Chris Weitz has come a long a way as a director. With Operation Finale Weitz has directed, by far, his most polished and intellectually complicated effort. Even better, with each passing movie, he seems to be evolving into a director in the vein of Sidney Lumet.
Weitz’s movies are often stylish without being stylistic. The visuals match the story and mood without detracting from the story itself. A throwback to the classic films from the old Studio days, Operation Finale attempts to blend gorgeous and simple visuals with complicated ideas and horrible memories.
Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) was one of Hitler’s top men in the SS, yet, he was relatively unknown to the public until he fled Germany after the war. Escaping to Bueno Aires, Eichmann assumed a new identity and went on with his life. He was responsible for figuring out how to efficiently move a massive amount of bodies and how to dispose of them. A man like that is useful to other burgeoning fascist regimes, and he is all too happy to oblige. Once a nazi, always a nazi.
Eichmann’s son, Klaus (Joe Alwyn) goes to the movies one night and meets Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson). Operation Finale is yet another example of how truth is stranger than fiction. Sylvia and Klaus find themselves flirting and eventually dating. She brings Klaus home to her blind adopted father Lothar (Peter Strauss).
At the dinner table, Klaus and Lothar get to talking about the Fatherland. It’s here when Klaus starts spouting familiar rhetoric about the Jewish people. Lothar is German but was not a nazi sympathizer. He rescued Sylvia and fled Germany, but raised Sylvia as a Catholic. As Klaus compares the Jewish people to mushrooms, she merely nods and smiles. Lothar is blind but he is not an idiot and immediately goes about slyly interrogating Klaus.
Lothar contacts a friend in Israel who then gets in touch with the head of the Mossad. Weitz does all of this in a matter of minutes. Whatever flaws Operation Finale may have, it does a splendid job of giving us all the information we need both visually and verbally. It helps that even the Mossad is taken aback by the absurdity of the events. A Jewish girl, who doesn’t know that she is Jewish, begins dating the son of one of the most infamous and influential nazi’s of Hitler’s regime, pushes the boundaries of belief.
Ralfi (Nick Kroll), one of the top men of the Mossad seems stunned. When he is told Sylvia didn’t know she was Jewish but she does now, he dryly responds with, “And how did she take the bad news?” Weitz and his screenwriter Matthew Orton allow the humor to release the tension but never undercut it.
Early on we see Peter (Oscar Isaac) and Zvi (Michael Aronov) working out together. The two quip back and forth with Zvi asking Peter, “You know why they give you all the trash assignments?” Peter shrugs, “Antisemitism?”
Operation Finale, on the surface, is about, capturing Eichmann and bringing him back to Israel to stand trial. Hitler, Himmler, and Goring, all committed suicide and escaped justice. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell) believes it to be a giant step towards closing the door to the past. The Holocaust is a fresh wound for the Jewish people but one that must begin to heal if they are to move on. A trial for all to see will serve as a warning and as closure.
But underneath all of this is the throbbing notion of the true horror of evil; the banality of it. Kinsley’s Eichmann is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, bespectacled old man. The moment when he grabs Klaus by the throat and berates him for treating Sylvia poorly is the only hint at the monster underneath the surface. He hardly seems the type that springs to mind when you hear the word “nazi”. Of course one wonders how Eichmann would’ve responded had he known of Sylvia’s Jewishness.
Which is Weitz’s point. What is so terrifying about Eichmann, indeed about all nazis, is how easily it could be one of us. Many of the SS officers, when captured, pled innocence and ignorance. They were only following orders. The great men of the SS were suddenly, “merely pencil pushers.” Men who were powerless and at the mercy of a bureaucratic leviathan.
Kingsley’s performance is some of the best he’s done in a long while. During the credits, we see footage of the real Eichmann and the resemblance between the mannerisms is uncanny. Yet, it never feels like an imitation. Kingsley brings a humanity to Eichmann and humanizes him—but not so we can empathize with him. No, it’s done to show us the danger of writing the nazis off as mere monsters. To ascribe to them unnatural evil may cause us to not realize it in ourselves or see it in others.
When Sylvia and Klaus meet, the movie playing is Douglas Sirk’s Imitation Of Life. A romantic drama that deals with many things, one of which is a character who is passing white. The scene we see is of her being confronted about her “deceit” by the boy she likes. Later on, Weitz plays out a similar scene between Sylvia and Klaus, cleverly shot in the same way but with the roles reversed. Sylvia’s newfound discovery of her own Jewishness is nowhere near as revolting as her discovery of Klaus’ antisemitism. It seems love does not conquer all.
Oscar Isaac is a perfect fit for Peter Malkin because of what Weitz is doing. He is a dashing screen presence. Isaac is one of those actors whose every performance, regardless of the movie, is always a treasure. He uses his affability to get us on his side. Malkin is well liked but he is not well trusted. When we first meet him, his team captures someone who they believe to be Eichmann. Malkin realizes too late they have killed the wrong man. “Who cares. He was a nazi. What difference does it make if it’s the wrong nazi?”
Like all Jewish people who survived the Holocaust, Malkin is plagued by guilt and haunted by memories. Every member of his team has lost someone, some more than others. Before leaving for Buenos Aires they go around the table comparing losses. One man merely looks down at his glass, “I am the only one left.” The wounds are deep but have not begun to heal.
Operation Finale walks a fine line. In lesser hands, it would be seen as trying to humanize the nazis. Weitz and Orton combat this danger by finding a balance. They bracket the scenes where Eichmann seems to be harmless or innocent with a flashback of his memories from the war. Sometimes using Malkin’s memories to remind us of the horrors and crimes committed. Moments of Klaus and his friends torturing a local Jewish girl as they find Eichmann’s whereabouts annihilate any possibility of falling for his everyman persona.
It’s all so good I’m left wondering why it wasn’t better. Weitz and his cameraman Javier Aguirreasarobe light and shoot Operation Finale less like a World War II movie and more like one of Sirk’s romantic melodramas. The faces of the characters are often times partially obscured by darkness while only partially illuminated by light. It is a wonderful visualization of the duality of our own consciousness.
But they never really grow the tension successfully. Sneaking into Buenos Aires the team must then sneak back out with Eichmann in tow. Again, the film benefits from the strangeness of reality, as their escape plan invariably becomes compromised. Unlike the earlier part of the film, the latter half has a sort of listless feel to it. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I felt severely underwhelmed despite the obvious stakes and lush photography.
The scenes between Isaac and Kingsley are riveting but the tension never carries very far beyond their scenes. Malkin’s ex-girlfriend Hanna (Melanie Laurent) comes along as the doctor in charge of drugging Eichmann so he appears drunk. Hanna and Peter’s past relationship is played somewhat for laughs at the beginning, but ultimately it takes away from the main thrust of the story. We never know why Peter and Hanna broke up nor do we know why they got back together. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Laurent don’t seem to understand why they are together or not either.
Operation Finale is one of those movies I admire more than I like. It appears to run like a well-oiled machine. Some parts are excellent but other parts get dragged down by a few gears and cogs whose timing is slightly off. Still, the intellectual and moral heft of Operation Finale is more than enough for me to recommend it. While watching it, I was struck by the realization that there are many movies about the second world war and the Holocaust. But there are precious few about the emotional and psychological aftermath.
Dissecting the banality of evil is often done as an excuse to give us a scary, oftentimes lazy, boogeyman. But Weitz and Orton strive instead to show us not a frothing at the mouth bigot, but a man who seems like me and you. By doing this they display the real and visceral horror of evil responsible for the Holocaust. It is done in such a way that is not cheap or melodramatic.
The terror is not how calm he is but how he doesn’t see how he is in any way responsible for it. Eichmann calmly and carefully tries to explain, “I should be tried for German crimes in a German court.” To hear Eichmann tell it, he is but a mere scapegoat unjustly vilified for merely figuring out a solution to an unpleasant problem.
Operation Finale is not perfect but is important. More so now that Holocaust denial is on the rise. Important now, because the CEO of the largest social media platform seems to be cozy with a current crop of Eichmann-like personalities. But more than any of that, it is important because it is a stark reminder that anyone can be like Eichmann—and that is the real and true terror.