Review: The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes
by David Katz
- Yariv Mozer’s doc reconsiders the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann – known as one of the architects of the Holocaust – in light of an interview he gave whilst hiding in Argentina a few years earlier
The investigative documentary The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes, directed by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Yariv Mozer, explores the margins of an atrocity, uncovering material that complicates our understanding of the reparative justice in the wake of the Holocaust. Hard facts and outcomes are established at the beginning of the film, and by the end, these certainties remain, with the new evidence and arguments that Mozer uncovers not greatly altering our sense of the truth. But faced with audiences likely to be very familiar with the broad outline of these events, Mozer is still able to find fresh angles and depth, subjecting received wisdom and even some Israeli national pride to welcome scrutiny. The film premiered last month on the opening night of Docaviv.
In the early 1960s, when the world was gradually becoming aware of just what the European Jewish population endured during the war, the Adolf Eichmann trial – broadcast globally, when TV itself had barely made inroads into Israeli life – served a great educative function. Here, finally, was a Nazi caught red-handed, ready to be subjected to righteous justice and cross-examination – to be publicly shamed and humiliated, with the harshest sentence following after that. But as Adam Curtis, another famous documentarian, might say: a funny thing happened. Present at the event was the philosopher Hannah Arendt, on assignment for The New Yorker magazine, who, on observing the defendant’s unnerving calm, attributed his crimes to her concept of “the banality of evil”, influencing perceptions of the Holocaust and other genocidal acts to this day.
With the help of newly recovered primary evidence on Eichmann, and an impressive array of academics and commentators sceptical of Arendt’s reading of the events, Mozer attempts to turn our heads the other way. Crucial to his thesis is exactly what Eichmann, sitting pretty in the surprisingly robust German expat community of Buenos Aires, got up to before he was captured by Mossad agents in May 1960. The Dutch journalist Willem Sassen, another Nazi collaborator, conducted a series of interviews with Eichmann at his home in 1957, looking to get on the record his exact role in perpetrating the Final Solution. Sassen, whose arc is ultimately framed in redemptive terms by Mozer, finds Eichmann a willing raconteur, boasting of his significance to the logistics of the deportation and the camps, and regretting he couldn’t kill as many as 10 million Jews. With the proceedings depicted through staged reconstructions, with actor Eli Gorenstein standing in for Eichmann, and the cast mouthing Sassen’s actual recordings verbatim, Mozer is attempting to make a dramatic corrective to our memory of the more mandarin-like defendant standing in the dock behind bulletproof glass in 1961.
The film makes convincing arguments blaming the leadership of the still-young State of Israel, who were looking to establish strong diplomatic relations with West Germany, for suppressing these tapes, which were requested as evidence in the trial. Mozer also broaches the still-nervier subject of collaboration, insinuating that the tapes contained evidence that would explain the actions, and maybe exonerate the reputations, of community leaders like the Hungarian Rudolf Kasztner. Yet the presiding reality remains that in spite of the interference the trial faced, Eichmann was given a unanimous death sentence at the end. And the subject itself is unknowable and multifaceted enough that the two opposing readings are equally valid. But Mozer deserves credit for revealing how much more there is to comprehend, and reflect on, with this most immense of topics.
The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes is a co-production between Israel and the USA, staged by Tadmor Entertainment, Toluca Pictures, Alice Communications and MGM Television.
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