Monday, September 24, 2007

Review – The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Killer

September 22, 2007

The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Killer - 1999

The trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann in 1961 was an historically important event. It was the first time that many Israelis testified about what happened to them at the German Concentration Camps, and some say that it brought the truth about the Holocaust, which had long been kept silent, out into the open. In 1999, The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Killer was released. The film documents Eichmann’s trial using select moments from the trial itself. It is at times both fascinating and frustrating.

The film is at times dull and at others riviting. First, some sessions of the trial yield little in the way of information. For example, in the first half, the film simply shows Eichmann reading from his notes and the judges requesting that he answer from memory. His defense lawyer doesn’t question prosecution witnesses, so there is no dramatic cross-examination. Furthermore, the film includes extremely brief snippets of witnesses to the atrocities that took place at the concentration camps, but follows them with one of the judges saying that they have little bearing on the case being tried. There are moments of drama, however. Eichmann is directly asked if he ever witnessed murders being committed, and it is fascinating to see him use a combination of ignorance and powerlessness to shake off any personal responsibility for the crimes committed during the genocide. The film has a few other interesting revelations.

Eichmann, whose job it was to arrange the transportation of Jews to concentration camps, became known as the specialist because of his work ethic. He performed his job to the best of his ability and when he was asked to handle a job for which he was not immediately qualified, he worked diligently to learn the job, never complaining that he was the wrong man for the task. He believed in following orders and never questioning his superiors. When he wasn’t sure how to implement a policy or order, he asked his superiors for their guidance, and if his testimony is to be believed, never used his own judgment when exercising his job duties. In short, he was a perfect soldier and an ideal Nazi.

In the film, Eichmann seems to indicate that he admired Jewish culture and art and personally held no animosity towards Jews. However, as he explains, he had to go along with the political movements of that time, and that meant evacuating Jews by force and arranging their transportation to places such as Auschwitz, destinations that later became known as death camps. When asked whether or not he knew that the Jews he was arranging transportation for were being sent to their deaths, he says that he heard about it later, but adds that he feels no personal responsibility for them, as he was simply following orders. When asked if he views those who sent Jews to the gas chamber as murderers, he says he cannot judge them, for they too were adhering to the commands of their superiors. In Eichmann’s mind, the fact that he was obeying orders exonerates him from any personal responsibility for the fate of those he forcibly moved.

Perhaps it is Eichmann steadfast conviction that he was not responsible for the deaths around him that prevents The Specialist from becoming a landmark event. There are no made-for-film lines such as “Have you no sense of decency?” Eichmann does not break down into tears like Oscar Schindler does at the end of Schindler’s List. Instead, Eichmann stands by his actions and shows no remorse or regret. In this way, he is similar to a man who takes part in a riot after it starts and then insists that he is not responsible for its carnage because he was just doing what everyone else was doing. And after all, it wasn’t he who instigated it. (on DVD from Home Vision)

3 stars

The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Killer is in Hebrew and German with English subtitles.

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