Capturing Eichmann in ‘Operation Finale’

August 30, 2018
Photo Credit: Valeria Florini/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. 

Although many of his Nazi cohorts were brought to trial in Nuremberg for their war crimes, Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” remained a fugitive for 15 years until Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet agents captured him and brought him to justice in Israel. The story of that secret mission comes to the screen in “Operation Finale,” starring Ben Kingsley as Eichmann.

For director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”), the subject appealed on several levels. “It’s a great yarn, an amazing story. A lot of the things that seem most like a Hollywood thriller are actually true,” he said, citing a series of coincidences that revealed Eichmann’s whereabouts in Argentina and led to his capture on May 23, 1960.

Weitz also liked the fact that “this wasn’t an assassination mission, like the Mossad is famous for. The aim was to bring Eichmann to justice and put him on trial. That posed a fascinating conundrum for these agents,” he said. “They all had some connection to the Holocaust and had to deal with this man in close proximity and treat him like a human being in spite of everything. The forbearance that they showed under the circumstances was amazing.”

The story also resonated personally for Weitz. “My Aunt Hannah on my mother’s father’s side is a Holocaust survivor. My dad is ex-OSS (U.S. Office of Strategic Services), and when he was in counterintelligence he interrogated SS and Wehrmacht men, and struggled with his anger at what had been done to him and his family and his sense of belonging in the world,” Weitz said. “Later, he wrote biographies of prominent Nazi Party officials, and I was his copy editor and research assistant. So this was all second nature to me.”

First-time screenwriter Matthew Orton based his script on accounts and memoirs by the participating agents, “but they often contradicted each other, which gives you a choice to make in terms of what’s the truth and what is more dramatic,” Weitz said. While the timeline of some events was compressed or altered slightly for dramatic effect, “We tried to stay true to the spirit of the mission while [working with] the compression of time that a two-hour movie imposes on you,” he added.

Most of the characters are real, but the female agent on the team, a doctor tasked with administering knockout drugs to Eichmann, was actually male. Melanie Laurent plays the role, joining an international cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Nick Kroll and Israeli actor Lior Raz (“Fauda”) as Mossad Director Isser Harel. Former Mossad agent Avner Avraham, curator of the Operation Finale traveling exhibition, served as the expert adviser in preproduction and on the set in Argentina.

Kroll, who portrays mission leader Rafi Eitan, saw the exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York last fall but he was already familiar with the story. His father is in the corporate security business and knew Operation Finale team member Avram Shalom.

Kroll is best known as a comic actor (“Kroll Show,” “The League,” “Oh, Hello”), a stand-up comedian and creator of the animated Netflix show “Big Mouth.” He performs monthly at the Largo in Los Angeles and will voice Uncle Fester in an upcoming animated “Addams Family” movie. But having appeared in the 2016 drama “Loving,” he was excited to play another dramatic role.

He was drawn to “Operation Finale” because “it’s an important story about how Jews, and Israelis specifically, were trying to deal with post-Holocaust life. It’s about the choice one makes between vengeance and justice,” he said. “It’s an interesting question to ask, and one that Jews in the post-Holocaust world struggled with answering.”

Kroll grew up in Westchester, N.Y., where he attended Solomon Schechter Day School, and his mother was involved in Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Board of Family Health Services and the United Jewish Appeal. He learned by example that Judaism “is a means to serve the community. Tikkun olam for me has been a much more present part of my Jewish identity than the directly religious affiliation,” he said. He has been to Israel several times, including a trip sponsored by American Jewish World Service.

Weitz’s maternal grandmother was Mexican-Catholic and his maternal grandfather was Czech-Jewish talent agent Paul Kohner, who joined prominent Hollywood Jews in securing immigration visas for Jews in the European entertainment industry at the beginning of World War II. While he’s not religious, “I do feel a strong connection [to Judaism] that’s been strengthened by making this movie,” Weitz said. “I realized that I am ‘passing’ and a change in the political climate might mean that I am called out for being ‘other.’ I’m not quite white where some people are concerned.”

He became the target of anti-Semitism on Twitter after he compared the Empire in “Star Wars” with the Nazis. “I was receiving anti-Semitic cartoons straight out of ‘Der Sturmer,’” he said. “It’s not even one iota the same, but it gave me a slight feeling of what it’s like to be Black in America.”

Although he’s writing and will produce a combination live action/computer generated version of “Pinocchio” for Disney, Weitz has become more interested in making films “that speak to the things I care about,” like “Operation Finale” and his previous release “A Better Life,” about an undocumented immigrant and his son in America.

He noted the timeliness of a film about Eichmann in an era when prejudice and persecution are on the rise. “People end up doing quite horrible things when the government succumbs to race hatred,” he said. “It becomes far too easy to think that we’re not capable of these things ourselves.”

He hopes moviegoers come away thinking about the moral dilemma the agents faced and what they’d do in the same situation, and how they would behave in the “very hateful political environment” depicted in the film.

Kroll pointed out “how complicated [things are] and how many shades of gray there are in these covert operations. Things are rarely black and white,” he said. “There’s a real nuance in what we were trying to do, and I hope people watch it and feel that.”

“Operation Finale” opened in theaters Aug. 29.

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