During Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Hannah Arendt wrote that the Nazi SS colonel was typical of the 'fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil' that characterized Hitler's regime. Arendt's observation made Eichmann case zero in the war-crimes epidemic-he deserves special attention. The quintessential bureaucrat, Eichmann decried his innocence on the grounds that he was only one small part of a chillingly efficient machine. As the transportation specialist, he was simply carrying out orders. Watching Eyal Sivan's The Specialist, composed entirely of actual footage from Eichmann's trial, we have the illusion of observing these events as Arendt did 40 years ago.
Sivan's 35mm film is created from the videotaped footage of Leo Hurwitz, an American documentarian. Hurwitz shot 500 hours, using four cameras hidden behind false partitions in the courtroom. Sivan, an Israeli-born filmmaker, discovered the tapes while working on another project, and then had to overcome incredible bureaucratic obstacles to gain access to them. In the end, the filmmaker finally obtained permission to restore all of Hurwitz's footage. While one-third of it was unusable, in the course of making The Specialist, Sivan created new digital masters of the remainder of Hurwitz's videotapes and catalogued them.
Rarely does Sivan's film focus on anything but Eichmann, and it is the Nazi's eyes and his demeanor that keep you riveted to the screen. A balding, 50-ish man, wearing thick lenses, Eichmann would disappear in a crowd; only the camera's unrelenting eye identifies the Nazi's nervous tics as evidence of a dissociated personality. Sivan uses that quality of the art form to begin his investigation into the uses of the law and the nature of justice. At one point, Eichmann emerges from his glass booth-in which he remained encased throughout most of the trial-to refer to a map of the German empire. Standing at his side is the lead prosecutor, Giddeon Hausner. Both men have their backs to the camera, both are dark-haired and bald in exactly the same places. It is one of the more dramatic moments in The Specialist, and it is the visual equivalent of an argument about what separates the accuser from the accused in a trial that many believed was on shaky legal ground to begin with.
Ultimately, Sivan condemns Eichmann, but not before we see and hear the Nazi's emphatic speech about Jews which, if we were not all so schooled in the monstrous acts of Hitler's SS, might have made Eichmann's claims to being a functionary believable. Eichmann says he was never motivated by hatred for the Jewish people. Hearing his testimony, and then the testimony of witnesses who headed the Jewish Leadership Councils, which collaborated with the Nazis in their deportation effort during the early part of the war, all of your previously held assumptions about guilt and innocence are shattered. You begin to understand why Hebrew University gave Sivan such a hard time-Hurwitz's tapes were stored there-and why the State of Israel initially denied the existence of the footage.
Choosing not to include the defense counsel's arguments against the trial in his film-the accused had been illegally seized by Israel, and his crimes had been committed outside its borders, among other reasons-Sivan nevertheless sheds doubt on the state's motives. He also explores the deeper issues of personal responsibility, of collaboration, and the sin of not knowing or of pretending not to know. While Eichmann's dissociation from his crimes is horrifying, Sivan robs you of any moral certitude you might have about your right to judge him. He comes to the disturbing conclusion that revenge is no doubt the privilege of victors and that even when we feel it is morally unjustifiable, we subsume our doubts and put our trust in the process of law. At the risk of offending his audience, by creating those doubts Sivan brings into question justice itself and the purpose it served in Jerusalem in 1961.