Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor
May 11, 1960, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Under the dim light of a street lamp, a bus pulls up. A group on a mission lies in wait, hidden only beneath the guise of a broken-down car and the unassuming cover of a rainy night.
A single figure steps out as the bus pulls away from the curb. Decades in hiding had aged his features, but nonetheless, there’s no doubt that it’s him. A rush of motion and a muttered “momentito, señor” later, Adolf Eichmann is in the custody of the Israeli Mossad, and Peter Malkin’s gloves are pressed tight against his lips.
Of all the true stories to come of the era immediately following World War II, the capture of Eichmann — the Architect of the Holocaust’s Final Solution — by a band of undercover Jewish spies is perhaps the most cinematic of all. With that being said, it’s no surprise that the tale of reconnaissance has once again found its way to the big screen in Director Chris Weitz’s Operation Finale.
Released on Aug. 29, the film follows Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and a special team made up of agents from the Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, including Hanna (Mélanie Laurent), Rafi (Nick Kroll), Zvi (Michael Aronov), Moshe (Greg Hill) and Isser (Lior Raz), among others, in their hunt to bring Eichmann (Sir Ben Kingsley) to trial in Israel.
Either having lost family in the Holocaust or survived the atrocity themselves, the squad’s motivation to succeed was as emotionally-driven as it was patriotic, and Operation Finale does a great job at capturing the thin and tense line between a professional task and a personal obligation to loved ones lost.
Haunting motifs of seemingly inexplicable moments arise rather often throughout the film, from the recurrence of a man attempting to wipe ink stains from his sleeve to a ghostly swarm of birds twisting and turning through the air at dusk. The most striking motif, though, is that of a woman in the woods.
With features not too dissimilar from Peter’s, the woman stares into the camera with a look caught someplace between longing and fear. One can only assume that her days are numbered in the wake of the war, and as it turns out, she epitomizes the pain that drives Peter in all that he does. From apprehending Eichmann to attending his trial, she’s there with him in the form of morose sketches he works into his notebooks and logs. When he’s forced to connect with Eichmann, who calls him Herr Captor, it’s the story of the woman in the woods that both creates their strange bond and later breaks it.
As Peter reaches his eventual catharsis toward the end of the film, the memory of the woman in the woods softens and, for a final time, their realities intertwine. He hasn’t exactly moved on — there are things one can’t ever really move on from — but he made peace with it all, and sometimes, that has to be enough.
Overall, Peter’s character arc conveys a specific darkness to the effect of the famous Theodor Adorno misquote, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” Though at the same time, it shows how life can still go on somehow, in spite of it all.
Aside from Peter, his fellow spies also bring something rich and unique to the film. Hanna, a doctor, is a medical professional above all else. She never falls into any tired cliches, and she’s never reduced to anything less than a gifted doctor and generally brave person. Moshe’s rage is tested against Peter’s temperance, showcasing two sides of a similar grief, and specs of humor from Peter’s wit and Rafi’s banter help remind an audience that the characters they see were real people, who laughed, joked, cried and bled.
Writing about the Holocaust is a slippery slope, though, because all it takes to botch a statement is one misinterpreted character who fails to resonate with viewers in a constructive way. For instance, Operation Finale offers its audience a very human Adolf Eichmann, a man who watches trains go by with his youngest son and chastises his eldest for disrespecting a houseguest. Some critics feared this would lessen the gravity of what he’d done.
How, then, do you portray a man who in large part organized and justified modernity’s most singular genocide? While it seems almost fitting to show a snarling beast with sharpened tusks and bloodshot eyes in place of a seemingly normal person, that isn’t the truth. The truth is scarier.
The real-life Peter Malkin found himself shocked that Eichmann didn’t look like a monster, and according to The Independent, Malkin later recalled in his 2002 book The Argentina Journal, “A monster can be excused for its behavior. The problem is not how a monster could do it, but how a human being did it.”
It’s especially important to remember this now, in our current political climate. Operation Finale refreshes the fading memories of a generation far removed, all while reminding us that humans carried out these unparalleled atrocities, and only humans can stop it from ever happening again.
The ending of the film satisfies in a way that isn’t necessarily traditional. The hero doesn’t get everything he wanted, or everything a viewer might’ve expected him to get. Sometimes in real life, it just doesn’t work out. But he does reach something that seems somehow higher than the expected, and he finds it in a selfless act that ultimately saves the day.
As a complex retelling of a complicated historical event, which took place during a storm-tossed period of post-war politics, the movie can be a little hard to follow if you aren’t already at least slightly familiar with the subject matter. To a viewer more well-versed in, and expectant of, Marvel-esque action and dramatic espionage tactics, it might seem to have a slow build and a creeping plot, with the majority of the action happening inside the safehouse.
But if you want Marvel, go see Infinity War or Ant Man and Wasp. If you want a passionate historical drama with moments of startling poignance and well-placed discomfort, Operation Finale is the film for you.