“We’re all animals fighting for scraps on the Serengeti.”
One of the most celebrated trials of the twentieth century was when Israel put Adolph Eichmann on trial. Eichmann headed the SS Office for Jewish Affairs and was one of the key architects of the Holocaust. But before they could put him on trial, they had to find him and get him to Israel. Operation Finale is the Mission Impossible style account his capture.
In 1960, Eichmann (Sir Ben Kingsley) is living with his family under an assumed name in Argentina. There is a community of Nazi supporters there, including many in the Catholic Church. When a young Jewish girl connects that this person is Eichmann, word gets to Israel. In the past Israel has looked for Eichmann to assassinate him, but now the government wants him captured to be put on trial for his crimes. A select group of Mossad (intelligence) and Shin Bet (security) agents develop a daring and dangerous plan to capture him and smuggle him out of the country on a special El Al plane.
Among the Israelis on this team is Peter Malkin (Oscar Issac). Malkin had taken part in an earlier assassination attempt that targeted the wrong man. As the plan develops, Malkin is the man who actually grabs Eichamnn just a few yards from his house. But after the capture things get complicated. The team is now told that they must get Eichmann to sign a document saying he agrees to be tried in Israel. At the same time, the right-wing Argentine security forces begin the hunt to rescue Eichmann.
As the time for the getaway draws near, Eichmann is understandably reluctant to cooperate. He says he should be tried in Germany. He says he could never get a fair trial in Israel. Only one person on the team was to negotiate with Eichmann, but when no progress was made, Malkin offered a different approach. Over a period of days Malkin and Eichmann discuss the realities of war, of nationalism, of human nature. Finally, Eichmann agrees, but they must still get him out of the country before being found.
Much of the film is a thriller—both the plan to capture Eichmann and the cat-and-mouse game between the Israelis and Argentinians. But what elevates this over other such films is the near philosophical discussion between Malkin and Eichmann. Both men have agendas that they bring to this dialogue, but in their back-and-forth they move each other to deeper levels of understanding. Eichmann strives to manipulate Malkin by pushing him on a personal level.
That seems to be a major difference between the two men. For Malkin (and the other Israelis) this is something that touches their lives. All had lost people in the Holocaust. For Eichmann it is about massive numbers. There is a sense in which 6 million Jews may overwhelm us, but there is more power in the knowledge of a single person we know. Eichmann did not know those whose death he oversaw. They were annoyances to be exterminated.
The actual trial of Eichmann is something of an anti-climax in the film. It is shown briefly, but the real testimony of the film is in these scenes of speaking about victims, justification, and our common human nature.
While the film doesn’t accept Eichmann’s rationalizations for his crimes, it does show him to be a man who cared for his family and his country, just as Malkin and the other Israelis cared for their families and nation. It is this humanizing factor that serves to point out the basis for all of Eichmann’s sins in the Holocaust—the failure to see that humanity in others.
Photos courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures