The Eichmann Show is a BBC production currently airing on Netflix. It’s 1961 and Israeli agents have captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the Holocaust, while in hiding in Argentina. Eichmann is brought back for trial in Jerusalem. The Eichmann Show, however, does not center on the trial or on Eichmann himself, rather the film dramatizes the action on the other side of the camera, the quest of the American director Leo Hurwitz to capture Eichmann’s humanity.
Hurwitz believes that doing so will show the world that fascism and genocide are not a uniquely NAZI phenomenon, it’s part of the human condition. The great evil in the world, Hurwitz believes, is not the domain of monsters, of devils and of demons. Under the right circumstances, we are all capable of monstrosities, and Hurwitz can capture Eichmann’s humanity, even just one authentic moment of real human emotion, then Hurwitz believes that he will have done something profound.
Hurwitz brings an ideological agenda to his work of documentation, but he’s driven by more than that. As a blacklisted Hollywood director, Hurwitz has seen how right-wing hysteria can quickly spiral into forms of fascist paranoia. Hurwitz was on the wrong side of McCarthyism.
It’s a fascinating exploration. I’ve been researching Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil.” Arendt went to the Jerusalem trial in 1961, on behalf of The New Yorker, and her articles raised a firestorm of controversy. Among other things, Arendt saw Eichmann not as a beast but as a bureaucrat, someone who was good at the banal task of organizing the transport of Jews to concentration camps.
Like Hurwitz, Arendt agreed with the fact that Eichmann was human, but while Hurwitz was obsessed with finding a moment of true human emotion, Arendt found the banality of Eichmann more intriguing.
The Eichmann Show is a film about the Holocaust and the human condition, but it’s also a film about film, and in a greater sense, it’s a film about writing itself, of the process of documentation. Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem was the first global television documentary, hence there is an underlying theme running through the film: the role that the film maker as writer plays in the unfolding drama of historical documentation. Historical documentation, it turns out is as subjective and impermanent as history itself.