Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Eichmann Show

The Eichmann Show was a docu-drama about the televising of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German National Socialist charged with crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. The trial took place in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built, after Eichmann was captured by Mossad in Argentina. He was not put on trial in Germany where his crimes took place, but in Israel. It was - as the title suggests - a show trial, an attempt to attach blame to one individual for the horrors of the Holocaust, and to broadcast to the world the indescribable suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis. Eventually, Eichmann was found guilty of arranging transport to extermination camps and of the appalling conditions on the trains to those camps. During the trial, his one confession was that he "proposed" making 50,000 Jews march from Budapest to Austria when a transport could not be arranged. He claimed that he personally did not murder anybody. He claimed to be merely following orders. He remained impassive and unrepentant throughout the trial. Adolf Eichmann was hanged the following year, and his ashes scattered in the sea.

Adolf Eichmann was the subject of a book by Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in which she coined the phrase "the banality of evil". Eichmann was a seemingly boring bureaucrat and pen-pusher caught up in a system that would have had him shot if he had refused to do what he was asked. One might argue that he shouldn't have got himself in that position in the first place. But one could also argue that it is impossible to see the future when you are living in the throes of a dictatorship and all freedom of speech has been lost. How can you imagine that there will ever be any other form of government when the party propaganda claimed that Hitler would never fall and that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years? There could be no vision of Hitler's demise, addled with prescription drugs, ranting, shaky and insane, holed up in a bunker near the Reichskanzlerei in Berlin, or his suicide by shotgun while the Russians bombed the city to bits, pillaged its property and raped its women. So it was safer to follow orders. The Endlösung (Final Solution) was party policy, however abhorrent, and Eichmann had to follow party policy. Arendt claims Eichmann's first crime was his stupidity. He was a part of a terrible system, but he had got himself in a position that he could not have escaped from alive. It begs the question of what anyone else would have done in that situation. There is what people should do, and what the instinct for survival makes us do. But I by no means condone his choices or his actions.

But this programme's focus was not really Eichmann or what he did or didn't do. Instead, it told the story of how the trial came to be broadcast to the world: the loopholes and technical issues the television crew had to overcome, the threats they were under, and their urgent desire to get a flicker of emotion out of Eichmann on to the big screen. They have to find a way of hiding their cameras in the theatre used as a courtroom so that the judges will allow them to film. They are surrounded by Holocaust survivors desperate for justice and Holocaust deniers intimidating their families. They are so focused on Eichmann's face that they fail to capture the collapse of a witness on camera. And then - after all this - the international television audience rapidly loses interest when Yuri Gagarin flies off into space.

But ultimately, what the filmcrew managed to achieve was to get the world to see the unspeakable horrors of the death camps for the first time. The sickening archive footage is now familiar to the majority of us, although its impact can (and should) never lessen. But in 1961, many people had never seen it at all, not even in Israel, where so many survivors had gone to settle after the War.** The landlady of the hotel where director Leo Hurwitz is staying shows him the numbered tattoo on her arm and thanks him for making her fellow citizens believe her story at last.

The actors' scenes are blended in with genuine archive footage of the trial. It's quite cleverly done, yet ultimately rather unsatisfying. Cutting the original film in between shots of the control room makes it difficult to follow what is being said in the witness box. Appalling, compelling testimonies that need to be given attention are drowned out by Hurwitz's mantra "Stay on Eichmann". The footage from the camps is the only thing allowed to play on in silence, and this makes it all the harder to bear. Only Eichmann remains immune to it.

Martin Freeman and Anthony La Paglia star. Freeman is Milton Fruchtman, the producer who secured the rights to broadcast the trial. Anthony LaPaglia is Hurwitz, the blacklisted documentary maker directing the filming. Both do their best American accents, but both are distracting to the viewer from past roles. Martin Freeman is still Sherlock's Watson, deferential to and irritated by his boss. Anthony LaPaglia is still Simon from Frasier, a man who thought that it was OK for someone from Manchester to speak with an Essex accent. Though that is a hardly a crime in comparison to what we are witnessing here.

I went to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau while teaching in Poland in 1996. The rain poured down on my body and my soul, and there can be a no more miserable, gut-wrenching or foul place upon this earth. I do not want to describe what there is to see there - the ovens, the gas chambers, the mountains of hair and lost suitcases, shoes and spectacles, the standing cells, the lake still grey with ashes. Words cannot portray how they make you feel.

But two things stayed with me that are relevant to this film. One is that the road from the station to Auschwitz I is lined with apartment blocks. People lived right next door to the camp, and still do today. They hung their washing out on balconies that overlook the camp buildings and punishment blocks. The camp was built to be integral to the town of Oswiecim. It was part of the fabric of society. You could not avoid seeing it. The second is the detailed record-keeping for every prisoner, the lists and notices and rules and books and files that highlight the sickening bureaucracy of the whole process. The system was full of pen-pushers like Adolf Eichmann, doing their duty, writing reports that played their small part in the deaths of millions of innocents.

** Many of the survivors in the camps did not want to return to their homelands after liberation. Night Will Fall was a harrowing Channel 4 documentary about films of the camps shot by famous directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Sydney Bernstein. The films were never broadcast because the Allied governments did not want sympathetic British and American citizens pressuring them to take in these thousands of displaced citizens. The Allies did not have the infrastructure at home to cope with them. A further reason for never releasing the footage was that they felt that the Germans had already been made to feel guilty enough about the Nazi atrocities in the aftermath of the war. Many of the refugees went instead to Palestine, where - with bitter irony - they ended up in camps once again.

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