The True Story of “Operation Finale”
Director Chris Weitz explores the 1960 hunt for Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in the new feature film
It was late fall in Buenos Aires and Ricardo Klement was an ordinary man living an ordinary life. Every morning, he took the bus to his job as a foreman at a Mercedes-Benz factory, and every evening, he returned to his wife and two children in their suburban home. The mirage that was his very existence shattered on May 11, 1960, when he was thrown to the ground, shoved into the backseat of a car, tied up, gagged and blindfolded, threatened with death, and driven to a safe house for interrogation. His captors pulled off the mission in under ten minutes, but it had been meticulously planned out for months, escalating in late March, when Klement’s true identity as Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was confirmed.
The bold undertaking was carried out by Israeli intelligence operatives acting on behalf of the Israeli government. Afraid they would be thwarted by a sympathetic fascistic regime, they never told Argentinian authorities about their mission. Eichmann, the “Architect of the Holocaust,” would be brought to Israel to stand trial on 15 counts of war crimes perpetrated against the Jewish people and against humanity. A year later, his televised trial would be the first time the breadth and depravity of Nazi atrocities were exposed to the world at-large.
The daring mission to smuggle Eichmann out of Argentina is told in Operation Finale, a new film directed by Chris Weitz, which opens on August 29. The movie covers the entire operation, from locating Klement and confirming his true identity, through his capture, 11-day interrogation, return flight to Israel, and the opening of the trial. On the whole, Operation Finale is a straightforward, old-fashioned spy caper, steeped in the nuts-and-bolts of bringing one man home alive to answer for the crimes of the Third Reich. But it’s the scenes between Eichmann and Peter Malkin, a cunning-yet-humane Mossad agent, that really crackle. To stand trial in Israel, the court required Eichmann’s consent signature, and Malkin took it upon himself to get it through means beyond intimidation or torture. It’s Malkin’s attempt to understand Eichmann as more than a monster, even though the Nazis killed his beloved sister and her children, that gives Operational Finale its emotional and psychological heft.
Weitz’s Hollywood career as a writer, producer and director has touched on a wide variety of genres in films including American Pie, About A Boy, Twilight: New Moon, and Rogue One, but this is his first historical venture. Remarkably, the dramatic tale of Eichmann being brought to justice hadn’t been depicted on the big screen, but Weitz’s interest in the story ran deeper than just cinematic appeal. For him, Operation Finale is personal.
“I’ve long wanted to explore this time period because of my family’s history,” he says in an interview. “My father, John, was a German-Jewish refugee who left home as a child in 1933, moved to England, and eventually emigrated to the United States. He joined the Army and worked for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. His specialty was counterintelligence.”
The former spy would go on to have a successful career as a fashion designer, known for his bold-patterned ties and aubergine socks. Later in life, John Weitz became a novelist and a historian writing biographies of prominent Nazi figures such as Hitler’s Banker: Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht and Hitler’s Diplomat: The Life and Times of Joachim von Ribbentrop.
“I was his copyreader and helped organize his library, so I grew up with these historical lives bouncing around in my head quite a lot,” says Weitz. “My Dad passed in 2003. In a way, directing Operation Finale allowed us to reconnect.”
Eichmann, for his part, joined the SS in 1932, and rose through the ranks before being tasked with setting up Jewish deportment centers in Vienna and Prague. In 1942, Eichmann became responsible for the identifying, assembling and transporting of Jews to death camps. He was barbarically efficient, between three and four million Jews were murdered in the extermination camps. (The other 2-3 million were killed in labor and concentration camps, or prior to the Final Solution, executed by Nazi gunmen.)
In the post-war occupation, U.S. troops captured Eichmann, but he escaped the prison camp and spent the next four years moving about Europe and the Middle East under an assumed name. In 1950, Eichmann landed in Argentina, which had become a safe haven for Nazi war criminals like the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele.
Seven years later, Fritz Bauer, a Jewish state prosecutor in Frankfurt, got a tip that Eichmann was in Argentina. Anti-semitism was still so prevalent in West Germany, that rather than pass the intel on to local authorities, Bauer informed Mossad, a treasonable offense. The hunt for Ricardo Klement was on.
Weitz and screenwriter Matthew Orton made sure their interpretation of events was as buttoned-up as possible. For first-time screenwriter Orton, a 2010 Oxford graduate, it meant extensively documenting his script, which was then double-checked by studio researchers. Prior to writing the screenplay, Orton read every account of the operation he could find, including Malkin’s, and interviewed former officers involved or their children. Because while there is certainly filmic catharsis in watching Malkin help bring Eichmann to Israel, taking too many liberties would have been inherently disrespectful to Holocaust victims.
“I met some survivors, and it really brings home the responsibility of addressing the history in good faith, properly showing things as they happened, as opposed to the school of Holocaust denial,” says Weitz. “I think most deniers are acting in bad faith and don’t believe what they profess, but we are in a dangerous time when our grasp on the truth is fading.”
Weitz also hired 30-year Mossad agent Avner Avraham, founder of the archives of the Israeli intelligence agency and an accompanying museum. As a technical consultant, Avraham offered specific character details the actors never would have gotten otherwise.
“We hoped nothing would get through the net to be the best-informed storytellers as we could be,” says Weitz.
This being a movie, some historical details had to be manipulated and timelines were compressed. The period between the first inkling Eichmann had been found and his capture was much longer, and the doctor on the operation was a man, not Malkin’s love interest. For the most part though, the movie sticks to the facts. Eichmann’s capture really did take place on the side of a road with a broken-down car ruse and he was drugged up and dragged onto a plane in full El Al crew getup.
“I absolutely felt I had to know when we altering things, and the latitude I allowed myself was to juxtapose some incidents, but not to make them up from whole cloth,” says Weitz. “For example, there was a girl in Argentina who was tortured by authorities and had a Swastika carved into her chest. We moved it forward to up the suspense, but we didn’t change any outcome. The majority of the film is accurate to the history.”
Weitz moved his family to shoot Operation Finale in Argentina, in the same actual locations where the events took place. A crucial early moment, where Eichmann’s son meets a young Jewish woman, a flirtation that ultimately leads to the identification of his notorious father, is in the same movie theater. Argentina also stood in for Poland, as Weitz created the forest of Malkin’s nightmares in Bariloche, a Patagonian city in the foothills of the Andes. Ironically, in the scenes when Eichmann and Malkin are alone together at peak intensity, the audience might miss the forest for the trees. Weitz explains:
“In those scenes with just Eichmann and Malkin, we used cameras to change perspectives. The production design was such that the audience doesn’t quite know the dimensions of the room, or the exact shape, because it’s usually dark and you don’t see the corners. The wallpaper is a forest design, meant to evoke the horrors Malkin keeps returning to. It’s a bit disorienting in that way.”
What’s also disorienting—as well as disturbing, disgusting, and disheartening—is that the movie isn’t a relic. It’s timely as ever. The film was being shot when the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally took place in Charlottesville and Heather Heyer was run down and killed by a Nazi sympathizer.
“With the resurgence of right-wing authoritarian movements around the world, and the anti-immigrant sentiment that goes along with it, the movie feels perennial and not something unique to 1930s Germany,” says Weitz. “Operation Finale isn’t just a museum piece, it has things to say about today.”
The film ends at the opening of Eichmann’s trial, among the first ever televised. The “Architect of the Holocaust” would claim he had no authority and was just following orders, but he would ultimately be convicted on all counts. On May 31, 1962, Adolf Eichmann was hanged near Tel Aviv. In 1975, Isser Harel, director of the Argentinian operation, wrote The House on Garibaldi Street, the first full account of what took place. Details of the secret mission have leaked out over the years and in 2012, an “Operation Finale” museum exhibit curated by Abraham opened in Israel.
The film recently screened at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The positive feedback was meaningful for Weitz because for him, Operation Finale is foremost about family. The film showing in the Buenos Aries cinema house is Imitation of Life, which starred Weitz’s mother, the actress Susan Kohler, and he used his immediate clan as “glorified extras” in a scene near the end.
“I wanted to invest myself in the film to a greater degree than normal because it mattered to me personally.”
In the future, Weitz says he’d like to tell his father’s story on screen. For now, he is thrilled to finally bring Operation Finale to a theater near you.
Editor's note, August 30, 2018: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Eichmann capture occurred in spring, when, in fact it was late fall. This story has been edited to correct that fact.