“There were over 40,000 camps and ghettos during the Holocaust. 49% of Millennials cannot name a single one.” Results from a 2018 survey from the Claims Conference
Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bachenwald, Dachau. Names of extermination and concentration camps where millions of Jews were put to death. Yet those names, which for generations of Americans defined evil, are fading from memory. On the positive side, the Claims Conference survey found that eight out of ten respondents (80%) believe it is important to keep teaching students about the Holocaust so it does not happen again. Against that backdrop, anything that can teach us about the Holocaust can help. Operation Finale, directed by Chris Weitz, does just that.
Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley
Written by Matthew Orton, Operation Finale dramatizes real life events that happened 15 years after World War II ended. On 1960, a group of Mossad agents conducted a covert operation in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to bring Adolf Eichmann back to Israel to stand trial. The mission was led by Peter Malkin, who went from being a Mossad agent to chief of operations, and became a legend in intelligence. He died in 2005. The film provides meaty roles for the iconic Ben Kingsley as Eichmann, and for Oscar Isaac, as the determined but haunted Malkin.
In the aftermath of the war, Nazis who fled to Argentina found a welcoming environment, none more so that Eichmann, who earned the title of “Architect of the Holocaust,” transporting Jews to the camps and even presiding over some of the killings. In Argentina, Eichmann, using the alias Ricardo Clement, settled into a routine, if somewhat boring, life of working at a Mercedes Benz plant, while restoring a house with his wife, Vera (Greta Scacchi), and their two sons, the older Klaus (Joe Alwyn), and a toddler. But it’s in a club where former Nazis gather that Eichmann is in his element, pontificating to a receptive audience about how he served his country during the war.
Haley Lu Richardson and Joe Alwyn
Klaus, who proudly uses the surname Eichmann, has embraced his father’s beliefs and, we assume, his past deeds. When Klaus’ new girlfriend, Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson), invites him to her home, he delivers a chilling diatribe towards Jews. Sylvia is Jewish, but to protect her was raised as a Catholic by her blind father, Lothar (Peter Strauss). Although Lothar can’t see the young man, he certainly recognizes his name and contacts officials in Israel that Eichmann is living in Argentina.
Not everyone at Mossad is eager to take on this assignment based on one tip from a blind man. However, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale) endorses the idea of capturing Eichmann, the mission is on, and everyone involved becomes eager to place one of the Nazi executioners on trial.
At first, Malkin is not chosen for the team, his record tarnished after he led a mission in Austria that ended with the death of the wrong man. The vision of the man’s son watching his father die continues to haunt Malkin. But the nightmare he can’t escape is one where he imagines the Nazis executing his sister, Fruma (Rita Pauls) and her children. Still, he’s one of the best Mossad agents and perhaps the only one who can convince his former lover, Hanna (Mélanie Laurent), to sign on. A physician, Hanna’s expertise would be needed to sedate Eichmann for transport, but since her last outing caused the death of a prisoner, she’s reluctant to get involved.
She does join, along with a skilled handful of agents, including the team leader Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll, who, during the course of the film, gets to deliver several one-liners that break up the mounting tension). Nabbing Eichmann is the easy part; getting him out of the country the main challenge.
Once Eichmann is apprehended and stashed in a safe house, the hurdle becomes having the former Nazi sign a statement saying he’s returning to Israel willingly, a bizarre requirement from El Al before the airline will agree to the transport. It falls to Malkin to convince Eichmann, providing the two actors with several one-on-one scenes whether they get to display their acting chops. In this cat and mouse game, it’s hard to determine who has the upper hand. Eichmann is the prisoner, but the former SS officer has not lost his ability to charm and manipulate. Kingsley plays both sides of Eichmann’s persona brilliantly. While Isaac has had high profile roles recently (most notably in the Star Wars series), here he has the chance to dig deeper without having to rely on special effects. It’s a powerful performance.
The film doesn’t pull punches, showing scenes of the carnage during the Holocaust. But perhaps the most frightening scene is the final one that will remind many (should remind many) of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Back to that Claims Conference survey: “It’s important to teach about the Holocaust so it doesn’t happen again.”
Photo Credit: Valeria Florini / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Top: Mélanie Laurent and Oscar Isaac