about poop, which is more than Kingsley’s Gandhi was ever called upon to do.
Outside the house, Eichmann’s would-be rescuers are closing in. They are led by his son Klaus, who Joe Alwyn turns into a brooding and blond referendum on compassion. The monster’s child, he reminds us, had done no wrong, and the pain he feels at the disappearance of his father is real and ought to rankle. This uneasy realization colors each pulse-quickening near miss a few shades darker, and raises far sharper questions about the intersection of justice and revenge than that other recent tale of Mossad agents out on the hunt, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s lugubrious and preachy Munich.
But at its heart, Operation Finale is a tango between captor and captive, and Isaac and Kingsley sparkle 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 board the flight to Tel Aviv—El Al, in Weitz’s telling, requires the passenger’s consent—Malkin has to allow his prisoner increasing doses of dignity, from a smoke and a shave to real emotional intimacy. And the Nazi, in turn, tries to curry favor with the Mossadnik by asking him about his sister Fruma, executed in some frozen forest by the genocidal machine Eichmann had helped design. Begging for news of his own family—he lets out a blood-curdling yelp when he realizes Malkin and his colleagues had done no harm to his wife and his sons—Eichmann trades in empathy, struggling to convince Malkin that he’s capable of feeling his pain. He may not be: The manipulative creep we see in flashbacks, 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, is never far from the surface. As the two men try to decipher each other, the audience does, too, which makes the movie eminently suspenseful even to those of us who’ve read all there is to read about Eichmann’s trial and execution.
This is not only a cinematic achievement, but an emotional one as well. Weitz is confident enough to let us entertain Eichmann’s reasoning as well as Malkin’s, and he trusts us to find our own way out of the moral thickets that grow when you spend too much time listening to a personable and convincing Nazi. In an age when too many filmmakers fashion their work into banners advancing their political pieties, Weitz gives us something much more valuable, a study in unruly feelings and the extremes we sometimes go to when we strive for or run away from our just deserts.
“The longer one listened to him,” Hannah Arendt wrote about Eichmann in her controversial report from his trial, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied 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 knows better. His Eichmann is demonic precisely because he knows exactly how to think from the standpoint of his interrogator, and knows, too, how to sharpen this skill into a weapon. He sees no reason to empathize other than to gain an advantage, which makes him all the more human and all the more terrifying. Men like him usher in death and misery because they are capable of choosing differently but never do. And men like him can be found in every walk and in every corner of life.
The antidote to such wickedness is to place no burden on our emotional valence, to let us explore whatever reflexive urges lead us to laugh or cry, kiss our lover or pick up a gun. Operation Finale lets us do all these things, and in so doing elegantly escapes turning into another dreary film that’s too embalmed in reverence to explore anything truly real or interesting. In Weitz’s telling, there’s life in the old story yet. Tzvika, I imagine, would have approved.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.