Thursday, August 30, 2018

Operation Finale

I was in the 8th grade when Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem after the Israeli government's successful operation to locate him in Argentina and secretly abduct him to stand trial in Israel. I was already in high school a year later when he was finally executed. I can well remember all that happening and that it was considered important, but I doubt I reflected more deeply about those events until later when I read Hannah Arendt's famous (and somewhat controversial analysis) of Eichmann and of his trial, Eichmann  in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The story is a familiar one, of course, an illustration of Israeli effectiveness at accomplishing what few others seemed interested in (although the German Eichmann-hunter, Fritz Bauer, is given a cameo in the movie). The film tries hard to create suspense, and indeed many things did go wrong that imperiled the mission, but again we all know how the story ended, so suspense is ultimately lacking. More effectively the film focuses in particular on one member of the Mossad Team, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), in effect telling the story through his interactions with Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) and the ghosts in his own haunted memory of the Final Solution.

Like those TV documentaries that have tried to dramatize the hunt for Eichmann and his successful abduction and extraction for Argentina, the movie mainly illuminates the bizarre experience that Eichmann's captors had to endure, cooped up with him for days on end, essentially staring evil directly in the face. In the process, while Kingsley does a great job giving some sort of personality to the character he plays, in the end one is left with yet another illustration of what Arendt so famously - and fittingly -termed "the banality of evil." 

In 1960, the war was, of course, still a recent memory. (I can remember being in Vienna just a decade later and having lunch there with someone from that generation who was still arguing the case that the West should have sided with the Reich against Russia.) So, historically speaking, we are not surprised at the horrifying evocation of the Nazi movement's continued survival and ideological resonance in the conservative  Argentinian ambience. At the time, the world would have dismissed most of them largely as losers who would not accept the verdict of defeat. Some 60 years later, they seem almost totemic figures, symbolizing a perennial type of hatred that seems successfully to resist final defeat.

Historically, the Eichmann trial brought the Nazis' Final Solution (as the Holocaust was them much more likely to be called) to center stage in a way which had been avoided hitherto - and which made it forever harder to forget. That, of course, was a major part of Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion's purpose. As Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale), speaking not so much as the Prime Minister but more as the collective voice of the long-suffering Jewish people,  tells the agents in one of the film’s finest scenes, “If you succeed, for the first time in our history we will judge our executioner, and we will warn off any who wish to follow his example.” 

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