MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
I was living in Parma Heights in the 1980s when things began to stir in Seven Hills, a community adjacent to the east. John Demjanjuk, a retired auto worker, was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible”, a guard at the Treblinka death camp in Poland. At the time there seemed to be only circumstantial colloquial suspicions, but that didn’t stop Demjanjuk’s neighbors from staging a dramatic protest that stigmatized the entire family. I had a hard time connecting such evil to this mild-mannered grandfather. And yet, when all the facts were in, Demjanjuk was indeed the person his accusers claimed he was (albeit at the Sobibor concentration camp), and he was deported to Germany to stand trial once again, where he died in prison awaiting an appeal.
Operation Finale tells the true story about Israel’s search for Adolph Eichmann (Kingsley), a Nazi lieutenant colonel who escaped Germany at the end of the war, arriving in Argentina to live out his days (along with a large number of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers) under an assumed name. The film focuses primarily on Peter Malkin (Isaac), the Mossad agent responsible for capturing Eichmann (with the assistance of his agency as well as the Shin Bet) and eventually bringing him to Israel where his trial for war crimes would be televised internationally. When it was time for the world to hear Eichmann share his personal account of events, he claimed to be just a German citizen following orders from those in command. His everyday calm in sharing his story led journalist Hannah Arendt to develop her theory about “the banality of evil”.
As you can gather, there is still much to ponder about the Holocaust. (If you are really interested, there are two classic films filled with first-person remembrances that still make an impact: Marcel Ophül’s 1969 The Sorrow and the Pity (4¼ hours)and Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah (9½ hours long).
Since most people won’t ever watch these lengthy meditations, I hope that folks will discover Operation Finale, a film that presents this upsetting theme in ways that are more family friendly than 1993’s Schindler’s List and 2015’s Son of Saul. This film is staged as an espionage caper film, with a team of experts working together to capture Eichmann and persuade him to sign a required form before he can be deported back to Israel.
Perhaps Holocaust and “family friendly” don’t belong together. (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas attempted this back in 2008 and I found it reprehensible.) Operation Finale is a valiant effort, featuring good performances by Isaac and Kingsley, but it ends up being a somewhat banal film, including a ramped-up race-against-the-clock flight out of Argentina that evoked the bogus ending of Argo and a Nazi boyfriend love story that reminded me of The Sound of Music.
But we have got to keep this conversation going. Racism and Anti-Semitism (along with other hate movements) still try to hide behind the cloak of normalcy. The devil is alive in plain clothes. The light must shine in the darkness. Operation Finale is not the final word about the Final Solution, but it is an important participant in the conversation.
Four halos: The shockwaves of the Holocaust are played out for decades after World War II in this straightforward historical drama.
One pitchfork: Occasional PG-13 swearing, disturbing Holocaust imagery – including mass executions – handled with discretion.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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