Outside of Osama Bin Laden, this was maybe the greatest manhunt in history. The hunt for, and abduction of, Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
There have been a number of books written about the hunt and capture of Eichmann, including one by Peter Malkin, one of the Mossad agents involved in the operation. Neal Bascomb’s book The Nazi Hunters is an excellent read about Eichmann. Operation Finale draws from Malkins’ Eichmann in My Hands and other sources. Director Chris Weitz said the major fictional change was compressing time for dramatic flow.
The film is quite well done, but if you have researched the actual story, you know there are some dramatic leaps and the characters are “dressed-up” a bit to look less grim. Ben Kingsley portrays Eichmann, icy, unrepentant and challenging members of Mossad. Kingsley has the ability to draw empathy to very flawed characters. The other cast, including Oscar Issac (Star Wars, Inside Llewen Davis) is quite good. Peter Strauss plays a small role as Lomar Hermann.
Adolf Eichmann held a lot of power, he commanded a specialized SS unit, and held the lives of millions in his hands. He lived royally in a villa, had mistresses and drank excessively, and collected stolen artwork. He did the dirty work for the Reich, although he always claimed he was just carrying out the orders. Systematically, Eichmann’s unit worked their way across Europe rounding up Jews and those who were not immediately murdered, were transported to the various death camps. Cagey, Eichmann would say that he was moving the prisoners for their own protection, but murdering those too weak for the long trip, and stuffing humans beings into small cattle cars to their eventual deaths.
Although Eichmann would say that he had nothing against Jews, he wrote that, “They were stealing the breath from us.” And then he would sign an order for the deportation of several thousand Jews. Nothing personal, because he did not consider Jews to be human. Eichmann adopted the defense that as a soldier, he just followed orders, in an attempt to humanize himself to his captors.
Eichmann organized the logistics of the Final Solution. He developed a four-step process to his work. 1) Isolate the Jews by not allowing them work or communication. 2) Remove their property and wealth. 3) Move them to a ghetto. 4) Transport to the camps. This process was used all over Europe, and by the war’s end, Eichmann would estimate that his unit had killed five million enemies of the Reich.
Eichmann’s efficiency gained him a promotion to overseeing the death camps including Auschwitz and their efficient gas chambers and other murder devices. Even after he was ordered to halt deportations as the war waned, he continued on his own, ensuring the death of a reported 50,000 Hungarians.
After WWII, finding Nazis and sympathizers was a large multi-national effort. The Nazis murdered 10 million people including six million Jews, so finding those culpable was of great importance, especially to Israel. Eichmann was the prize, the most valuable Nazi of the Final Solution.
As the war ended, Eichmann was put in an American work camp, but released before his real identity was known. For the next five years, he lived off the radar in Germany, until when he was able to get a Catholic priest to arrange fake identity papers, and immigration to Argentina, where the government was sympathetic to Nazis. Eichmann was now Ricardo Klement.
For those tracking war criminals, getting a photo of Eichmann proved difficult – He did not like his picture taken. Searches of his family home and his parents’ turned up nothing. It was a Jewish officer who went undercover and charmed one of Eichmann’s mistresses that struck gold. This grainy photo would be the only one available and was circulated around the world.
It would be years before their next lead on Eichmann was developed, and that was that Eichmann was living in Argentina among other Nazis. This information was given to the Israelis who declined to investigate, citing the lack of resources to chase every rumor.
The next break came when Sylvia Hermann introduced Nick Eichmann to her parents in Buenos Aires. Her father, Lomar Hermann became suspicious as young Eichmann talked about the glory of the Reich and the Final Solution. Hermann hid his Jewish background because he had been imprisoned at Dachau in the mid 1930s before he was able to flee Germany to Argentina. Sometime later, Hermann read the name Eichmann in a news article about Nazis still being at-large.
Hermann wrote to the German prosecutor mentioned in a news story and said that Eichmann was living in the Buenos Aires area. The prosecutor was interested, but the Israelis needed more information to determine whether it was indeed Adolf Eichmann.
Sylvia, who by that time was no longer seeing the younger Eichmann, volunteered to go to his home to see if the elder Eichmann was there and possibly verify that he was the man in the photo sent to them. She made up a story about why she made the trip to see Nick. Eichmann was there and he appeared to fit the description, so this information was sent to the prosecutor in Germany. Interestingly, Eichmann said he was Nick’s uncle, but Nick called him dad in front of Sylvia. Lomar and Sylvia Hermann deserve a lot of the credit for the capture of Eichmann.
Immediately after Eichmann was seized, things started to go wrong. His family immediately knew he had been abducted and notified the Argentinian authorities, those sympathetic to Nazis, and the network of former Nazis living in Buenos Aires. The search was on, not for Eichmann, but for the Israelis. They had a sketch of one of the Israelis, and found the getaway cars. The city was searched by Eichmann sympathizers carrying guns and riding motorcycles.
The plane to take them back to Israel was delayed 10 days, so they had to sit on Eichmann as the search was on to find them. In the meantime, Eichmann had to be convinced to sign the agreement – and he knew this gave him power. It was Malkin who convinced Eichmann to sign the agreement, extending some kindness to Eichmann with wine, music, cigarettes and telling him that his day in court would allow him to tell his story. Malkin would be criticized by fellow Mossad members for his kindness, even though it got the result they sought.
The operation was quite elaborate on planning and execution. Rumors about Eichmann had been circulated since the war. Eichmann had gone to great lengths to blend in and be invisible. His bunker-type home was isolated, had no electricity and garnered no attention. He was always on guard and suspicious of strangers. The tip from the Hermanns took several years to verify. Mossad had to be convinced to spend the resources on an unconfirmed sighting. At the time, The Middle East was heating up with tension and Mossad had many threats to handle. Agents were sent to Buenos Aires to photograph and verify the identity of Ricardo Klement.
To get Eichmann out Argentina, they had to disguise him as part of an Israeli airline crew, dressing him as a member of the crew and sedating him to get past airport authorities. Passport and other documents were faked to pass Argentinian inspection. The film presents the escape as just in time, and only moments ahead of Eichmann’s son and authorities looking to stop the Israelis. That was not quite the case, although the city was being searched and the police had set up checkpoints. When Nick Eichmann learned an Israeli plane had departed, word went out to the Brazilian airport to hold the plane. The Israelis had filed a false flight plan just in case. Instead of refueling in Brazil, they intended to fly directly to Dakar in West Africa, pushing the fuel capabilities of the aircraft. From there, they indicated a flight to Rome, and then adjusted that to Athens, but in reality they planned to fly directly to Tel Aviv.
Could Eichmann have simply been murdered by Mossad? Yes, that was an option, but there was value in putting him on trial for the world to see. The Eichmann trial was the first time that war crimes were presented, and told by survivors, to convey the horror and grandeur of these atrocities.
Films like Operation Finale and Munich are not crowd-pleasers. While they are very effective thrillers, they are films that burn a hole through your soul. Operation Finale did not make money and the reviews were mixed. It is difficult to tell a story accurately and powerfully, knowing it will have trouble finding an audience. Adolf Eichmann was a monster, he made killing, machine-like and coldly efficient. Although he was on the wanted list, only circumstance brought him to the attention of the right people, and even then it took several years and a certain amount of luck to pull off this operation.
While the film is tense with suspense, and puts the primary focus on the part of the story after they seize and detain him, the upfront story of the search for Eichmann over almost fifteen years, should not be overlooked. Even the several years it took to verify Eichmann’s identity and gain authorization for the mission is a significant part of the story, as was the very detailed planning of the abduction. The film does not spend much time on these aspects. Think about it, a group of foreigners arrive in a hostile country, abduct a man who by nature is suspicious, must keep him and their operation secret for an extended period of time while the city is searched, and have to get him on a plane, under the eyes of authorities and fly undetected half-way around the world. And this is a true story.