FROM THE ARCHIVES: Operation Eichmann
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Samuel Bischoff and David Diamond; directed by R.G. Springsteen; written by Lester Cole (as “Lewis Copley”); cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Roy V. Livingston; art direction by Rudi Feld; music by June Starr; starring Werner Klemperer, Ruta Lee, Donald Buka, Barbara Turner, and John Banner. B&W, 90 min.,1961. A Warner Archive release.
Torn from the headlines of a not particularly distinguished newspaper, this cheapie dramatizes the crimes and capture of Final Solution implementer Adolf Eichmann. In classic exploitation style, it was released a month before Eichmann’s trial began in Jerusalem in April 1961, and thus omits the iconic image of the man in the bulletproof glass booth, which riveted audiences the world over as his trial was telecast live.
As you might expect, much else didn’t make it into the movie, which went into production soon after the Nazi transportation administrator was apprehended in Buenos Aires by Israeli agents on May 11, 1960, and flown to justice nine days later. Based on even a cursory survey of the facts of the Eichmann pursuit, the film grossly simplifies the story into a backlot programmer. There are disadvantages to being first, and subsequent features have covered aspects of the case more compellingly (one, the 1979 TV movie The House on Garibaldi Street, from the book by then-Mossad head Isser Harel, can also be purchased via the Warner Archive). But Operation Eichmannis not without interest, as a sort of evil twin to Stanley Kramer’s fastidious Oscar winner Judgment at Nuremberg, which was released in December 1961. It’s unafraid to get its hands dirty.
The film’s one and only stylized composition is its first, as a spotlighted Eichmann (Werner Klemperer) rails about the coming of a Fourth Reich to his unseen persecutors. It then flashes back to the Third Reich, as Eichmann plans and oversees the mass deportation of Jews to the extermination camps of German-held Eastern Europe via train. Eichmann, a ruthless careerist, earns further praise from the high command by converting the prison showers into gas chambers. The film trumped Kramer’s by using documentary death camp footage before Nuremberg, and adds a lurid reenactment of new arrivals to Auschwitz being stripped and gassed. In this, Operation Eichmannanticipates the “Nazi-ploitation” cycle of the Seventies, from art-house fare like The Night Porter to the grindhouse depths of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.
David (Donald Buka), an Auschwitz survivor who witnesses Eichmann’s murder of his family as the evildoer flees the collapse of Nazism with stolen gems, narrates the film. Now an Israeli special agent, David is part of the team assembled to kill Eichmann when his whereabouts in the Middle East become known. But David’s conscience gnaws at him as the Israelis debate eye-for-an-eye justice. “What should we do, try him six million times times for six million lives?” asks his wife, Sara (played by future screenwriter Barbara Turner, the mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh). David’s childhood encounter with Eichmann is contrived; a subsequent scene, unbelievable, as David phones Eichmann’s hard-drinking mistress, Anna (Ruta Lee), to warn them that the agents are closing in, which allows his lifelong enemy to escape to Argentina. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there are limits.
Operation Eichmann was directed by R. D. Springsteen, whose facility with TV Westerns comes to little here. On a soundstage-constricted budget, Joseph F. Biroc, Robert Aldrich’s veteran cameraman, has to make do with the streets of Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, for Eichmann’s apprehension. Equally skimpy is, as has been noted, the scripting, the pseudonymous work of Hollywood Ten member Lester Cole, his first credit since 1950. I suspect his hopes were higher, as the film strikes a single note of righteous indignation amidst the instances of morbid titillation.
In a dry run for a similar part in Judgment at Nuremberg, Klemperer, a Jewish refugee who gave his all in these roles, provides Operation Eichmann its vitality. As its one full-fledged character, he offers a preening, diabolical performance, laced with paranoia as the mastermind is forced to rely on party backstabbers to ensure his survival as his past catches up with him. That said, the movie, given a fine, no-frills presentation by the Warner Archive, suffers from a severe case of Ted Baxter Syndrome, so named for actor Ted Knight, whose late appearance in Psycho gives audiences familiar with his Mary Tyler Moore Show character fits of giggles. Playing a commandant nervously affiliated with Eichmann is John Banner, the Sergeant Schultz to Klemperer’s Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, and their scenes together are undercut by their future alliance. History is funny that way.—Robert Cashill
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
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Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2