Operation Finale is about the Israeli operation to capture Adolf Eichmann, a man called “the architect of the final solution,” in which agents of Mossad and Shin Bet abducted Eichmann from Argentina to face trial in Israel in 1960. The film explores what evil really looks like, starring kindly old Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar playing Gandhi, as Eichmann, a man for whom the phrase “the banality of evil” was originally coined.
Besides the banality of evil, Operation Finale is also about the elusive nature of true justice. Is “justice” restitution for the victims, or is it a tool for social engineering? And what does it cost, really? I heard an interview with one of the last surviving prosecutors at Nuremberg recently, a gregarious 99-year-old lawyer who turned somber when recounting a story about liberating a concentration camp. He described how some of the prisoners had captured an SS guard and forced him into an oven alive, cooking him slowly until he died. Hearing anecdotes like those, you wonder if payback is closure, or if it becomes just another trauma for an already traumatized victim to have to try to live with.
Operation Finale is not unique in the Nazi-retribution genre (see also Munich, Defiance, The Debt, etc.) but it is a unique movie in that it explores not just the crowd-pleasing drive for revenge, but also the more slippery questions about what that justice should look like, and how it can be co-opted. In one of its first scenes, Mossad agent Peter Malkin, played by Oscar Isaac, realizes he’s kidnapped the wrong guy, but not before his team has already killed the guy. In another, Malkin hears of the Nazi collaborationist elements of the Argentine government falsely passing off a government critic as Josef Mengele.
All of which is to say that Chris Weitz (and his screenwriter, Matthew Orton) have made a film that eschews the simple take. In Weitz’ case, there may be personal reasons for that, having grown up with a father who had been born in Germany to a prominent Jewish family, left in the 30s, and came back during the war as a double agent for the OSS, infiltrating Nazi cells, and being present at the liberation of Dachau. Weitz says his father bore some of the psychological scars from the experience, and it seems plausible that seeing that first hand may have influenced Weitz’s more nuanced approach to the material.
Not that Operation Finale is all somberness and reflection. After all, this is still the same guy who directed About A Boy, and whose “haunted” ex-spy father famously loved Chris’ brother Paul’s debut film, American Pie. When I asked Weitz, who I spoke to by phone last week, why his star, Oscar Isaac, who played an Armenian during the genocide in The Promise last year, was so good at playing genocide victims, Weitz responded, without skipping a beat, “Well, you’re forgetting also about the destruction of the Rebel fleet.”
Anyway, it was an interesting chat.
So I know that your father had been in the OSS and had a background in undercover operations, like with ex-Nazis. Can you tell me what you knew about his work?
I had glimpses here and there of his work. He didn’t talk about it much. He had signed some kind of thing at the end of the war, in which he was signed to not talk about things because even to this day there are people in Germany who don’t appreciate that some Germans resisted Hitler. But I knew that he had been sent into Dachau after the liberation, first I think to find a couple of scientists, and later when it was a POW camp to check out whether there was going to be a prisoners’ revolt. He went in as an SS officer. I knew that he had had some kind of connection with the Stauffenberg Plot to assassinate Hitler. He did tell me that at the end of the war, when Göring was in captivity, I think he did some translating for him. So, dribs and drabs here and there.
What was he like growing up? Do you think that affected your perspective in making a movie about people who did similar things?
My father was haunted by the war. I think he was still trying to come to his own understanding of how his country, the country in which he was born [Germany], had gone completely insane. He was very quick to respond to any kind of slights because growing up as a child, he has been treated as a second-class citizen. Eventually, he came to know enough Germans whom he was fond of and had a connection to, to really feel that he was still part German. But he always had the sense that disaster might strike at any moment. That really informed my childhood. Also his work on his books about the Nazis, which I also helped him with, made sure that I was steeped in all these issues. So this was an obvious movie for me to do.
In seeing the cost of justice on someone who is helping to bring that about, do you think that informs some of this movie? It seems like it’s not your typical feel-good story of justice.
Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, the Allies won the war, but a huge cost had been extracted. I think my father was changed from the child he might have been had none of this happened, into the haunted, although very decent, very good, very loving person that he was as my father. I think that Oscar Isaac’s character, Peter Malkin, paid a tremendous cost in order to bring Eichmann to justice, but the ethical restraints it took to get him to Israel without killing him was pretty extraordinary. I think it cost them all quite a lot.
We’ve seen stories like this, but not this one in particular. What are some of the ideas that you were trying to get across with this?
I think one key idea for me is that Eichmann was not a sociopath or a sadist. He was an ambitious careerist and opportunist, but a normal person in some ways, who loved his family. The thing that’s hard to swallow about that is that anyone under the right circumstances could do the kinds of things that the Nazis did. We like to think about Nazi Germany as a unique occurrence, and certainly extraordinary things had happened, but it is not unique.
Right. Your hero is the guy who is the good cop, the guy who is nicer to the ex-Nazi in some ways. Is there a certain nuance about justice or about evil that you’re trying to explore there?
Well, I think that people who would argue against the use of torture would point out that the way that you get the most information is in some way by getting into the heads of your enemy, trying to understand their motivation, not in order to sympathize with them, but to get the best result that you can. I think that Oscar’s character takes this tremendous risk of disclosing all of this personal information about himself in order to do what he has to do. He is willing to genuinely treat this person as a human being in order to defeat him, not in order to let him off the hook.
How much of a factor is remorse in the kind of punishment that they seek? There’s a moment in the film where it seems like Eichmann kind of snaps, and becomes more obviously remorseless. How important is that to the outcome? If he’d been more contrite, would he be more deserving of mercy somehow?
No, I don’t think so. I think we like to see contrition, but I don’t think so. I think the point of the trial for Israel wasn’t necessarily to extract any kind of apology or remorse. It was to examine what had happened in front of the world and to give the victims as much of a voice as they could have. I think that Eichmann himself in the movie is capable of a very provisional form of being sorry about things that he’s done. He’s able to extend this to someone whom he’s talking to when he understands their personhood, but Eichmann was never really capable of showing remorse. In fact, there was a certain pride in having done such a high level what was required of him by his government.
If he had broken down and had acted like he was sorry and then went on to live a normal, non-Nazi life, would that make it a more complicated story?
I think it would be complicated. I’m not sure how satisfying it would be, certainly as a movie. I think in some ways he had gone on to live a quote-unquote normal life. To me, that just goes back to the fact that all of us theoretically normal people are capable of doing these things. The important thing is not to do them. I tell my children it’s one thing to be sorry, but the best thing is not to do it in the first place.
Tell me about that first scene in Vienna. It seemed important to me that you opened with that.
Yeah, well what you’re seeing is the Jewish avengers after the war, the guys who would hunt down those who they suspect of being high-ranking Nazis, and a very brutal justice was exacted. Some of the Mossad team members had been part of these killing squads. It is entirely understandable that they’re doing these things, but it is not necessarily something that brings any relief to, say the Israeli people as a whole. The thing I think that’s important, like about the trial, is that Israelis have for a long time been repressing these memories of the Holocaust, wanting to move ahead, but it was deemed useful for the country to have a proper encounter with this in a court of law, rather than to just take revenge.
I thought the Carlos Fuldner character, those scenes are pretty interesting. What was his role in the story? How much did you feel like you had to explain about him in this?
Well, I didn’t want to explain too much because then you spend all your time explaining, but he was basically an ex-SS officer who’s a real person who helped organize a business in Argentina which utilized the talents of the Nazi technocrats who were getting out of the country. Argentina had been neutral during the war and only declared war against Nazi Germany on the very last day of the war, which in its own way was in order to allow the governments to import qualified Germans who were escaping from the German Reich. So, Fuldner was the linchpin for getting people out of Europe and into Argentina and putting them to work.
The craziest thing about the story to me was that whole subplot with Lothar Hermann’s daughter dating Eichmann’s son. That seems like the kind of creative liberties that you would take in a Hollywood movie, but then I was reading about it, and I realized you actually played it pretty straight. Was she really dating a Nazi while not knowing that she was Jewish?
Yeah. That’s the crazy thing, that part which seems the most invented is actually absolutely gospel. She met a boy. She liked him. She didn’t realize she was Jewish, but when she took him home, her father who was a concentration camp survivor and blind realized who it was. It’s really extraordinary, but it’s all true.
Do you and your brother [Paul Weitz] have any sibling rivalry? I noticed you guys have movies coming out a few weeks apart and I think they’re both set in South America.
Yeah, it’s true. No. Well actually for a while they were coming out on the same day, which would have been a bit stress-y, but yeah my brother’s movie Bel Canto is coming out. It is about a hostage crisis in an unnamed South American country. It’s actually Peru that he’s talking about. We seem to be in sync sometimes about these things. Like seven years ago we were both making these neo-realist gritty movies. No, I really hope his movie does well. I think he hopes mine does well. There’s no rivalry in that regard.
Between some of the safe house scenes and then there was the chase to the runway. I noticed there were some similarities with Argo. Were you thinking about that at all? Was that a selling point or were you trying to avoid it somehow?
It definitely wasn’t a selling point for me. I’ve never wanted a movie to be like somebody else’s movie. The facts of the matter were necessary. There’s no way of getting around it. I wanted to make it essentially about an emotional choice, whether Oscar’s gonna stay on the plane, Oscar’s character is gonna stay on the plane and try to work things out with Melanie’s character or not. He sacrifices that, rather than it necessarily being about any kind of gunplay at the end. That certainly factored into my decisions.
Oscar Isaac, I think, earlier this year, he played an Armenian during the Armenian genocide and now he’s an Israeli Holocaust survivor. Why do you think he keeps getting cast as a genocide survivor?
Well, you’re forgetting also about the destruction of the Rebel fleet. There’s only about 12 of them left by the end of it.
Well, I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. I think he’s an incredibly flexible actor. It’s amazing that he can play … I saw him play Hamlet last year during Star Wars. He is playing an Armenian. He’s playing an Israeli of Polish descent. I just think he’s an actor who can do no wrong. So, in really really difficult scenarios like this, I think that you want to cast somebody like him who can bring a certain degree of warmth and levity to what might otherwise be a really dour subject.
Speaking of casting, the guy who played Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) is not necessarily the first guy who would come to mind to play a famous Nazi. How did you consider him for that role?
Well, I think he’s probably thought more about this particular subject, about the Holocaust, about World War II than any actor living. He’s played Simon Wiesenthal. He’s been in Schindler’s List, of course. He’s played Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father. So, he fell on to the table. Apart from his technical skill, there is a deep commitment to telling this story. That being said, he’s not all about painting Eichmann as a villain. I think that he understands that in order to situate him properly within the context of what we’re facing today around the world, we need to understand that these were normal people who had turned to terrible ends.
‘Operation Finale’ opens in the U.S. on Wednesday, August 29.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read his film reviews here.