"People say 'it cannot be true. You invent this. Such things are not possible.' I say, 'if I could make up such things, I would be in Hollywood, not running a cheap hotel in Jerusalem." Rebecca Front as Mrs. Landau, a Holocaust survivor, in The Eichmann Show.
The Eichmann Show, the BBC’s dramatisation of the filming and broadcast of the trial of senior Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, in Israel in 1961, is, perhaps, about too much.
In its chilling use of archival footage from both the trial and of the genocide itself, the film tries to be a lesson in Holocaust history. In showing the struggle of Leo Hurwitz (Anthony LaPaglia), the blacklisted filmmaker who directed the trial broadcast, to come to terms with Eichmann as a human, the film attempts an essay on the nature of evil and the human potential for barbarism.
By driving the narrative through the struggles of Hurwitz, producer Milton Fruchtman (Martin Freeman), and their team to film and broadcast the trial in the face of bureaucratic opposition from the Israeli judiciary, death threats and assassination attempts from Nazi sympathisers, and competition for audience from more glamorous world events such as Gagarin’s space flight and the Bay of Pigs invasion, the film tries to be a straightforward drama about decent people striving for a noble goal against the odds.
Perhaps most centrally, the film is a comment on how we understand history, that asks whether, in an age of mass media production and consumption, events of enormous magnitude must be “spectacularised” before we can assimilate them.
This central focus is suggested by the film's title: can we only understand the Holocaust through the lens (pun intended, obviously) of TV drama, as a "show", because it is so grotesque as to defy direct comprehension? When the production crew misses the drama of a witness collapsing in the stand because Hurwitz wants to keep the cameras on Eichmann, Hurwitz insists, referring to the witness, “that's a real broken human life in there, not a fucking TV show.” “And!”, Fruchtman shouts back, “And a fucking TV show!” There is plenty more in the film besides, including nods towards an exploration of the role of the Holocaust in Israeli national identity.
With so many themes, arguments, and concepts involved, some of the film’s most powerful dramatic moments are the simplest. In a particularly poignant scene, Hurwitz’s son listens to the testimony of a former child inmate of Auschwitz, and asks: “Is this all true?” “Yes,” his father replies, simply. “He was the same age as you.” That, ultimately, is where we must start: this happened. We owe it to ourselves to understand how and why.
That is only a starting point, of course; Hurwitz idealistically believes that, when faced with the documentary truth of his crimes, Eichmann would "not be able to subvert his subconscious", and would show some sign of guilt or remorse. Hurwitz's faith is not quite rewarded, although the film crew share a moment of triumph when Judge Hausner finally gets Eichmann to admit his initiating role (rather than having been simply following orders) in the November 1944 death march of tens of thousands of Jews from Hungary to Austria.
Was Eichmann a "monster"? Or was he merely a functionary cog in a bureaucratic killing machine? Both, perhaps, and neither.
Metaphysical or religious concepts of a monstrosity beyond socio-historical location or understanding cannot “explain” Eichmann or the Holocaust. But there was more that compelled him, and other Nazis, than "banal" stupidity or blind adherence to someone else's ideas. The architects of the Holocaust were neither functionary ciphers for faceless historical forces, nor deranged psychopaths acting outside of them. Humans can act within and against our historical conditions, sometimes reaching monstrous conclusions, sometimes reaching liberating ones, and we are capable of acting on either.
Having taken on such subject matter, to focus too much on any one of these aspects may well have seemed narrow. As it is, though, and while not quite decisively failing to be any of the things it sets out to be, the film’s scope is too wide. Maybe that is proper; a 90-minute film on this subject must pose more questions than it can possibly answer.
If we are to answer those questions, there is still a value (lenses, mass media, the spectacle, and the "banality", or otherwise, of "evil" notwithstanding) in beginning from that simple restatement: this happened.