‘Eichmann’ couldn’t be more pertinent to Holocaust Remembrance Day

The Baltimore Jewish Film Festival shows devastating debunking of Eichmann, the man who once embodied “the banality of evil”

April 09, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Watching "Eichmann" on Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival will remind viewers of the power movies can get from timing and circumstance. It's not a crackerjack film, but it's a strong conversation-starter. ( Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin will be the guest speaker.)

It centers on an Israeli police interrogator, Capt. Avner Less, who relentlessly questioned Adolph Eichmann, a prime engineer of Hitler's Final Solution, from May 29, 1960 (shortly after Eichmann's capture in a Buenos Aires suburb), to April 11, 1961. The director, Robert Young, and the screenwriter, Snoo Wilson, use Less' work as the basis for a robust debunking of Eichmann's bland image.

After political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil," in 1963, her concept of "the banality of evil" drifted into common parlance as the ultimate characterization of how the Nazis bureaucratized anti-Semitic genocide and made it possible to carry out atrocities on timetables. Controversial at the time, Arendt's analysis was arguable even as an explanation for how a supposedly mild organization man like Eichmann could supervise and at times innovate mass murders.

Lesser thinkers than Arendt soon vulgarized "the banality of evil" into a way of thinking comfortably about the unthinkable. What if the former head of the Bureau of Jewish Affairs at the Reich Security Headquarters had simply been a regular guy caught up in an infernal political machine? Wouldn't his limited capacity for independent thinking and moral choice be overwhelmed by the totalitarian evil of Hitler's National Socialism?

Saul Bellow, for one, would have none of it. He agreed that Hitler used "hatred of Jews" as a "foundation stone of the Third Reich," then turned his desire for "Jews to be destroyed" into "a wish [that] was tantamount to an order," thus dispersing all legal responsibility. But Bellow derided "people easily satisfied with formulas" for reducing "the demonic genius of this political achievement" to "‘the banality of evil.'"

"Eichmann" has no patience, either, for ethical reduction. The movie does end with the audiotape of interrogator Less stating that the horror of questioning Eichmann convinced him of the paramount need to preserve democracy. But the film never uses politics to let Eichmann off the hook. In Thomas Kretschmann's tricky, cumulatively powerful performance, what the publishers of "Eichmann Interrogated" called his "robotoid persona" cracks just enough for a virulent combination of pride, guile and racism to seep into the atmosphere.

Young and Wilson are far from subtle filmmakers. They contrast Eichmann's mild demurs with flashbacks of him ordering extermination of Jews by carbon monoxide in a truck or murdering a Jewish baby in his office to live up to the vile dreams of his glamorous Hungarian aristocratic mistress. Young has cast Troy Garity as Avner Less and Franka Potente as his wife, Vera, a mother of two who fearlessly fought spinal polio. (Less and his wife were admirable enough; they didn't have to seem this attractive, too.)

But the filmmakers do stay focused on Less' shrewd persistence with Eichmann as well as Less' strength at withstanding public confusion and government impatience with his careful legal process. As Less wrote in the introduction to "Eichmann Interrogated," "As time went on, I noticed that each time Eichmann said ‘Never! Never! Never, Herr Hauptmann' or ‘At no time! At no time!' he was lying." When you see these scenes re-enacted today, they should make you think, "Never again."

"Does the record of his testimony," asked the publishers of "Eichmann Interrogated," "reinforce Arendt's perception of Eichmann as quintessentially ‘normal'? Or is it possible that she and others were misled by a charade he had carefully rehearsed during the years in Argentina?" After "Eichmann," you'll know where you stand.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go
The Baltimore Jewish Film Festival presents "Eichmann" at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Avenue, Owings Mills. Tickets are $10. Go to baltimorejff.com for updated information.

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