In ‘The Devil’s Confession,’ Adolf Eichmann hangs himself with his own words
When you call your film The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes, you’re announcing a judgment less measured than that 0f Hannah Arendt, who made the bespectacled Nazi bureaucrat the poster boy for the “banality of evil.” I’m not saying we should make excuses for the architect of the Final Solution, only noting that the lurid title lets you know what you’re in for.
Yariv Mozer’s documentary, which makes use of newly available audio of Adolf Eichmann recorded in the late 1950s, exists to present damning evidence. The film relitigates Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem, in which he painted himself as a lowly functionary following orders, by toggling between footage of the unassuming man in his glass enclosure and reenactments of the Argentinian emigre boasting of his importance to other Nazis. The tapes are incriminating, their presentation is often cheesy, relying on voiceover and recreations when interviews and the archives can suffice.
The opening moments are shot like a horror movie: A little girl peers through a door as the daughter of Dutch Nazi journalist Willem Sassen recalls Eichmann’s monstrous aura when he visited their home in the Buenos Aires suburbs for interviews. Narration then teases the film’s exclusive materials, which even Eichmann’s prosecutors couldn’t secure.
“After mysteriously disappearing for years, the tapes were rediscovered and now, for the first time, you’ll hear Eichmann committing his crimes — a true Nazi confession,” a narrator intones, in a voice that’s halfway between History Channel and the one that directs you to “call now” to for some as-seen-on-TV extra. (In the Israeli release, Mozer narrates in Hebrew himself, and, at least in the trailer, seems to do a better job.)
What emerges are unrepentant words, alleged in a 1960 Life magazine article, that reveal the full extent of Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust. Speaking over several sessions to Sassen during a kind of Nazi expat salon, Eichmann seems to anticipate his future defense and completely refute it.
“This cautious bureaucrat was joined by a fanatical fighter for the freedom of my blood, the race that I belong to,” the man in whom Hannah Arendt saw no ideology, said of himself. “Whatever is to the benefit of my race is, for me, holy order and holy law.”
A quote read at Eichmann’s trial, and which he vociferously denied, is heard from the original tape reel in his own voice: “Had we put 10.3 million Jews to death then I would be content and would say, ‘Good, we have destroyed the enemy.’”
It’s chilling to hear, but less so to see, with actors mouthing over the audio on a period set.
According to a Haaretz article, distributor MGM requested “a dramatic reconstruction” of Sassen and Eichmann’s conversations; I suspect the look of the scenes was made to match that of several sequences the documentary recycles from the 2018 thriller Operation Finale, about Eichmann’s abduction in Argentina, which, incidentally, is an MGM production. (Even with this dispiriting corporate synergy, we should be thankful Mozer ditched the idea of an Eichmann deepfake.)
Mozer’s presentation marks a point of contrast with another film, Vanessa Lapa’s Speer Goes to Hollywood from 2020, which eschewed narration and talking heads for archival footage set to audio recreations of sit downs with Nazi architect Albert Speer and screenwriter Andrew Birkin, who was adapting Speer’s memoir. Importantly, Mozer used the original audio, while Lapa had actors re-record the conversations, leading Birkin and others to say it took liberties with the actual material.
Even if there is a hokey effect to the reenactments, there are moments that benefit from this approach. In one, Eichmann is shown explaining his efforts to make an area “Judenfrei” (cleansed of Jews), when Sassen’s wife enters the room to apologize for not being able to find cigarettes. How much more banal can evil get?
Eichmann’s casual confessions to Sassen, laced with vanity and puffed-up importance, play to an under-examined variation of Arendt’s thesis: that you can in fact be willfully, knowingly evil and also frighteningly blasé about it. Interestingly, what Arendt observed in the courtroom makes for the most dramatic moments in the documentary.
Colorizing the familiar footage of Eichmann in his glass box, Mozer often shows us a scene and then invites commentary from talking heads. Mozer interviews the trial’s investigation officer Michael Goldman-Gilad, identified by a witness in a gutting moment as one of Eichmann’s victims, as he stood near the defendant. An outburst from a Hungarian Jew in the gallery prompts Mozer’s experts to opine that David Ben-Gurion suppressed the transcript of the Eichmann tapes over their mention of Rudolf Kasztner, a journalist accused of Nazi collaboration who worked for the Israeli government and was murdered in 1957 under mysterious circumstances.
Historian Adam Raz says Ben-Gurion was reluctant to admit the transcript into evidence in case it mentioned the then-head of staff of the West German Chancellery Hans Globke, and jeopardize an important alliance necessary for nuclearizing Israel.
I don’t know how conspiratorial this conjecture is (Mozer admits he doesn’t have “overwhelming proof”), though it would certainly help the film’s case if it looked less like an episode of Ancient Aliens.
While the titular tapes, audio of which have appeared briefly in other films, is the main draw, the documentary is at its most compelling when it delves into the legacy of Eichmann’s trial. If the tapes confirm what we’d all long suspected of Eichmann, Mozar’s interviews complicate the idea that Eichmann’s days in court were simply a show trial, introducing the political considerations behind, and the hunt for, a crucial piece of missing evidence. (Of the transcript of the missing tapes, the judges only admitted Eichmann’s handwritten corrections.)
The quest to bring Eichmann to justice, depicted in other documentaries, or fictionalized in The Man in the Glass Booth and the latest season of Hunters, is unfailingly dramatic. Eichmann the man, ideologue, pencil pusher or devil — and he was in a sense all three — will always be duller than his crimes.
The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes makes its North American debut at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center Thursday, Jan. 19. Tickets and information can be found here.