Adolf Eichmann was the biggest Nazi fish that got away after WWII. He infamously was in charge of transporting Jews to the concentration camps. Unfortunately, his role was not well known until the Nuremberg Trials made him a most wanted man. He managed to escape Europe and ended up in Argentina. Eventually discovered, he was brought to Israel for a famous televised trial. “Operation Finale” tells the story of the mission to abduct him and bring him to justice. It is partly based on the nonfiction book Eichmann in My Hands by Peter Malkin. Malkin is the main character in the movie, along with Eichmann. The movie is directed by Chris Weitz whose father was a German Jew who escaped Germany in 1933. He spent some years in Great Britain and then came to the U.S. where he served in the OSS during WWII. He later wrote books including biographies of some Nazi leaders like Joachim von Ribbentrop. Chris would proofread his father’s books. He brought thirty-year Mossad veteran Avner Avraham in as technical adviser. The movie was filmed in Argentina. The movie theater where Sylvia first meets Klaus Eichmann was the actual theater where the real figures met. In the movie, the film that is playing is “Imitation of Life” starring Weitz’ mother Susan Kohner.
The movie opens with the claim that with the suicides of Hitler, Goering, and Himmler, Eichmann was “the remaining mastermind of the Holocaust”. Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) is introduced as a Nazi hunter in Austria in 1954. Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) is living in Argentina under the name Peter Klement and is working at a Mercedes-Benz plant. He lives outside Buenos Aires in an isolated farm house with his wife, young son, and adopted son Klaus (Joe Alwyn). The Israelis have no inkling of his whereabouts until Klaus goes on a date with a girl named Sylvia. On visiting Sylvia’s father (Peter Strauss), Klaus reveals the identity of his father. Lotar Hermann is a concentration camp survivor and he contacts the authorities and the information is passed on to Mossad in Israel. Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) is chosen to head up the project. He chooses Malkin to head the team of abductors. Malkin’s ex-girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) will go along to sedate Eichmann. The plan is to positively identify Eichmann, kidnap him, bring him to a safe house, and then fly him to Israel on an El Al airliner. It won’t be a spoiler to tell you that not everything goes according to plan.
“Operation Finale” is a well-crafted history lesson. It combines the Holocaust and espionage subgenres. The narrative is fairly straight forward and includes the usual cloak and dagger aspects of a spy movie. The Holocaust references come through flashbacks. Malkin’s character development involves flashbacks (really more nightmares) about the fate of his sister and her three children who died in the Holocaust. He imagines various ways they may have died, including being placed in a poison gas van. These scenes are effective in developing Malkin’s motivation. How will he justify keeping this monster alive long enough to trial? Isaac is excellent as Malkin. He does not overplay the revenge motive. Malkin is a professional and not even the team member who most questions the humane treatment of Eichmann. The most indelible scenes are when Malkin and Eichmann talk as Malkin tries to convince the man responsible for the death of his sister to sign a document agreeing to go to Israel for trial. These scenes are reminiscent of “Downfall” as they tend to humanize Eichman as that movie humanized Hitler. To its credit, whenever “Operation Finale” has you thinking maybe he was “just following orders”, it follows with a flashback that proves he was more than just a clerk. Kingsley is empathetic and menacing as Eichmann. He carried a picture of Elie Wiesel to remind him what was at stake. The rest of the cast is very good. Melanie Laurent is thrown in as Malkin’s love interest, but is not given much to do other than provide a female for the team. It’s fun to watch Nick Kroll in a dramatic role and he is fine.
The movie does not really break new ground. The plot is standard for this type of movie. There is suspense, but it is dampened by the fact that you know they will succeed and you suspect it has been enhanced through artistic license (see below). It has some clichés like redemption for the roguish Malkin. There is some artificial dysfunction between Malkin and the orthodox interrogator and with the “let’s just kill him” agent. The ex-girlfriend dynamic is mercifully rote.
The reason to watch this movie is for the history lesson which is done entertainingly. Although it takes some artistic license for entertainment purposes, the movie is strong in historical accuracy. It is not a docudrama. The acting sets it apart from that type of movie. Everyone knows about the Holocaust and the movie simply reminds us of the horror of it, but it is mainly focused on one of the great detective stories of the 20th Century. The trial of Eichmann (which is just post-scripted in the movie) brought the Nuremberg Trials to a worldwide television audience. By the way, Netflix streaming has a good movie on the trial called “The Eichmann Show”. What “Operation Finale” does is bring Eichmann’s story to a 21st Century audience.
GRADE = B
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie does not make clear how Eichmann ended up in Argentina, although it is clear that it was Argentina because of its pro-Nazi government. In reality, Eichmann was captured by U.S. forces at the end of WWII and put in a prison camp but he had a false identity that allowed him to blend in as a generic prisoner. When he discovered that he was about to be discovered, he escaped from a work detail and assumed a new identity. He bounced around Europe until he was able to get documents through Nazi sympathizers to get to Argentina. He arrived in 1950 as Peter Klement. His wife and sons came in 1952. The movie accurately depicts his family. After a series of low-paying jobs he did get a job at Mercedes-Benz. In 1960, they moved to the house on Garibaldi street and he did ride a bus to work.
Eichman was not really infamous until Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, ratted him out at the Nuremberg Trials. Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal learned from a letter that he had been seen in Buenos Aires, but the trail was cold until in 1956. Lotar Hermann (who had escaped Dachau after being severely beaten and losing sight in one eye) determined that Peter Klement was Eichmann through talking to his daughter Sylvia’s boyfriend Klaus. Sylvia did go to Eichmann’s house to confirm this. Hermann contacted the prosecutor general of Hesse, Germany with the information and Fritz Bauer passed the information to Mossad in 1957. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion personally ordered the abduction project. The team was headed by Rafi Eitan, although he was skeptical at first, unlike in the movie. The team arrived in 1960 and put Eichmann under surveillance similar to the film. The capture was very close to the cinematic reenactment with the not-surprising exception that the second bus was actually a half hour later. They spent nine days at the safe house and the big stumbling block was getting Eichmann to sign the agreement to allow himself to be taken to Israel for trial. Malkin did talk him into it after several one-on-one conversations. He later admitted that the conversations caused him to realize Eichmann was a human being, not a monster. I doubt there was the dysfunction with the main interrogator Zvi Aharoni or a moment when one of the team almost killed Eichmann. One of the team members was a doctor who sedated Eichmann, but he was male. The Hanna character is fictional, but Malkin is fairly represented. He did lose a sister and her children in the war. They died at Auschwitz. Malkin was one of Mossad’s greatest agents. He was also a good artist, as shown.
Not surprisingly, the movie goes off the historical rails in its attempt at a rousing finish. They did disguise Eichmann as an airline crew member and he was sedated to look drunk, but the egress was actually suspense-free. They did not leave the safe house in the nick of time and there were no problems getting on the plane and taking off. Klaus and the Argentinian Nazis were not in hot pursuit, but they did arrive at the air port a half hour too late. Malkin was not involved in the take-off, he stayed at the safe house to clean things up. He took a train to Chile and eventually flew to Israel.