Justice for Adolf Eichmann in ‘Operation Finale’

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

It’s been nearly 60 years since a covert team of Israeli Mossad agents captured Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires. The story of his dramatic capture and subsequent trial in Jerusalem—famously chronicled by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem—still stands as one of the most compelling historical episodes of the 20th century. A new film, Operation Finale, captures the story in all its weight and drama. Part espionage thriller (a sort of real-life Mission Impossible), part Holocaust drama, and part character study (Ben Kingsley delivers a fascinating, complex performance as Eichmann), the film is a riveting exploration of the nature of evil and justice.

Part of why Eichmann’s capture was so significant is that it represented the first—and only—time the Jewish people directly prosecuted a Nazi responsible for the Holocaust. The Nuremberg Trials had been one thing in the quest for post-war justice, but Eichmann captured and tried by Israel herself—giving Holocaust survivors a chance to face their tormenter directly—was another entirely. At one point in Finale, Mossad agents planning the capture are greeted by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (Simon Russell Beale), who comments on the significance of their mission: “If you succeed, for the first time in our history we will judge our executioner.”

Finale is thus a deeply cathartic film about justice, showing a team of Jewish spies who—just 15 years removed from the Holocaust—succeed in a mission that would become a defining moment for Israel, but also for them personally. All the Mossad agents lost family members in the Holocaust, some their entire families. For them, bringing Eichmann to justice is about honoring their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children who were slaughtered in the horrific machinery of the “Final Solution” authored by Eichmann. The meaning of the justice is profound in Operation Finale, but so is the how of its execution.

Capturing Eichmann

There are many books that narrate the capture of Adolf Eichmann in depth, to the extent that details of the highly secretive operation are not classified. Some are first-person accounts by participants in the operation, like Peter Malkin’s Eichmann in My Hands or Isser Harel’s The House on Garibaldi Street. Then there are more recent histories, like Neal Bascomb’s page-turner Hunting Eichmann. This new two-hour film version, directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and filmed in Argentina, necessarily focuses on the major events of the story, condenses the timeline, and takes liberties with a few plot points and characters. But for the most part the film seems to hew closely to the events as they unfolded.

Having escaped Allied prison camps after the war, Eichmann managed to create a low-key life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1950s, where he lived as “Ricardo Klement” and worked at a Mercedes-Benz factory. Mossad agents became aware of his presence in Argentina when a young German-Jewish woman in Buenos Aires, Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson), started dating Eichmann’s eldest son, Klaus (Joe Alwyn). After having Klaus (who kept the last name Eichmann) to dinner one night, Hermann’s father, a blind concentration camp survivor, became convinced the boy was the son of the infamous Nazi. Based on this tip, Mossad agents began covert reconnaissance in Buenos Aires that eventually confirmed Eichmann’s identity and residence in a nondescript house on suburban Garibaldi Street. From there, 11 Mossad agents planned and carried out an elaborate and secretive operation to abduct Eichmann and transport him to Israel in May 1960.

The film focuses on Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), the Mossad agent who actually grabbed Eichmann and then conversed with him during his confinement over nine days in a Buenos Aires safe house. Throughout the film, Malkin has recurring visions of his sister and her children, imagining how they died in the Holocaust. He brings immense inner pain and anger to his one-on-one interactions with Eichmann—the film’s most compelling scenes—but in a controlled manner. He needs to gain Eichmann’s trust and respect, even though Eichmann is the symbol of his family’s executioners. These intense dialogue scenes situate a momentous narrative in a rather intimate space, allowing Isaac and Kingsley to demonstrate their significant acting skills while uncovering the film’s deeper themes.

Are We All Animals?

Ben Kingsley’s performance as Eichmann is remarkable in its subtlety and unpredictability, all the more interesting given the great actor’s iconic performance in Schindler’s List as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. Here he gets inside of the mind of one of the Holocaust’s architects, portraying him not as a monstrous bogeyman but as something far more troubling: a seemingly normal husband and father, and a hard-working middle manager who could be (and literally was, for some Argentinians) the guy next door.

Kingsley, who prepared for the role by immersing himself in the memory of Night author Elie Wiesel, recently said he didn’t want to make Eichmann seem like a fictionalized “monster baddie” who could be easily dismissed. Rather, he wanted audiences to be confronted with his normalcy and proximity: “Eichmann was one of us.”

Indeed, Kingsley’s Eichmann is one of the more haunting acting performances I’ve seen in some time, for these reasons. Throughout the film, Eichmann offers the defenses and justifications he would eventually use in his trial. He was “just following orders.” He was “merely a cog in the machine.” At one point he tells Malkin his job was simply to protect the country he loves. “Is your job any different?”

The film appropriately confronts audiences with the reality that we’re all just a few self-deceiving steps away from heinous sin. And yet Kingsley’s portrayal of Eichmann doesn’t soften or relativize his singularly abominable actions. Eichmann’s rationalizations are convenient cover for an evil that, however “banal” it may be, is still evil. Eichmann may want to pitch himself as no worse than the Mossad agents, but his attempts to minimize or explain away his sins only deepen the damning case against him.

“We’re all animals, fighting for scraps on the Serengeti,” Eichmann says at one point in the film. “Some of us just have bigger teeth than others.”

But this moral equivalence and appeal to brute, Nietzschean/Darwinian power dynamics doesn’t fly with his Mossad captors.

“If we are all animals,” one Israeli agent comments to another, “[Eichmann] would be in pieces by now.”

Justice with Dignity

Operation Finale bears similarities to other films that depict covert attempts to bring sinister war criminals to justice, but the ways it differs are telling.

Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005)—which tells the story of a Mossad mission (code named “Wrath of God”) to assassinate the Palestinians responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre—comes to mind. So does Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and, in a more fanciful approach to the genre, Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-hunting Inglourious Basterds (2009). These films capture something profound about the human longing for justice and the catharsis we feel when it comes. But is what these films depict actually justice, or is it vengeance?

In each of these films, the enemy is abstracted and dehumanized, a character unknown to the audience apart from his grievous deeds. Whether Osama bin Laden (Zero), Palestinian Liberation Organization operatives (Munich), or Hitler himself (Inglourious), these films end with the guilty party’s blood spilt. What’s different about Finale (both the movie and the true story it tells) is that it emphasizes human dignity in its justice-seeking.

The Mossad agents could have—and were doubtless tempted to—torture and kill Eichmann the minute they found him. But they didn’t. Unlike the Nazis who so methodically dehumanized and casually executed millions of Jews, the Israelis in Finale recognize that Eichmann, however evil and guilty, is still a human bearing the image of God. And so they keep him alive, feed him, talk with him. They help him use the restroom while blindfolded. Malkin shaves him in one scene. They put him on trial and allow him to give a defense. In the end he is hanged to death, a punishment fitting for Eichmann. But he is executed not as an animal. He’s executed as a man.

Without being explicitly named, the theology of imago Dei comes through powerfully in Finale. Central to the Jewish worldview is this notion from Genesis (e.g. 1:26–28) that every human bears God’s image and thus has inherent dignity—even ones who act and see themselves as animals, as Eichmann apparently does. This is a distinctive of the Judeo-Christian approach to justice, and life itself. Might does not make right. Humans are not animals. As creatures made in our Creator’s image, we have a special dignity.

Humans are not animals. As creatures made in our Creator’s image, we have a special dignity.

So many atrocities in human history, and much of sin generally, happens when we don’t recognize this dignity and don’t see humans as different from animals. Slavery, genocide, racism, sexual abuse, pornography, presidents who call enemies “dogs” and “animals” . . . all of this is rooted in the dehumanizing tendencies of our fallen state. Films like Finale are helpful because they situate justice within an imago Dei, not “might makes right,” frame. They remind us that careful, yet decisive justice against those who attack human dignity is one way we honor the sanctity of life.

But Finale also reminds us that ultimate justice, true “finale” judgment, is not up to us or even possible in this life. We wait for it, we long for it, and we cling to the promises of our justice-loving God.

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