A scene from 'Operation Finale' starring Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann .
(photo credit: VALERIA FLORINI/MGM)
Stories that have real power are told again and again for each generation, and it makes sense that the kidnapping by Israeli agents of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who masterminded the Final Solution, is one of these.
Netflix’s new movie, Operation Finale, which becomes available on October 3, makes this historical event accessible to those who don’t know the story, in a version starring and co-produced by Oscar Isaac, one of the greatest actors working today.
Isaac plays Peter Malkin, one of the key figures in the hunt for Eichmann. Not only has Isaac won acclaim playing Hamlet onstage, he also plays a popular character in the new Star Wars movies, and it doesn’t seem implausible that some of his young fans may tune in to this movie to see him and actually learn about a key piece of modern history in the process.
This fact-based story is a carefully executed retelling of the Israeli operation to catch Eichmann in Buenos Aires and bring him to Israel to stand trial for his part in the Holocaust. Numerous fictional versions of the story have been told before and dozens more books and documentaries have examined Eichmann’s life and trial. The most famous account of the trial, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Journalism: A Report on the Banality of Evil, caused controversy due to her hypothesis that Eichmann was an unprepossessing family man, just a bureaucrat following orders, a theory that many have criticized later for more reasons that I can delve into in a review. However, while Operation Finale is faithful to the details of Eichmann’s life in Argentina – he was a family man staying under the radar – it presents a portrait of him as a self-centered and malevolent master manipulator, who drops his facade of ordinariness when he realizes that there is no way out.
Ben Kingsley gives a low-key but compelling performance as Eichmann, that focuses on his quick wit and self preservation skills. Kingsley’s Eichmann is a snake that seems harmless but that attacks his victims with real venom when they are lulled into complacency.
Peter Malkin isn’t nearly as interesting a character, but with Isaac playing him, he’s certainly attractive. The movie portrays Malkin as a bit of a blunderer, and opens with a botched operation where he traps the wrong Nazi. Malkin is haunted by the death of his sister in Holocaust, and the movie emphasizes his devotion to her in ways that are unsubtle but are probably meant to drive home the personal nature of his motivation. After a Holocaust survivor’s daughter starts dating Eichmann’s son in Argentina (the son claims to be Eichmann’s nephew, and the young woman has never been told that she’s Jewish), Malkin is called in to help with the capture of the infamous Nazi. Lior Raz of Fauda is one of a handful of Israelis in the cast and he plays Mossad director Isser Harel. Ohad Knoller (who was Nati on Srugim) portrays Ephraim Ilani (who later became a well-known photographer), while American actor Nick Kroll plays Rafael Eitan. An actor as handsome as Isaac needs a love interest, and the movie supplies one in the person of Dr. Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent, who played the French-Jewish heroine of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), a physician who comes along to drug Eichmann for the trip home, since the operation must be concealed from the Argentinian authorities. She and Malkin had a romance that ended badly, and he wants to win her back.
Much of the movie takes place in a cramped safe house where the Israelis hole up with Eichmann after they kidnap him, waiting to be allowed to fly him home. If this movie has a villain aside from Eichmann, it’s El Al, which demands a signature from Eichmann before they will send a plane to take him to Israel. The heart of the drama is Malkin’s effort to cajole Eichmann into giving them an authentic signature – in the pre-Google age, there was no way for them to find out what his signature really looked like quickly enough – and the mind games Eichmann plays with the Israeli as he drags out this process.
For those who know the story, the only suspense can be what kind of person Eichmann turns out to be during this struggle and how Malkin handles him, and Kingsley and Isaac do their best to supply as much tension as possible.
Younger viewers who know little about these events – and who resist the temptation to Google it – may find real suspense here. For older or better informed viewers, the draw will be Kingsley’s performance in this retelling of a true story that really is stranger than fiction.
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