Movie Review: Operation Finale

by Steve Lancaster12/8/18
Hannah Arendt describes the Eichmann trial and what she labels, “the banality of evil” in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.  The phrase has slipped into common usage by people who have never read or even heard of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), or On Violence (1970). This year brings an excellent remake of a 1979 made-for-television movie, The House on Garibaldi St.: Operation Finale, staring Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann.

We know the story outline. The end of the war and Nazis of all ranks are scurrying to hideouts with the help of elements of the Catholic Church, mostly to South America and a few to the Middle East. Two of the most important have slipped into anonymity in Argentina and sympatric regimes in Paraguay, and Chile. Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Mengele, fifteen years after the war are still free from justice. Mengele dies without capture or justice, but providence uncovers Eichmann’s hideout.

The Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and Nazi hunters like the Wiesenthal Center are watching for proof of Nazis in Latin hide-a-ways. Evidence suggests that Eichmann is hiding in Argentina. Mossad Agents are sent to Argentina to verify his presence and the operation to capture Eichmann and bring him to justice in Israel is approved by David Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion, “This is the first time we, as a state can bring our murders to justice, do not fail.”

Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann well, although he is much older than Eichmann at the time he was captured and flashbacks to the war are unsettling. Its much easier for the make-up person to make a 40-year-old look 70, than to make 74-year-old Kingsley look 40. It is Kingsley’s portrayal of the captured Eichmann that captures the screen for the majority of the movie.

In Western culture we send our best men and women to fight and die to protect the ideals of freedom. All return different people than they were, changed by the raw exposure to the brutal existence of combat.

We attempt to seek the individual in every person. The imperceptible connection to our commonality of life and death. The most vicious criminal has a mother, father, brothers and sisters. They have good days and bad days, suffer from colds and flu. Take out the trash and make the bed. The most vicious camp guard went home to his wife and children. Hitler had a dog and on his last day married Eva. Stalin had a family as did Mao and Pol Pot.  We want to believe that there is some redemption for all. If not redemption, then a shared humanity. Lest we appear as inhuman as our tormentors.

Not long-ago President Trump referred to the members of MS-13 as monsters. The mainstream media and many democrats played at outrage that he would dare to call a fellow human a monster, but out here in the real world, where monsters roam, few were surprised or offended. Maybe, one of the failures of our current culture is a refusal to recognize the true nature of evil and its minions. In this regard, conservatives and libertarians are just as guilty as liberals and progressives.

Christian tradition holds forth salvation for even the most repulsive if they are truly repentant. Every year Jews spend the High Holy Days atoning and examining their lives and contemplating how they have offended G-d and other people and we seek forgiveness from G-d and those we may sinned against.

The problem is that evil does not do self-examination or believe in our G-d. The philosophical question is how far towards evil must we go to defeat it? We can attempt to hold a higher moral ground against evil, but history tells us that is a losing position. Uncounted millions have been slaughtered trying to prove, “that’s not who we are”. I have never heard a corpse ask how or why it got so cold.

In Western culture we send our best men and women to fight and die to protect the ideals of freedom. All return different people than they were, changed by the raw exposure to the brutal existence of combat. 100 years ago, we called it battle shock, or fatigue. Today, we call it PTSD. In our country and most of the West we defend our freedoms with people who willingly carry the burden for others. It is an increasingly smaller percentage of our population < 1% ever engage in combat.

It is altogether proper that we sent our best to fight evil in all its forms; for only the best of us can carry the burden of what they have seen and had to do. In the famous John Ford movie, The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) has rescued his niece and the family is gathering in the ranch house. We see Edwards, the warrior, looking in the door as it slowly closes, leaving him outside.

Every warrior lives this experience in one form or another. Some deal with it with drugs or alcohol or anti-social behavior. Still others, sometimes years after the events take their own lives. Most, however, find a way to cope and return to the larger culture. But we never forget that evil is just a murmur away.

Eichmann was banal, but that very banality is one of evils strongest assets. Operation Finale is not a great movie. At times it moves slowly, however it is one of Kingsley’s best performances. For that it is a movie you should see. It is currently available for rental on Amazon. • (90 views)

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12 Responses to Movie Review: Operation Finale

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Back in my old house I had numerous books on true crime, including several dealing with the profiling of, and hunting for, serial killers. One of the early profilers (credited with inventing the term “serial killer”) was Robert Ressler. One of his books was titled Whoever Fights Monsters to reflect the maxim that whoever fights monsters must face the abyss. (I believe that was the phrasing, but could find nothing to confirm the exact wording. If not that, it was something comparable.)

    This reflects a reality: There is genuine evil. Those people may have their good points, too, or at least be able to persuade others of them. (Ted Bundy married a woman as she testified at his Florida trial for his Tallahassee murders. Sharyn McCrumb once wrote a story dealing with this interesting syndrome.) But they remain evil, and confronting them often requires getting into their evil minds. (Interestingly, G. K. Chesterton grasped this idea. Father Brown once said that he solved crimes by that means — he would work out the mindset that led to the crime, and this would inevitably tell him who the perp was.)

    The fact that sheer evil can come in banal or innocuous form is what makes it so seductively effective. It worked well for Hitler, and for many of his followers.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Eichmann was banal, but that very banality is one of evils strongest assets.

    Eichmann was the perfect exemplar of the amoral bureaucrat. Bureaucracies, by their nature, tend to get out of control and commit self-aggrandizing actions which may have little to do with the good of the community. In any case, the functionary of modern bureaucracies generally obeys the orders which come down from on high. In this, Eichmann was something of a typical bureaucrat. “I was following orders” is not an acceptable defense if one loses, but if one is on the winning side, it doesn’t seem to matter.

    Stalin was basically a bureaucrat. By gaining control over the various levers of power in the Soviet Union, he was able to run the USSR as something of his own fiefdom. It should be pointed out that he created some of the departments which he controlled as there was basically no government with the fall of the Tsar.

    Hitler said the following about Stalin:

    Stalin is one of the most extraordinary figures in world history. He began as a small clerk, and he has never stopped being a clerk. Stalin owes nothing to rhetoric. He governs from his office, thanks to a bureaucracy that obeys his every nod and gesture.

    Massive bureaucracies only developed in modern times and have continued to grow since the end of WWII. Technology has increased their undemocratic powers unbelievably over the last couple of decades. Can anyone imagine what damage a Stalin could do with today’s bureaucracies? Many people push for term limits of publically elected officials, but I believe putting limits on the service of unelected bureaucrats would be more effective at decreasing the power of the administrative state.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      All of the world’s empires suffered from the hubris of bureaucratic excess. Is it because the weight of the bureaucracy destroys the host, or some other kind of heart disease?

      Every part of our daily lives is monitored, controlled and regulated by a faceless government that daily grows more distant. Robert E. Lee after the war was asked why he did not remain with the union army. His response is classic, “My home is in Virginia, the government of my home is in Virginia. Not in some office in Washington DC.”

      The wisdom of Madison, Adams and Jefferson was creating a government that stayed small for as long as it did. We can never return to their idea of small government but we must try to keep it as small as possible.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Bureaucracies tend to grow (a tendency mocked in Mark Clifton’s When They Come From Space). So they get ever larger, more expensive, and more powerful. And their own size makes it even easier to grow.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    In Western culture we send our best men and women to fight and die to protect the ideals of freedom. All return different people than they were, changed by the raw exposure to the brutal existence of combat.

    That’s one of the best things you’ve ever written, Steve (and the following paragraph as well regarding The Searchers). I get a lot of pleasure from seeing people, through practice and effort, improve their skills.

    The lesson I draw from this is that we citizens can, and should, join the warrior class. If we’re not quite trained for bullets we can be trained for barbs and rhetorical barricades. Far too many people give in to the bullies at the drop of a hat. Let’s remember our warriors who live with scars far worse than a bad report from HR.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      One could also be trained for non-combatant roles. That’s what most military personnel do, though they usually have some combat training. I’m not sure about my father, who was an engineer. In Vietnam, he was mainly involved in building a supply facility that was called Port Lane after his death in combat during a ride in a helicopter. (I assume the new management eventually changed the name.)

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Brad, you and I are far too old to hump an 80-100 lb pack 20 miles and fight a battle at the end. We have to leave that up to younger bodies. The only thing we can do is drive a desk. What is important is to understand, that combat only has one goal. Kill people and break things until the other guy gives up. Achieving that result requires people who think and it marks those who do it for life. Anyone who claims different is either a fool, or has never been in combat.

      Outside of academia, the highest per capita percentage of advanced degrees is in the military. From the soft sciences to the very hard sciences and everything in between. Chefs to real rocket engineers our ever capable military has it all, even printers.

      One of the most important elements in CIA training deals with the reality of an overseas posting. With or without official cover it is drilled into newbies that they will at some point be called on to break the law of a foreign country, friend or foe. An officer on the NOC list breaks the law just by being there. How that officer acts and reacts is an important part of his training. Many do not have the moral foundation to be good intelligence officers, despite other skills if they don’t measure up, they never leave CONUS.

      There is a wall near the main entrance at Langley. On this wall are stars for officers who have died in the line of duty. National security requires that their names be withheld. Family and friends are given a plausible cover story almost never the truth about how or where they died and there is almost never a body to bury. Newbies are taken to this wall their first week, any who are not moved or express a desire to be among the fallen are cut from the program. CIA does not want wannabe heroes.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        That’s interesting background, Steve. As I see it, just to be a normal American puts one somewhat in the position of being on the NOC list. “Normalcy” definitelys mean subversive as things stand now.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        An old boss of mine was in Army Intelligence during WWII. He mentioned that one of the tests they put recruits through was to ask a recruit to do some basically insane act and see how he reacted. If the recruit did it, he was transferred out of Intelligence. If he didn’t do it, he was kept in it.

        My boss had a funny story regarding this.

        One must realize that the Army Intelligence people knew all about their recruits and used this information accordingly. In this case, my boss was afraid of horses.

        One day an officer took him to a riding area and there were two horses saddled up. The officer ordered my boss to get on the one horse and hold the reins of the other and race around the track. While racing, my boss was to jump from one horse to the other and bring the horses back to the officer.

        As per orders, my boss got on the horse and started racing around the track. Now my boss was no horseman and just racing around the track on horseback was difficult and scary enough. But the idea of jumping from one horse to the other in full gallop was terrifying.

        He told me that he sort of stuck his leg out a couple of times, in the general direction of the other horse, but there was simply no way that he would/could jump from one horse to the other.

        In the end, he gave up and rode back to the officer in a downcast mood. He was covered with sweat and trembling from fear. The officer simple told him that he had passed the test and was dismissed.

        Sometime later, my old boss ran into the officer in an informal setting and asked the officer what the horses had been all about. The officer told him that basically Army Intelligence would determine what a person feared most and put that person in a dangerous and very risky position involving that fear and order the person to do something which as crazy. The officer told my boss that if you didn’t do what was ordered so you passed.

        My boss asked what happened to those who were successful at fulfilling the crazy order. The officer then told him a story.

        It seems one recruit was taken up in a small plane and told to hang out on a rope ladder. The plane would fly by a big pile of hay and the recruit was ordered to jump into the hay stack. The recruit jumped and hit the hay. No harm done. To complete the story the officer smiled to my boss and said, “Wonderful infantry material.” And off to the infantry the recruit was sent.

        I don’t know the veracity of the story, but that is pretty much the way I remember hearing it. In any case, the point was that Army Intelligence was not looking for heroes or crazy risk takers. They wanted people who thought.

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