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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal
The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal
Home Vision Entertainment // Unrated // October 22, 2002
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted December 3, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Summing up the face of evil is not an easy task. Is the devil a gnarly, fiery, fanged creature? A drooling, babbling psychopath? A slick, smooth operator? Sometimes real evil can hide behind the curtain of plain beaurocracy, evil behind a desk. When Adoph Eichmann, the Nazi general responsible for the slaughter of countless innocents, sat in front of a Jerusalem courtroom in 1961 he tried to paint himself as nothing more than a consummate professional. He was, as the cliche goes, simply following orders when he meticulously sent millions to their deaths.

Films about the Holocaust and the era of Nazi abomination are plentiful. I've reviewed my fair share here and in fact have another one on my desk right now. But Rony Brauman and Eyal Sivan's The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal is unique. Constructed entirely of footage from Eichmann's trial (one of the first uses of video tape technology, then in its infancy, outside of the television studio) The Specialist allows Eichmann to hang himself with his own despicable words.

At first, he only wanted to help the Nazis with their plan of forced emigration for all the Jews in their domain because, as he says, it was the best solution to the "problem." Then, as the plan grew to consist of little more than mass executions, this self-described man of conscience decided to simply press on, doing the best job he could with the orders he was given. He prides himself, 16 years after the end of World War II, with the effective, efficient job he did. At times he tries to explain how he disagreed with Hitler's policies, going as far as stating that had he been ordered to pull the trigger personally he would have turned the gun on himself. But his protestations are hollow, like no matter how complicit he had been there would have always been one step further he would claim would be too far.

The film, with its visual simplicity, plays a very complex game. Since the film never leaves the courtroom, it does appear overly stagnant at times. The Israeli attorney general and the trial judges make for powerful protagonists but still the film lags occasionally. But Brauman and Silvan pull out the stops at several key points. The first comes during witness testimony geared to portray the emotional toll taken by Eichmann's great work on his victims. Innumerable Holocaust survivors testify to their torment, their words and faces telling a story of real pain. The filmmakers cut these testimonials together in such a way that no one story takes center stage but that all have impact. Later, at the film's end, Eichmann is given a chance to try to explain his moral code. The filmmakers use simple editing techniques to enhance the surreal quality of Eichmann's self-denials. The man, frankly, is full of shit and there's no way to miss it.

Some may find the sporadic use of a cacophonous musical score unnecessary or inappropriate, but the filmmakers don't seem to intend this to play like a documentary. It's more like a true life procedural crime drama with a despicable villain. While some may not understand the stylistic choices here, this is a brave, revealing film that distinguishes itself from its ever-growing genre.

Also somewhat controversial on the film's initial release was the added context the filmmakers created by digitally adding the reflection of the courtroom audience, witnesses and prosecution onto Eichmann's glass cage. This may be a bit dishonest if you consider the film a documentary but Sivan and Brauman are more interested in getting to the heart of the trial and providing this complex viewpoint (Eichmann's smirk seen through the faces of his accusers) adds to the film's power.

All in all the investigation of the beaurocrat-as-criminal is invaluable. Today we live in a world where death comes from a desk with the push of a button or the ringing of a phone. Eichmann was just one in a network of monsters whose only mission was to kill but who were able to hide behind their lame excuses. How many more Eichmanns are there in the world? How many more specialists sit in offices housed in the bellies of their governments, pushing buttons and making decisions that end lives? The Specialist shows that sometimes the devil is a mousy little man in a suit, kowtowing to his superiors and writing it all off as just doing his job.

VIDEO:
Since it's taken entirely from the forty year old archives, The Specialist doesn't look like a slick, modern production. Still, the image has a density to it that comes from the primitive video cameras. The blacks, whites and grays bleed together and create an interesting, intense visual look. The compression is fine, with some grainy artifacting evident. The program is full-frame.

AUDIO:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is simple, but effective. Interestingly, the film is available in multiple languages, including Hebrew, German and French, underscoring the multilingual style of the trial. Subtitles are available in English, German and French.

EXTRAS:
An hour long interview with the directors is an excellent companion. They discuss everything from the genesis of the project through the arduous task of turning hundreds of hours of footage into a two hour film. They speak in French with English subtitles, so this might be one feature to watch on a different day from the film. The disc also contains an on-screen excerpt from the book "In Praise of Disobedience." Overall, an English speaker will end up spending a lot of time reading off their television with this DVD, but it's worth it. A trailer is also included.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
A unique form for a film, The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal gives a detailed, personal look at one of the last century's most damned people. While there's no real voice sounded in his defense he doesn't need it. Eichmann condemns himself with his own false modesty and shady excuses.

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