Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Portrait of Evil: Eichmann

It was the final coda to Nuremberg. Fifteen years after the celebrated military tribunal, the State of Israel captured, tried, and ultimately executed Adolf Eichmann, often described as “the architect of the Holocaust.” Not surprisingly, Eichmann’s evilly banal presence in Israel stoked the emotions of the populace. Under orders to extract a quick and definitive confession, Captain Avner Less faces the challenge of a career in Robert Young’s Eichmann (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A venal martinet, Eichmann was committed to the Fuhrer’s Final Solution, but cunning enough to keep his name off incriminating documents. Though thoroughly implicated at the Nuremberg Tribunal, Eichmann maintained his relative innocence, claiming to be a mere transportation officer. He simply made sure the trains ran on time. What they carried was someone else’s department, or so he claims. Yet, we see in flashbacks not just the extent of his knowledge of the Holocaust, but his often shocking acts of direct inhuman cruelty.

Based on the actual transcripts of Less’ interrogation, Young's Eichmann captures their verbal cat-and-mouse game quite effectively. It is also surprisingly forthright in its depiction of the Third Reich and its allies, including those in the Middle East. In particular, a critical turning point in the interrogation hinges on Eichmann’s relationship with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, arguably the highest ranking Muslim cleric of the day and a vocal ally of the National Socialists. Eichmann denies taking him on a tour of a concentration camp, but Less uncovers a paper trail of gifts the Mufti bestowed on the supposedly self-effacing officer of the Reich.

Given the obvious constraints of its interrogate-and-dissemble format, Eichmann is understandably a bit stagey. However, the way the film delves into the historical record is quite intelligent. A cinematic chess game, Eichmann is a film aimed at the head rather than the heart.

Indeed, this would be the trial that inspired Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil,” so do not expect Thomas Kretschmann to menacingly chew the scenery as Eichmann. Yet, he is able to convey the animalistic intelligence lurking beneath his bland and unassuming exterior. It is a fascinating depiction of horrific figure. In one especially telling scene, two guards bring three plates of food into Eichmann’s holding cell. He is to pick one, allowing the guards to eat the other two, except they cannot, because he keeps switching the plates. Is it paranoia or deep-seated contempt for his Jewish jailors?

Young and screenwriter Snoo Wilson deftly walk a fine line, endowing Eichmann with human failings, without humanizing him, never inviting sympathy for the mass murder in any way. Unfortunately, Troy Garity (the son of the infamous Tom Hayden) is rather lifeless as Less, serving as a weak counterbalance to the coldly calculating Eichmann. Still, it is always entertaining to watch Stephen Fry playing smart, somewhat arrogant authority figures, in this case Less’ politically savvy superior Minister Tormer.

Despite its underwhelming protagonist, Eichmann deserves credit for its well thought-out cinematic representation of the National Socialist mass murderer. Again, Kretschmann’s work as the title personage is chillingly focused, but considering his previous Nazi portrayals in films like The Pianist, Downfall, and Valkyrie, he ought to start accepting lighter, more congenial parts for a change or risk becoming the next type-cast Maxmillian Schell (who was in fact an ardent Nazi foe, whose family had been forced to flee Germany in 1938). Definitely worth seeing, Eichmann opens this Friday (11/12) in New York at the Quad Cinema.