Under the Radar

Why the Nazi Spy Thriller 'Operation Finale' Is So Relevant in 2018

Ben Kingsley stars as Adolf Eichmann in "Operation Finale." (Credit: Valeria Florini/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

In "Operation Finale" (out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital), director Chris Weitz tells the story of the 1960 capture of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who successfully hid in Argentina after World War II. Israeli operatives ran a covert operation that extracted Eichmann and took him to Israel for a trial that was televised worldwide and reeducated the world on the horrors of Nazi destruction and murder.

Movies usually portray intelligence operations as sexy and thrilling and spies as near-superhuman in their skills, but the real operatives always emphasize the day-to-day grind and tedium of espionage work. "Operation Finale" takes a different tack. The Israeli team are a group of brave yet normal men and women who have the kind of internal disagreements and communication issues that will look familiar to anyone with a day job. 

Adolph Eichmann is no supervillain. He's a boring man who promoted unimaginable horrors as the architect of the Holocaust. It's an important and almost daring choice. The movie isn't as immediately thrilling as you might expect, but the portrayal of the operation and its moral implications will stick with you long after you see the film.

Weitz insisted on shooting the film on location in Argentina and the crew's recreation of its 1960 era is exceptionally beautiful. 

Chris Weitz took the time for a conversation with us about his aims in making "Operation Finale" and why its message resonates so intensely in 2018.

Director Chris Weitz and actor Nick Kroll on the set of "Operation Finale." (MGM)

What inspired you to tell this story now?

There's a particular timeliness to this story as we appreciate how easy it can be to slide into authoritarian tendencies. There's an urge to nationalism and dare I say patriotism being felt around the world. It's occasionally good to remind oneself of what happens when those impulses get through.

For myself, my dad was a veteran of World War II and he was a German/Jewish refugee before that. This was stuff that I grew up with. My dad wrote biographies of prominent Nazi party members. I was his fact checker and research assistant, so I grew up with this.

The story in "Operation Finale" is a part of post-World War II history that seems to have completely disappeared from the school curriculum.

Of course, in some ways it's a Holocaust movie and in some ways it's not at all; it's kind of peripheral. It's really the story of how people want to forget things and the value of bringing traumas like these back into the light.

On the one hand, you have someone who wants to lapse into obscurity. On the other hand, a bunch of Israelis are reviving the experience of this trauma in order to get some kind of catharsis for their country.

The mission itself is interesting because they want to bring things back into light rather than assassinate Eichmann. Their aim was national in its importance. In Israel at the time, people were very keen to move past the trauma and the victimhood of the Holocaust. [Prime Minister] Ben-Gurion forced an acknowledgment of everything that had happened upon the country and created an airing of tragedy.

Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) at his Israeli trial in "Operation Finale." (MGM)

I was really blown away by how beautifully the film is shot. The settings are so era-specific. As I watched, I wondered where you'd found such great locations because I was confident that there was no way you would have been able to make this movie in the real locations in Argentina. And yet, when the end credits came it, I found it I was wrong.

In the past, Argentina hasn't really wanted to acknowledge this part of their history. How did you get to shoot there? Have the country come to terms with this part of its history?

I'm glad you're asking. In some ways, Argentina has not wanted to concentrate very much on this part of their past. On the other hand, we never found any roadblocks in our way in terms of shooting there.

Going down there was definitely something that I kind of had to force upon all of us. Argentina is a long way from here, plus there are none of the rebates or tax benefits that drive runaway productions to places like Canada or Hungary or Romania. It was a very particular decision and I really felt it was important for us to get a sense of what it was like to be there, to be able to shoot sometimes in the actual locations where things took place.

There's sort of a fringe benefit in the accretion of history, not just in the buildings and the look of things, which is very particular, but also in the sense of the people around us, our extras, our secondary players, people who had lived through this history.

It's extraordinary the number of times someone came to me and said, "Oh, I remember when this happened" or "My cousin knew one of the guys involved in the mission," all these sorts of things. We wouldn't have experienced that if we were shooting in Montreal, as pleasant as that would have been.

Is there still any sense of that former Nazi German culture in Argentina?

There is this bizarre trove of Nazi paraphernalia that was unearthed during our production. There were all kinds of weird echoes while we were there. There's still the ABC Club, which is the German restaurant where Eichmann met Mengele in Bueno Aires. That's still in operation and serves pretty good German food, actually. And there's Bariloche, which is a place where a lot of German immigrants settled when they left Germany. There still is that sort of Germanic past, but there were also a lot of echoes coming from the States.

While we were shooting, Charlottesville took place, so it was a tremendous reminder that we'll be reminded of these things one way or another, either because we're carefully keeping them in mind or because they pop up out of the unconscious of our own country.

Oscar Isaac and Nick Kroll star in "Operation Finale." (MGM)

We're having this conversation the week after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. I saw this film on Monday and it was a far different experience for me than it would have been on Saturday before the shooting.

An interesting thing that I came to believe while shooting this movie is that Nazi Germany wasn't unique. Obviously, in terms of the devastation that it wrought on Europe and the rest of the world, it is unique. But in terms of the sentiments, I think that we are every bit as drawn to them as Germany or as Brazil or any other place you can think of, given the right conditions.

That was behind our decision not to portray Eichmann as a monster, but to portray him as a human being. That is something that we've occasionally been criticized for. But the important thing is to recognize that the people who effected the Holocaust weren't just sadists and lunatics, but they were opportunists who saw the chance to move up in the world and who hitched their wagons to a star.

I wish I could say that I was shocked by the massacre in Pittsburgh, but really it isn't that surprising, given that these kinds of massacres take place all the time and that there was is much fuel on the grounds politically.

Oscar Isaac stars as Israeli intelligence agent Peter Malkin and Ben Kingsley stars as Adolph Eichmann in "Operation Finale." (MGM)

Not only is Eichmann's portrayal almost banal in some ways, even the Israeli team that went to capture him aren't portrayed as these sort of superhuman heroes or kickass special operators, in the way that most movies would. It's like everybody is closer to normal than you normally see in this kind of story.

When you read the memoirs of the agents on the mission, what's interesting is how they were kind of cobbling things together and flying by the seat of their pants a lot of the time and how they were coming to grips with their own emotions about this situation. They weren't super men; they weren't cold-blooded killers. They were normal people who came from very traumatized backgrounds who were trying to come to grips with what they were doing as it was happening.

All of them indicate how strange it was to be in the safe house with one of the perpetrators of the final solution. The sense of dread and discomfort that they had, not just in being near him, but in recognizing that he was a human being. Eichmann wasn't a monster; he wasn't a super villain. He was just in some way a pathetic human being.

MGM released the movie theatrically here in the United States and Universal's releasing it on home video, but it's a Netflix movie in the rest of the world. That's a platform where a lot more people have a chance to see a movie like this. What kind of feedback are you getting from Germany, from Israel, from Argentina?

There's been lot of interesting feedback and I'm very happy that people can see it on Netflix. Interestingly, there's some pushback in Israel because of the portrayal of Eichmann as a human being, which I think I understand. He's been a sort of a boogeyman figure in Israel for understandable reasons. But I was very intent on showing that he wasn't a kind of Hannibal Lecter. He's more like an entrepreneur who found a business climate in which could move up. I think that it's easier to think of these people as demons, but it is probably more accurate to see them as normal people who do terrible things under the right circumstances.

Well, that's certainly how you have to look at it if you're gonna prevent it from happening again. Otherwise you're not going to see it coming.

Yeah, I think that's the problem.I also got a bit of criticism from someone about the portrayal of the Catholic Church, or rather what they perceive to be the portrayal of the Catholic Church. There's a priest at a fascist rally in the movie and the fact of the matter, unfortunately, is that Eichmann was aided in escaping from Germany to Argentina by priests. There were Catholics who saw any opponent of global communism as a friend in need. Unfortunately, the fascists in Argentina were abetted by traditionalist Catholics as well as Nazis.

Mélanie Laurent, Oscar Isaac, Nick Kroll, Michael Aronov and Greg Hill star in "Operation Finale." (MGM)

Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley are spectacular in the film, but it's interesting to see some other surprising faces in your cast. Peter Strauss is not a guy you see a lot lately. And it was very interesting to see Nick Kroll in a dramatic role.

Well, I love mixing up a cast as much as possible, to have some kind of combination of people you might expect to see in the film, as well as people who are kind of playing in sort of different positions than they normally would. It was really great to have Peter Strauss in the film and to have Nick Kroll playing a dramatic role. I think that comedians are often very, very good at drama when they're given the chance.

I was also really happy to have some actors who hadn't been seen before, who won't be familiar at all to an audience. There's a guy, Greg Hill, who I had seen in a film that was only released on YouTube, who plays Moshe, this kind of very violent, angry operative. I think he's wonderful.

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