The two actors discuss the timeliness of their new drama, about the capture of notorious Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann
It took 15 years after the end of World War II for one of its most notorious criminals to face justice. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official and architect of the Final Solution, fled from Germany to Argentina after the war ended, where he lived in hiding for more than a decade — until a group of Mossad agents found him, captured him, and brought him to stand trial in Israel. Eichmann’s public trial exposed his crimes to the world, but the harrowing story of his capture has gone largely untold.
That capture is the center focus of Operation Finale, Chris Weitz’s taut spy thriller (in theaters now). Ben Kingsley stars as Eichmann, with Oscar Isaac playing the Mossad agent Peter Malkin, who not only grabbed Eichmann but convinced him to agree to stand trial. It’s a crazy-but-true spy story, complete with ticking clocks and undercover missions, but more than that, it’s a psychological face-off between Malkin and Eichmann, as the agent matches wits with one of history’s most unassuming but cold-blooded villains.
“One of the things he would do was he would disarm bombs,” Isaac says of Malkin. “And here he was presented with the most complex bomb of all, which was Adolf Eichmann’s mind.”
For Kingsley, the film presented a chance to shine a light on a lesser-known part of Holocaust history. The Oscar-winning actor is no stranger to films about the Holocaust, and over the years, he’s played Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in HBO’s Murderers Among Us, Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List, and Anne Frank’s father Otto in an ABC miniseries. He prepared for those roles by meeting with Holocaust survivors, and it was that experience he drew on for Operation Finale — particularly his friendship with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016 and whose picture he carried with him on set.
“I had occasion when I was last with Mr. Wiesel to say to him that the next film that was appropriate to his story, I would dedicate my performance to him,” Kingsley says.
One of the things Kingsley took away from his conversations with Wiesel was the responsibility to show Nazis not as cartoonish villains but as real human beings who were capable of committing atrocities. Operation Finale explores Eichmann’s bloody history, but it also shows his everyday life in Argentina, and Kingsley plays him with an unsettling ordinariness — from kissing his wife to raising his children.
“The tragedy is that the Nazis were human beings,” Kingsley says. “And I think to demonize them, to play them as a B-movie villain, to play them as some Marvel comic baddie would do a terrible injustice to the history and to the victims of the Holocaust. We have to present these people as men and women and honor the 6 million who were not killed by lunatics, madmen, and subhumans. They were killed by a culture, a military machine, and a distorted language that was absolutely dedicated to their extermination. And I’m afraid that’s a terrible truth to accept, but it was carried out by people who ate their sausage and sauerkraut, drank their beer, petted their dogs, kissed their wives, and tucked their children into bed. It’s a terrible thought, but I’m afraid it’s true.”
And although Eichmann was captured in 1960, the film’s themes of hatred and prejudice feel as timely as ever.
“We were down in Argentina in period costumes, and then we turned on the TV and Charlottesville’s happening,” Isaac says. “You’re seeing Nazi flags and fascists walking the streets, and it horribly becomes very clear that we’re not making a movie about the past, we’re making a movie about what’s happening right now. People have been enabled by the rhetoric of those in power and inflamed into hatred. It’s really a testament to Ben Kingsley’s performance that he [doesn’t play Eichmann as] a monster. He’s a human being. It’s a reminder that it’s not some mythical, faraway thing, but something that can easily happen, and even to people that aren’t seemingly evil.”