Who ultimately is worse: the evil but charismatic leader who makes a scapegoat of millions of his people, or the loyal functionary who actually puts the leader's most unthinkable plans into effect? Adolf Hitler rose to power in part by implanting in German minds the notion that impure elements, most notably Jews, were bringing down their once great nation (never mind that World War I did most of that work). But it was Adolf Eichmann, an officer in the SS, who actually put Hitler's scheme of the Final Solution into action, setting up the death camps that killed six million innocent people with ruthless efficiency. Eichmann couldn't have done it without Hitler's support, but could Hitler have done it without Eichmann's cold-blooded skill?
Hitler is something of a phantom in Robert Young's film Eichmann; he's talked about and his image appears in the background, but he's not a proper character in the story and Eichmann himself only refers to him as his superior who ordered him to do unspeakable things -- things he did with no small degree of skill. For good or ill, in Young's film Adolf Eichmann is taken out from under Hitler's shadow and made to stand on his own as he calmly defends (or simply explains) himself and his actions to a single interrogator, playing proxy for most of the world.
Eichmann opens in 1960 at a wedding in Israel, where the celebration is interrupted by a surprising announcement on the news: Adolf Eichmann, who eluded capture after World War II, has been arrested in Argentina and is being held in an Israeli prison, where he will be tried for crimes against humanity. One of the guests at the wedding is Avner Less (Troy Garity), an Israeli police detective who is given a daunting assignment -- he is to interview Eichmann at length, in hopes of building the case against him and possibly persuading the "Architect of the Holocaust" to confess. Less quickly finds that this assignment makes him wildly controversial -- many Israelis feel Eichmann doesn't deserve a fair trial, others resent the fact he's being protected by the nation's authorities, and a handful believe that little good can be achieved by digging up the past. The latter view is held by Less' wife, Vera (Franka Potente), who is also the mother of his two children and living with polio. When Vera learns that her husband is interviewing Eichmann after their children discuss the matter at school, Vera is furious, since Avner, following strict orders, declined to tell her himself about the assignment before it was leaked to the press. While news of Eichmann's arrest was welcomed with celebration, Less is treated with scorn for his work, many believing Eichmann should simply be executed and that Less is giving the Nazi a chance to weasel out of his punishment.
The interviews with Eichmann prove to be a difficult and almost maddening experience for Less. Eichmann (Thomas Kretschmann) is a dour little man with a frequent smirk and a streak of dark wit that emerges as he tries to explain his actions, insists he was simply following orders, and denies some of the more lurid stories about himself, despite evidence to support tales of his frequent womanizing, including an affair with a Jewish divorcée (Judit Viktor) and a beautiful but vile baroness (Tereza Srbova), who enjoyed discussing executions during sex and insisted Eichmann prove himself by murdering a Jewish infant. Less presses on with an unexpected deadline hanging over his head -- a reporter has learned that Less' father was executed during the war under orders from Eichmann, and he has a week to extract a confession before this fact is revealed to the world.
Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" in an essay about Adolf Eichmann, and that seems to be the effect director Young was aiming for with Eichmann, as the stark grey circumstances of the Nazi's life is prison are contrasted with the broader and more colorful images of his life as a powerful and feared ruler who still seemed somehow removed from his circumstances. Thomas Kretschmann turns out to be an inspired casting choice as Eichmann, giving the character a certain grim humor and underplaying his villainy even as flashbacks confirm the truth behind every terrible accusation (his resigned contempt for his guards also gives the film some curious but effective comic relief). Less interesting is Troy Garity, who seems to parallel Eichmann in his devotion to duty and his love for the children he nevertheless neglects. However, while Kretschmann makes Eichmann fascinating in his understated treachery, Garity's Less is a one-note performance that becomes less colorful as the story goes along, and given how much of the picture hangs on the give and take between the two men, it's a nearly fatal flaw. Franka Potente struggles to give the film some much-needed warmth as Vera, Stephen Fry struggles to keep his comedic impulses in check as Less' boss, and Tereza Srbova is sexy and over-the-top -- enough so to seem wildly out of place in this film.
Eichmann was completed in 2007, and after making the rounds of film festivals and appearing in theaters and on DVD in Europe, it's only now that the film is arriving in American theaters, and it isn't hard to see why. The movie was crafted with care and looks solid and professional on all counts, but it's also drab, slow-moving, and seems afraid to give this material the bite it needs. So much of Eichmann is centered on the verbal thrust and parry between Kretschmann and Garity, the film never fully recovers from Garity's dreary, monochromatic performance and Young's uninspired pacing in their scenes together. If Eichmann is a movie that deals in part with the banality of evil, it doesn't help that it makes virtue and justice seem even less interesting by comparison.