The most compromising and brave achievement in director Chris Weitz’s new film Operation Finale is Sir Ben Kingsley’s nuanced portrayal of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer who orchestrated the infamous “Final Solution” that led to the murder of six million Jews. How does an actor infuse a sense of humanity into a man that history justly paints as a terrible monster?
“I did not humanize him,” Kingsley told Inverse at a press event last week. “Because I’m sorry to say that he was already human.”
Operation Finale stars Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin, who, along with a group of other Jewish Mossad agents, capture Eichmann years after he escapes the aftermath of World War II by hiding in Argentina. What begins as a thrilling heist film evolves into a complex case of extradition via espionage after the group is trapped for more than a week while Eichmann is imprisoned.
As the Israeli spies interact with the perpetrator behind history’s greatest crime, they learn first-hand that Eichmann isn’t the straightforward monster history often paints him as. Kingsley’s portrayal touts the usual rhetoric about “following orders,” but it also shows the quiet life of a man who laughs with his young son and buys his wife ornate flowers for their anniversary. “This man was a man amongst men,” Kingsley said.
“It is not my interpretation or my version of Eichmann,” Kingsley said. “I’m sorry to say over and over again: This man had children, this man had a wife, this man ate sausages, drank beer. He did not land from Mars. I would be doing history and his victims a terrible disservice if I pretended he was a two-dimensional comic strip villain. I’m sorry to say that he was a human being.”
Operation Finale dabbles in Eichmann’s personal history in a way that almost makes the viewer feel sorry for him. He claims that he was “chained to his desk” and forced to engineer more efficient ways to keep the Third Reich operating smoothly, and he worries about becoming little more than a scapegoat. And yet, he was still the man who managed the logistics of deporting and massacring millions of people, and who, at one point in the film, willingly watches soldiers gun down hundreds of Jews standing in a ditch.
As such, Kingsley also spoke about not letting such character wholly inhabit him. “I simply want to get him on canvas and present him to the world for the man he was, for what he did to people, and the fact that he really did exist,” Kingsley said, adding that he approached the role like an impartial portrait artist painting a subject.
“It is perhaps my obligation — to use Elie Wiesel’s words — as a storyteller, to present a portrait of this man as cleanly and as impersonally as I possibly can,” Kingsley said. What emerges in Operation Finale is a story that never comes close to sympathizing with a Nazi, even if it does demonstrate a startling amount of empathy for one.
Operation Finale will be released in theaters on August 29.