This review contains spoilers
I really quite miss those minor key biopics that used to appear on BBC4. You remember the ones, Feature-length sketches of the highs and, more frequently, the lows of the lives of a procession of dead mid to late twentieth century figures. Michael Sheen as Kenneth Williams, Ruth Jones as Hattie Jacques, Andrea Riseborough as Margaret Thatcher. Formally speaking they were concluded, for budgetary reasons, in 2013 with Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West dressing up as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Nevertheless, it was not the last we’d see of the style and format. An Adventure In Space And Time, created for the Doctor Who half-centennial, could be considered a natural descendant of the earlier specials with its pattern of familiar faces playing other familiar faces, the cold, grey early 1960s office interiors, the indoor smoking, the cardigans and thick-rimmed spectacles.
The same could perhaps be said for The Eichmann Show, which also forms part of an anniversary package, in this case the BBC’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The same visual sensibilities were at play, as were the foregrounding of background figures and the same sense of a recent history starting to feel a little more ancient.
The topic, however, could not be more different. Adolf Eichmann, a leading SS officer and one of the architects of the Holocaust, went underground after the Nazi defeat, ultimately fleeing to Argentina where, in 1960, he was finally captured by Mossad and transported to Israel to face trial. Intended as a process of documentation as much as a judicial hearing, Eichmann’s trial was broadcast on television around the world. The men tasked with doing this, producer Milton Fructman and director Leo Hurwitz, were the true focus of the drama, offering a peculiar, but effective lens through which to view the proceedings.
The trial was significant in television terms, as well as in judicial and political ones. Dubbed ‘the Trial of the Century’, before that phrase had been hammered into flat cliche, it was one of those moments, among them the coronation of Elizabeth II and the Apollo XI moon landings, that helped to define television as a medium of communal experience and of documentary importance. It was appropriate then, that the first half hour of the Eichmann Show focused on the efforts to handle an international broadcast of such significance. Fructman and Hurwitz were not prosecutors but television men, and their work, presented as a logistical challenge with problems that are firmly televisual in nature.
The task of making the cameras unobtrusive enough to permit the passage of the trial, but present enough to document it effectively was handled swiftly and effectively. The montage established Hurwitz as not merely a pragmatic problem solver but a pioneer of the form whose contributions, it has to be said, would go on to permit such documentary highlights as Big Brother. Other challenges presented themselves as the trial gets under way. The question of viewing figures and of the competition from rivals appeared when world events of similar size hove into view. The Bay of Pigs Invasion is one thing, but the first man in space? Now there’s a quandary. What could better hold the attention of the world, the events of the past or a clue to the future?
Such philosophical challenges are at once simpler and more complex. The mission of televising the trial passes without doubt. These men are convinced of the necessity of their work, even in the face of violence, but the realities of it prove more difficult, especially once the witness testimonies begin and the drama moves into its second phase.
Here, the interweaving of archive footage took bold effect. It had to. The testimonies are difficult, terrifying and almost beyond comprehension. Recreating them would seem too jarring and they were smartly left as they were presented at the time, leaving the witnesses to speak and letting the audience listen. The tinny, stilted instant translation offered us the words as they were heard then, calm and cleansed of emotion. It results in a mild distancing effect, one that may actually be necessary. It helps to keep some of these subjects at arm’s length, lest they overwhelm, but the presentation means that we cannot fully turn away. The distance is even more pronounced half a century on, where we don’t merely need a translator but onscreen captions, newsreel footage and an entire framing drama to even begin to make sense of it. This necessary context-building is the biggest challenge to the audience, and to Fructman and Hurwitz. Did their work preserve this story for the ages? Yes, after a fashion.
A cold distance is also evident in Eichmann, who is both central to the drama and peripheral to it; a strange emptiness at its core. He remained curiously impassive during the trial, even through some of the most difficult passages of witness testimony and, in his bureaucratic ordinariness, inspired the political theorist Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. ‘I consider oathbreaking to be the worst crime’, he says, offering his particular variation on the ‘just following orders’ defence. He is able to distance himself to his own satisfaction, saying ‘I was not involved in the extermination’, but did he really believe that? The most monstrous thing about Eichmann was his apparent lack of monstrousness, a dull pen-pusher rather than moustache-twirling supervillain. It’s a challenge that was explored through the character of Hurwitz and in Anthony LaPaglia’s quietly aching performance. There was the beginning of an exploration of identity; his experiences at the hands of HUAC, his tired correcting of his landlady’s attempt at saying his name, questions on the place of Israel, but they took second place to his assertion of the role of Nazi hunter, obsessively zeroing in on the man in the dock to see if he could find a way of explaining, of understanding, even of simply knowing what drove him to do those things. If it was a pursuit doomed to failure, it was not Hurwitz who was lacking. It was all of us.
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