What would you do if you were alone in a room with Adolf Eichmann?
What kind of conversation would you have if you were to share a glass of wine?
What would it feel like to be a young Jewish woman and find yourself dating his son?
These are questions that may come to mind while watching Operation Finale, which details the legendary 1960 Mossad capturing of the commonly called “architect” of the Final Solution while he lived undercover as Ricardo Klement in Buenos Aires, Argentina after the war. The film stars Oscar Isaac as the real-life agent Peter Malkin and an excellent Ben Kingsley as Eichmann (though Isaac was also superb). It opened nationwide Aug. 29.
There is a sense of anticipation that builds throughout the two-hour film, as the audience already knows how this story ends. But the story of how it happened is still thrilling.
The scenes between Isaac and Kingsley are electric and chilling in that they are so casual given the circumstances. They make conversation about the past — Eichmann maintained he tried to help the Jews by calling other countries as a means of getting the Jews out of Germany — and the two chitchat almost like friends over a beer, except, of course, that one is a Nazi.
In one memorable moment, as Eichmann sits trapped in a safe house — where he is usually handcuffed to the headboard and his eyes covered in dark goggles — and probes Malkin about his life, Malkin lathers cream on Eichmann’s face and begins to give him a shave.
The scene is tense as Malkin calmly glides the razor across the former SS officer’s face, restricting himself from either overreacting to any questions and creating a Sweeney Todd-esque situation or dangerously oversharing about his family (though he does anyway with wrenching flashback scenes to boot).
Malkin’s aim is to disarm Eichmann enough to get him to sign a paper stating he consents to be willingly put on an El Al flight to Israel where he will be tried for his crimes. This may be the most unbelievable part of the story, which is saying something. Couldn’t David Ben-Gurion, who was featured in an earlier scene wishing the team luck as they left for Argentina, have somehow called the airline and interfered with this?
The group of very real Mossad spies tasked with kidnapping Eichmann — all of whom lost family or were survivors themselves — are made up by an equally strong supporting cast, including Israeli actor Lior Raz as the head of Mossad; Greg Hill as Moshe Tabor, who would snap Eichmann’s neck without batting an eye if only his superiors let him; and Nick Kroll, whose name jumped out as the film is a bit of a departure from the comedian’s usual potty humor roles.
In Operation, Kroll plays Rafi Eitan, who was in charge of the whole titular operation, but also fittingly provides moments of comic relief.
The film is accented by a score by Alexandre Desplat that is — unsurprisingly, given the composer — extremely effective, using the orchestration to create a sense of relief, joy and optimism in moments of success, and tension and foreboding in times of danger.
There are many moments that have a lasting effect. One occurs early on when Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn), who is actually Eichmann’s nephew, brings his girlfriend Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson) — who finds out right before this that she is actually Jewish and her blind uncle she lives with was a survivor of a death camp, two facts he’d hidden from her — to a meeting in which prominent political leaders and priests raise their arms in Nazi salutes, shout “Sieg Heil!” and vow to get rid of the Jews infesting Buenos Aires like roaches.
In the context of today’s rise of neo-Nazis and the waving of Nazi flags in Charlottesville just a year ago, it is truly terrifying.
Eichmann is notably not reduced to a one-sided monstrous villain you may picture him as (though to be sure, he is a villain).
He buys flowers for his wife on their anniversary. He watches trains go by with his young son. He cracks jokes — dark ones, but jokes nonetheless — and it feels unsettling to find yourself chuckling in response.
“It is not my interpretation or my version of Eichmann,” Kingsley said in an interview with Inverse. “I’m sorry to say over and over again: This man had children, this man had a wife, this man ate sausages, drank beer. He did not land from Mars. I would be doing history and his victims a terrible disservice if I pretended he was a two-dimensional comic strip villain. I’m sorry to say that he was a human being.”
It’s an effective telling of a seemingly impossible task with a powerful and satisfying, if not wholly surprising, ending.
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