Premiered: April 30, 1997
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Eichmann Tape Odyssey:
Making the Documentary
The trial of Adolf Eichmann was the first trial ever televised and one of the first major events ever videotaped. Nightly, a compilation of that day’s trial “highlights” were prepared and disseminated to the world broadcast media. Sometimes the tapes wer literally cut with razors to assemble the reel–a far more difficult process than cutting film where you can visibly see the image.
After the trial ended, the tapes were not centrally collected and archived; the court had no official need for it and over time many of the tapes became dispersed. Years later some of it was “found” in a closet in the New York offices of the ADL to whom the producers had donated it. Other pieces were in Israel. Geoffrey Wigider, a journalist at the trial, collected the disparate tapes and Eli Evans, president of the Charles Revson Foundation, saw to it that the 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 time since they aired during the trial, a major television documentary goes back to these original videotapes to recreate the landmark case and retell the story of the event which transformed the world’s consciousness about the Holocaust.
When Benno Schoberth took the job as editor of the PBS documentary”The Trial of Adolf Eichmann” he knew it wouldn’t be easy. It was a demanding subject with many technical challenges and a short deadline. But he didn’t realize it would trigger a full scale evaluation of himself, his family, and his nation.
As a German born after the war, Schoberth had rejected his nation’s authoritarian legacy;he had no sympathy for what he felt were weak excuses for why Germans followed Hitler. However, editing the program and especially watching Eichmann himself make excuses for his actions and deny any responsibility whatsoever in the face of unprecedented injustice gave him new insight. What made Germans tolerate, cooperate and participate in Nazi madness? What did his relatives do? What would he have done?
More has been written about the Nazis and the Holocaust than probably any other subject. Why the Nazis did what they did is the question often asked but almost never answered. However, rarely have we heard a Nazi, in his own words, give an explanation of what they did and why. Adolf Eichmann at his trial spoke for several weeks using, in the words of one interviewee “a macabre kind of logic” to tell his version of the events which unfolded culminating in the “final solution.”
His performance in the glass booth caused the coining of the famous 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 of recording the English translation of Eichmann’s words, replacing the trial’s original simultaneous translation. He and producer Ken Mandel tried to understand Eichmann’s complexity and the many layered defense which he 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 (and other Germans) did it. “He was capable of creating the impression that Eichmann believed what he was saying and yet at the same time was a big liar, which was true. It was an uncanny performance,” said Mandel of Bedford.
Other actors who read parts include Peter Gallagher, Eric Bogosian, Ed Asner, Tony Roberts, Eli Wallach and Ann Jackson. Using these acclaimed actors to revoice the original translation added drama to the documentary and provided consistency, since the trial translation was done by several translators (including some women translators for male witnesses).
The witnesses were unanimous. In 1961, before the trial neither they nor anyone else spoke much about their experiences during the Holocaust. There were many reasons. They were ashamed. They wanted to re-build their lives if possible. Nobody believed them. Nobody wanted to hear. In fact, public consciousness about the Holocaust,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 trial witnesses discussing this troubling time for them. Remarkably at first it was difficult to find people who would testify at all, who would come forward — in public — and tell their story. Then gradually the prosecutors convinced a few to come forward.
During and after the trial, the transformation was palpable. From family members to the sometimes cynical world press, the world was shocked and moved by the unfolding story of the tragedy and the courage of the witnesses to tell the story. One interviewee, Eliahu Rosenberg, said that before the trial he “used to wake up at night in tears 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 couple of weeks, but “I promised those boys if I survived, it’s my duty to tell what’s happened.”
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 white film. However,most people do not know that this image is based upon a true story, a story told at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
In the PBS documentary, “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” this image loses none of its impact 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 if there was any moment in the trial that affected him more than any other, this is the moment he describes.
Bach was questioning Dr. Martin Földi, a survivor of Auschwitz, about the selection process at the train station in the shadows of the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei”sign at Auschwitz. Földi described how he and a son went to the right while a daughter and his wife went to the left. His little daughter wore the red coat. When an SS officer 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 coat would be like a beacon for the boy to join his mother and sister.
He then ends his testimony with the chilling phrase, “I never saw them again.”
In the program, while telling the story, thirty-five years after the incident, Judge Bach wells up with emotion. As Dr. Földi recounted the incident, Bach became frozen and unable to continue. All he could do was think about his own daughter who he had by chance just bought a red coat. He then adds that to this day he can be at the theater or a restaurant and he will feel his heart beating faster when he sees a little girl in a red coat.
It is always the hope of those who believe that our better spirits will influence our civilization, that trials such as Eichmann’s will serve both as lessons about and deterrents against future bestial behavior. However, the disappointment is hard to avoid when newspaper headlines slap one with the repeat of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, international tribunals indicting and trying war crimes against new Eichmanns, and, even worse,renewed evidence that many nations such as Switzerland and Sweden still have to face up to their actions during the Holocaust itself.
What can we hope to learn from “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann?”First, that justice can and must be delivered to the perpetrators, if for no other reason than to not dishonor the victims and ourselves. More importantly, it is our duty to publicly affirm loud and clear that killing is wrong and that individuals are responsible for their choice to participate. It might prevent a future Eichmann or two, despite the evidence which, sadly, disputes this wish. What else can we do?