The Warner Archive has released the 1961 low-budget Allied Artists production of Operation Eichmann on burn-to-order DVD. The film was clearly rushed into production in order to capitalize on the recent capture of the infamous Nazi war criminal who enthusiastically took up the assignment of how to orchestra the logistics of carrying out the Holocaust as part of Hitler's evil scheme to rid occupied Europe of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Third Reich. The film opens with a chilling (but fictitious) statement by Eichmann, who threatens to oversee a revival of world Naziism. The movie's cheap production design undermines the emotional impact of the story. (The scenes in Auschwitz are no more expansive than those seen in contemporary TV dramas at the time.) The B&W cinematography, however, is suitably stark and provides an appropriate downbeat atmosphere. The film strays so far from the facts regarding Eichmann's life on the run that you wonder how producers felt it could be sold to contemporary audiences who were mesmerized by Eichmann's capture by the Israeli Mossad in Argentina. The movie skips over such controversies as Eichmann having been placed in custody of American forces in the aftermath of the war, only to be released due to a blunder about his identity. There is no mention of the cover-ups American intelligence engaged in so that Eichmann would never be found or arrested. (The fear was that Eichmann's arrest might reveal the fact that the American government had willingly hired prominent Nazis for intelligence purposes during the Cold War era.) Nor is there a nod to the fact that Eicmann successfully lived undisturbed in Argentina thanks to an assist from a Catholic bishop who sympathized with the plight of Nazis on the run. Although Eichmann lived in Argentina with his wife and children, the movie presents him as a bachelor who is accompanied by a ditzy and greedy girlfriend, a fictional character named Anna (Ruta Lee). The cinematic Eichmann has a tempestuous relationship with his paramour, but can't seem to leave her. He routinely offers her bribes to stay with him during his life on the run. Finally, the film embellishes Eichmann's daring capture on an Argentinian street by adding a sub-plot about other ex-Nazis who are planning to kill him for making his plans to revive the Third Reich too blatant.
Where the film, directed by R. G. Springsteen, deserves some admiration is in its determination not to sugar coat the atrocities that Eichmann and his cohorts engaged in. Nazis were not the wild-eyed monsters often depicted in propaganda films. Rather, most were distinguished by their sheer banality. Eichmann considered himself simply a bureaucrat who cited the usual defense that he was "just following orders." Likely, he believed that to be the case. Countless bankers, lawyers and accountants eagerly put their talents to use for Hitler with nary a distinction about the larger consequences of their actions. It was Eichmann, however, who rose to the challenge of orchestrating the logistics of transporting millions of poor souls to their deaths. He had not a shred of compassion and treated human beings as he might cattle. The film features Werner Klemperer in a rare starring role as the titular fiend. He delivers an outstanding performance that never sinks into parody or over-acting. Curiously, one of his co-stars is John Banner, who would play Sgt. Schultz opposite Klemperer's Emmy-winning portrayal of Col. Klink on Hogan's Heroes several years later. It is morbidly fascinating to see these two future icons of TV comedy on screen in such a somber tale. Banner plays the commandant of Auschwitz and wines and dines Eichmann at his family dinners even as the ovens are being constructed and the gas chambers are running at full capacity. It serves as a reminder that both Klemperer and Banner were well-regarded as dramatic actors prior to their comedic achievements on television.
Operation Eichmann is a flawed, but compelling look at a Nazi technocrat who personally caused the demise of millions of innocent people. The film could have been so much more impressive, had the story not been relegated to a factually-flawed script and a routine director. Nevertheless, the fascinating performance by Werner Klemperer is reason enough to recommend this release.
Click here to view clip and to order from Warner Archive.