Eichmann Tape Odyssey: Making the Documentary
Premiered: April 30, 1997
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The German Editor
Eichmann Tape Odyssey:
The trial of Adolf Eichmann was the first trial ever televised andone of the first major events ever videotaped. Nightly, a compilation of thatday’s trial “highlights” were preparedand disseminated to the world broadcast media. Sometimes the tapes wereliterally cut with razors to assemble the reel–a far moredifficult process than cutting film where you can visibly see the image.
After the trial ended, the tapes were not centrally collected andarchived; the court had no official need for it and over time many of the tapes became dispersed. Yearslater some of it was “found” in a closet in the New York offices of the ADL to whom theproducers had donated it. Other pieces were in Israel. Geoffrey Wigider, ajournalist at the trial, collected the disparatetapes and Eli Evans, president of the Charles Revson Foundation, saw to it thatthe tapes were preserved by duplicating them and placing them in facilities in New York(The Jewish Museum) and Jerusalem for use by scholars and an occasional TV clip.
Now this tape odyssey reaches its conclusion. For the first timesince they aired duringthe trial, a major television documentary goes back to these original videotapesto recreate the landmark case and retell the story of the event which transformedthe world’s consciousness about the Holocaust.
When Benno Schoberth took the job as editor of the PBS documentary”The Trial of AdolfEichmann” he knew it wouldn’t be easy. It was a demanding subject with manytechnicalchallenges and a short deadline. But he didn’t realize it would trigger a fullscalere-evaluation of himself, his family, and his nation.
As a German born after the war, Schoberth had rejected hisnation’s authoritarian legacy;he had no sympathy for what he felt were weak excuses for why Germans followedHitler.However, editing the program and especially watching Eichmann himself makeexcuses forhis actions and deny any responsibility whatsoever in the face of unprecedentedinjusticegave him new insight. What made Germans tolerate, cooperate and participate inNazimadness? What did his relatives do? What would he have done?
More has been written about the Nazis and the Holocaust thanprobably any other subject. Why the Nazis did what they did is the questionoften asked but almost never answered. However, rarely have we heard a Nazi, inhis own words, give an explanation of what they did and why. Adolf Eichmann at his trialspokefor several weeks using, in the words of one interviewee “a macabre kind oflogic” to tell his version of the events which unfolded culminating in the “finalsolution.”
His performance in the glass booth caused the coining of thefamous phrase “the banality of evil” by the writer Hannah Arendt, but Eichmann’s testimony was far more nuanced that that popularly accepted observation.
Tony Award-winning actor Brian Bedford took on the challenge ofrecording the English translationof Eichmann’s words, replacing the trial’s original simultaneous translation. Heand producerKen Mandel tried to understand Eichmann’s complexity and the many layered defensewhichhe had constructed. Bedford’s subtle — you might say eerie — reading into the Eichmann character may help give us all a bit of insight into why Eichmann (andotherGermans) did it. “He was capable of creating the impression that Eichmannbelievedwhat he was saying and yet at the same time was a big liar, which was true. Itwas anuncanny performance,” said Mandel of Bedford.
Other actors who read parts include Peter Gallagher, EricBogosian, Ed Asner, Tony Roberts, EliWallach and Ann Jackson. Using these acclaimed actors to revoice the originaltranslation added drama to the documentary and provided consistency, since the trialtranslationwas done by several translators (including some women translators for malewitnesses).
The witnesses were unanimous. In 1961, before the trial neitherthey nor anyoneelse spoke much about their experiences during the Holocaust. There were many reasons. They were ashamed. They wanted to re-build their lives if possible.Nobodybelieved them. Nobody wanted to hear. In fact, public consciousness about theHolocaust,even use of the word itself, so familiar to us all now, was quite low.
In “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann”, we hear interviews with trialwitnesses discussingthis troubling time for them. Remarkably at first it was difficult to findpeoplewho would testify at all, who would come forward — in public — and tell theirstory. Then graduallythe prosecutors convinced a few to come forward.
During and after the trial, the transformation was palpable. Fromfamily members to the sometimes cynical world press, the world was shocked and moved by theunfolding story of the tragedy and the courage of the witnesses to tell the story. Oneinterviewee,Eliahu Rosenberg, said that before the trial he “used to wake up at night intears and go to his children’s rooms just to make sure they were there.” After the trial,he said,when he talks about the death camp at Treblinka he still feels bad for a coupleof weeks, but “I promised those boys if I survived, it’s my duty to tell what’shappened.”
Perhaps the most moving image in Steven Spielberg’s epic film”Schindler’s List” is the little girl in the red coat, the only color image in the three-hour black and whitefilm. However,most people do not know that this image is based upon a true story, a story toldat the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
In the PBS documentary, “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” this imageloses none of itsimpact when the actual story is told by Assistant Prosecutor (now Supreme Court Judge) Gavriel Bach in an interview which appears in the program. When asked ifthere was any momentin the trial that affected him more than any other, this is the moment hedescribes.
Bach was questioning Dr. Martin Földi, a survivor ofAuschwitz, about the selectionprocess at the train station in the shadows of the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei”sign atAuschwitz. Földi described how he and a son went to the right while adaughter and hiswife went to the left. His little daughter wore the red coat. When an SSofficer sent the son to join the mother and daughter, Földi describes his panic. How would the boy,only twelve,find them among the thousands of people there? But then he realized the red coatwouldbe like a beacon for the boy to join his mother and sister.
He then ends his testimony with the chilling phrase, “I never sawthem again.”
In the program, while telling the story, thirty-five years afterthe incident, JudgeBach wells up with emotion. As Dr. Földi recounted the incident, Bachbecame frozen andunable to continue. All he could do was think abou this own daughter who he hadby chance just bought a red coat. He then adds that to this day he can be at the theateror a restaurant and he will feel his heart beating faster when he sees a little girlin a red coat.
It is always the hope of those who believe that our better spiritswill influenceour civilization, that trials such as Eichmann’s will serve both as lessons aboutand deterrentsagainst future bestial behavior. However, the disappointment is hard to avoidwhennewspaper headlines slap one with the repeat of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda,internationaltribunals indicting and trying war crimes against new Eichmanns, and, even worse,renewed evidence that many nations such as Switzerland and Sweden still have toface up to their actions during the Holocaust itself.
What can we hope to learn from “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann?”First, that justicecan and must be delivered to the perpetrators, if for no other reason than to notdishonor the victims and ourselves. More importantly, it is our duty to publiclyaffirmloud and clear that killing is wrong and that individuals are responsible fortheirchoice to participate. It might prevent a future Eichmann or two, despite theevidencewhich, sadly, disputes this wish. What else can we do?