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Producer Stanley Kramer's "big social issue" film for Christmas 1961 focused on the problem of German culpability for the crimes of the Nazis. Judgment at Nuremberg was an all-star heavy duty acting workout, and one of the most publicized movies of the year. Beating Kramer by nine months, Allied Artists shoved another real-life Nazi drama onto the lower end of the exploitation market. Operation Eichmann chronicles the escape of Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's architect for the extermination of millions of European Jews. In May of 1960, Israeli agents snatched the escaped Nazi war criminal from the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and whisked him away to trial in Israel. Producers Samuel Bischoff and David Diamond whipped up this quickie account of Eichmann's life, using a fact or two known about the Israeli mission. It apparently did well enough for the producers to continue with another Nazi bio, of Hitler himself, starring Richard Basehart.
As might be expected, the low budget Operation Eichmann simplifies a complex international story so that it may all play out on a few small soundstage sets. In 1941, Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann sets into motion the workings of "The Final Solution" by installing extermination facilities at the main Nazi concentration camps. He falls in love with entertainer Anna Kemp (Ruta Lee) but always puts his work first. Crematoria are added to destroy the evidence of the killings. When the war turns bad for Hitler Eichmann rushes to eliminate as many of the camp prisoners he can; like camp Commandant Rudolf Höss (John Banner) he takes off with a bag of stolen diamonds and gold. The underground of Nazi survivors helps Adolf and Anna relocate to the Middle East, but after learning that Israeli agents are on his trail, Eichmann flies to Argentina. As he expects to head the post-war Nazi operation, Eichmann is not happy when Kessler, a former underling (Lester Fletcher) finds him a menial factory job and refuses to let him communicate directly with headquarters.
Meanwhile, Israeli security agent David (Donald Buka) leaves his wife Sara (Barbara Turner) to travel to Argentina in hopes of kidnapping Eichmann and taking him back for trial. Agent Jacob (Steve Gravers) is furious when David tips Eichmann to an assassination attempt, allowing him to escape. But they get a second chance when Eichmann rebels against Kessler's domination -- and is hunted by his own ex- SS operatives as well.
I have to confess my reason for wanting to review Operation Eichmann: about 1965 I was hanging around outside one of the theaters on the old "E" Street in San Bernardino California. I had just seen The Satan Bug, and the theater manager had given me a stern look, which I took as his disapproval that I was attending a movie with an adult theme (I was 13). He saw me looking at a poster for Operation Eichmann, which was going to be the bottom half of the next double bill even though it was several years old. The manager came outside to tell me to stop looking at the poster and that little kids weren't going to be allowed in. I resented that, but I also felt guilty for having wanted to look at a 'forbidden' movie. That's how things were back then.
Operation Eichmann isn't overly trashy, yet it takes a very sober subject as the basis for an exploitation thriller. The ads implied Nazi horrors, the kind I had seen in magazines friends had shown me - magazines that displayed photos of Japanese soldiers standing over decapitated victims. Dramatizing Adolf Eichmann as a guy who carries on a love life while presiding over one of the most atrocious episodes in human history is at best in questionable taste. The film's compensation is the restraint in its presentation and the earnestness of its performances.
The movie is as underfunded as a Sam Katzman production. Characters talk at length, usually in rooms without windows, to move the story forward. Adolf goes to a nightclub, talks on the phone, and holds the equivalent of the infamous Wannsee Conference with three men in a small office. A concentration camp is a few feet of barbed wire fence, and a room where curious German soldiers install showerheads to a gas pump. The German convoy uses commonplace American trucks. Places like Kuwait are represented by a still photo or stock shots. Director Springsteen had a long career behind him, mostly of westerns in which he probably handled dialogue scenes while second unit wranglers did the action. His blocking is competent but devoid of style or finesse. Most sets are flat-lit.
At the appropriate time in the film, the show intercuts shots of a Jewish Temple meeting with the now-familiar army signal corps footage of American generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton entering a concentration camp and seeing the terrible remains of thousands of victims that the Nazis hadn't time to burn or bury. It isn't as lengthy or graphic as the footage shown in Judgment at Nuremberg, but its inclusion puts Operation Eichmann on a different footing. Before 1961 almost none of this film was readily viewable by the public, so it by default is a "selling point".
Under the circumstances the dialogue and acting cannot be faulted. Star Werner Klemperer was a highly respected actor (not to mention violinist and orchestra conductor). He gives his all to the character -- although Adolf Eichmann delivers several rabid-fanatic pro-Hitler speeches, the performance is solid, never campy. Several months later, he would play an important role in Stanley Kramer's movie, as -- what else -- an unrepentant Nazi war criminal. Klemperer and John Banner became familiar faces for their roles as 'funny' Germans in TV's Hogan's Heroes. About all one can say about Heroes is that most actors haven't the luxury of turning down steady work.
John Banner is effective as the venal Commandant, who orders his wife to go home to their small town and bury his bag of stolen booty in the back yard. Ruta Lee is still active; she has been a busy TV performer ever since she played one of the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. A standout in the cast is Lester Fletcher, whose Nazi middleman conveys the corruption and duplicity of the Nazi "refugees". Fletcher didn't have many standout acting opportunities; fans of the noir detective story Hickey and Boggs may remember him as a child-molesting smuggler. Making his first film appearance as a Nazi killer is Eric Braeden, who spent the first eight years of his career playing menacing Germans under his birth name Hans Gudegast, in TV shows like The Rat Patrol, Colossus: The Forbin Project. Braeden would eventually spend 32 years doing the daytime soap The Young and the Restless. 1
The Israeli parts are woefully underwritten; Barbara Turner has one scene in the picture and then disappears. As the tracking-down of Eichmann is handled like a minor plot sidebar, Donald Buka's special agent David is practically a cipher. We never really feel the connection between the adult David and the young boy who witnesses his parents being killed by Adolf Eichman's first test of Zyklon-B.
That the agent who nails Eichmann should turn out to have been nearly killed by him as a child is not the brightest idea in Lester Cole's screenplay. The idea that Eichmann's Nazi associates connived against each other also appears to be an invention. It is possible that Cole's work was cut way down to save money. The big conclusion of Operation Eichmann is the actual capture in Argentina, which has been reduced to little more than a brief chase on a sidewalk. What's even less convincing is that very familiar Los Angeles streets are used for the "Argentine" location, specifically the intersection of Sepulveda and Sunset Boulevards right near where the Getty Museum is now located. It's as if the movie had to be finished, and the producers barely had enough money left to put film in the camera.
The WGA eventually corrected the writing credit for Operation Eichmann -- "Lewis Copley" was a fake name used by blacklisted screenwriter Lester Cole, one of the original Hollywood Ten that went to prison for not cooperating with the HUAC. Cole's career was destroyed; Eichmann was his first English-language feature credit in eleven years. Practically his only other credit was on the hit film Born Free... also in anonymity under the alias Copley.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Operation Eichmann is a good enhanced widescreen transfer of this Allied Artists release. The image is reasonably clean and almost completely free of damage, and the soundtrack is not hindered.
Unfortunately no original trailer is included -- it would have been instructive to see exactly how the show was sold.
For a much more accurate telling of the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the Warner Archive Collection has the 1979 television film The House on Garibaldi Street, starring Topol, which was filmed on location in Buenos Aires. The show about Eichmann that really needs to be released on DVD or Blu-ray is the 1984 German TV production Die Wannseekonferenz (The Wannsee Conference), a dramatization of the meeting where the Final Solution was conveyed to the regional Nazi leaders. Except for a brief introduction, the actual meeting transcript is used as the screenplay. The meeting plays out like any corporate gathering, with the boss man (Reinhard Heydrich) using courtesy, humor and intimidation to insure that his underlings "get with the program".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Operation Eichmann rates:
1. I met Mr. Braeden in a UCLA screenwriting class in 1974. He was a great guy -- he thought he might be washed up as an actor and wanted to branch out. He thought Colossus was his best work (a starring role) but felt that nobody paid attention to the acting in Science Fiction movies.
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T'was Ever Thus.