In 1960, the Israeli secret service arrested Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires and transported him to Israel where he was to stand trial the following year for his central role in Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews. The trial gave the world a famous image, that of a slight, nondescript man sitting in a bulletproof glass booth, an enigmatic representative of a horror that remains barely comprehensible. It also gave us two famous phrases: “I was just following orders,” which was the gist of Eichmann’s defense of his actions; and “the banality of evil,” which was writer Hannah Arendt’s summation of Eichmann’s bureaucratic persona.
The Specialist is a two-hour documentary culled from the nearly 500 hours of videotape of the trial originally shot by American director Leo Hurwitz. It has been artfully shaped by the Israeli director Eyal Sivan, edited to give a sense of chronological continuity to Eichmann’s testimony and juiced by some appropriately sinister musical cues, intentional sound distortions (mainly the babble of simultaneous translations) and visual effects to denote the passing of time.
If the film has a point of view, it would seem to be that trials aren’t cut and dried, even when the crimes they’re dealing with are — that they move toward something resembling a truth through a series of repetitions and that the participants are alternately emotionally overwrought, bored, precise and incoherent. Which is something that followers of the O.J. debacle already know.
Videotape gives the proceedings a sense of immediacy, and the main point of interest here is the close observation of the duplicitous Eichmann. Although he’s a long way from being a sympathetic figure, he’s also a disappointing villain. His desperate rationalizations about being too powerless to do anything other than what he was told sound a little too close to the sort of petty weaseling that almost everyone has to indulge in at some point. And his parlor psychology self-analysis, claiming that he had a “split soul,” appalled by what he had to do but too much the trained soldier to do otherwise, is obviously a desperate afterthought.
But then that’s what makes this horror story so disorienting — that the bogeyman turns out not to be a sadistic monster but rather a conniving wimp.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].