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Martin Freeman: exposing Adolf Eichmann
The televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 was a landmark in Holocaust
history. To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the
drama is coming to our screens again. Euan Ferguson meets Martin Freeman on
set to hear why it has lost none of its power
The Observer, Sunday 11 January 2015
The Eichmann Show
'He was fluent in both Hebrew and German and persuaded the Israeli
authorities to allow him to film the trial': Martin Freeman on producer
Milton Fruchtman. Photograph: Steffan Hill/BBC
It's dawn and it's sub-zero and it's a potholed car park in Vilnius, eastern
Lithuania, and a hobbit is preparing to tell the world about the Holocaust.
A dark-suited Martin Freeman, breath steaming, pauses to greet us on his
hurried way from trailer to set, and already he's in character, with a soft
New York accent which he will insist on retaining even off set. Nothing is
as it seems. Far less so than is normal even in the kooky looking-glass
world of film. Vilnius is playing Jerusalem in the broiling summer. The year
is 1961.
A television programme is being made about the making of a television
programme. It was a big television programme. In May 1960 Adolf Eichmann was
captured by Mossad and Shin Bet agents on the streets of Buenos Aires, where
he had been living under the name of Ricardo Klement since 1952. He was
smuggled back to Israel and put on trial for genocide, for his leading part
as architect of the Final Solution. The decision was made to film the trial
for a worldwide TV audience.
Hence, today, Viesoji Istaiga Vilniaus Kulturos Pramogu Ir Sporto Rumai, or
the Vilnius Cultural, Entertainment and Sports Palace, a Stalin-era delight
of neo-brutalist fearful symmetry, and thus in a way appropriate,
encapsulating the last century's other wave of optimistic totalitarianism.
It is rather beautiful, in its ugliness, but it is primarily useful today
for the existence of 1961-era microphones and cameras, an auditorium wholly
available for conversion to a courtroom, several severely talented Vilnius
craftsmen and a handful of local mensches doubling as Israeli guards and
possibly wishing it was actually 1961 and, maybe, Jerusalem and actually
The decision to film Eichmann's trial was taken in 1960 by David Ben-Gurion,
first prime minister of Israel, partly because he had been befriended by a
young US producer by the name of Milton Fruchtman. Martin Freeman, who plays
him, explains in Fruchtman's accent (he's wary of dropping out of dialect
even for a lunchtime chat): "I've read up on Milton - he'd been filming some
neo-Nazis in the 50s, in some bierkeller - and at the end they stood and
chanted 'Heil Hitler', 15 years after the fucking war, and that led him
indirectly to Ben-Gurion, whom he essentially schmoozed. Milton was
charming, and fluent in both Hebrew and German, and he persuaded the Israeli
authorities to allow him to film proceedings."
Eichmann in court showing no reaction when confronted with his terrible
In court: Eichmann showed no reaction when confronted with his terrible
actions. Photograph: Popperfoto
The whole production was ridiculously fraught. Fruchtman had to cope, in a
country which didn't even have a television service in 1961, with massive
technical challenges, not least the trial judges' refusal to countenance hot
and loud cameras in the trial space. This was Israel's day in court. It was
also that new nation's barmitzvah, 13 years into manhood, and also
effectively its Nuremberg, its day in the dark, and it didn't want any
besmirching hints of bias. Fruchtman got round this by half-unbricking the
walls of the court and hiding the cameras inside, then employing an
ingenious trompe-l'oeil system involving reflective white paint and chicken
Then there was the director. Leo Hurwitz, a once-acclaimed filmmaker, had
been blacklisted under McCarthy and had barely worked for a decade: he was
the best, but it was a brave decision. Then there were the ratings. Although
it was to be shown on TV in 37 countries, it would compete that summer in
America, by far the planet's most TV-friendly country, with the invasion of
Cuba and the orbit of Yuri Gagarin.
And it is nominally this tale that is being told, by BBC Two, in an
ambitious 90 minutes: the tale of a couple of pioneering TV troubadours
battling daft odds to bring about what would become the world's first-ever
global TV event. But after about an hour, emphases all darken.
It becomes, no longer, a battle of characters and wills and ratings. The BBC
producers Laurence Bowen and Ken Marshall have secured much archive footage
from the Eichmann trial, and from the camps. It leaves us hangjawed and
bereft, as it did Leo and Milton 53 years ago. As it does Martin Freeman and
Anthony LaPaglia today. Watching the real Eichmann, in that glass box. The
real black-and-white Eichmann coming face to face in court with real
witnesses. The enforced grave digger Michael Podchlebnik, and Rivka
Yosselevska, her family shot in some godforsaken quarry, and Yehiel
Katzetnik, who faints in court, and legions of fellow travellers -
14-year-old witnesses to Auschwitz or to the grim cleansing of Paris - and
then comes the grand guignol, the footage from the camps. Throughout,
Eichmann refuses to allow us to partake in an iota of his reaction. He looks
bored, twisting his lip as such unconscionable footage rolls.
This became Fruchtman and Hurwitz's great legacy. Those 37 countries stood
transfixed by, as Martin Freeman now says: "Hearing such first-hand
accounts, yes, but in such detail, and such volume. I guess this is where
the Holocaust really became the Holocaust."
Familiar as we now may be with concentration-camp footage, it might seem
hard to realise that there was a good 15-year period after the war where the
Holocaust was essentially disbelieved. Camp survivors first spoke, loudly
and often, of their experiences, but found listeners too often unreceptive,
unable to process that enormity, and dismissing it as improbable
exaggeration at best. The survivors shut up again. There was also the
fraught question of whether the Jews owned accidental complicity in their
own fate, by too seldom standing up to the jackboot: bizarrely, with an
exuberant lack of usefulness, some of these debates continue today.
Milton Fruchtman, who filmed Eichmann's trial.
So that was the grand import of the producer's vision, realised on an
unprecedented scale and to eventual rightful acclaim: despite Gagarin and
the rest, Americans in particular (and then Australia, and Britain) became
transfixed by all the unfolding tales and testimonies. And they still exert
extraordinary fascination.
I have just climbed the stairs for my interview with Freeman, from the chill
auditorium where this is being magicked, as a set designer artfully knocks
bricks from just-built walls. I have just stood, on set, in the glass box
where Eichmann's actor was that day to stand. This is in Lithuania, on a
film set. And yet.
There are milling extras in Israeli guards' outfits. Young off-duty local
waiters for the most part, sallow and saturnine or handsomely jowly, smoking
furiously between sets in the high cold frozen sun before they diligently
remount the high cold frozen metal stairs past a flutter of busy-bee BBC
continuity wizards: loop-fed multilingual script editors with one eye and
one ear on the monitor, one ear clamped to a headphone, chill mittened
fingers rewinding pages, an impossible third ear half-tuned to shouted stage
directions. They, the Lithuanians, would smile courteously, understandably
keen to swerve the unfathomable. And return to the merely surreal: hanging
out silently behind the cardboard flats of a film set featuring a warm, red,
smoky cocktail bar (in fact a grimly cold and unsmoky one: batteried fans
were used to dispel the smoke between unending takes, to assuage minor
co-stars with coughs. It was, at least, red; and looks warm and invitingly
drunken in the rough cut).
And yet, and yet: when I stood in that glass box, a frisson of echoed
history, and one which Freeman tacitly acknowledges. "It's always the case
whenever you're doing someone real, how much you want to do an impression or
a characterisation. If I was doing Churchill, or Gandhi - people know
exactly how they talked, walked. But I realised early on that in this if I
started thinking: 'I'm not being very Milton-like' - basing it on half an
hour of footage - it's actually going to hamstring me by trying to be this
guy and not just telling the story. The story is way above my
characterisation, actually. The footage of the camps and the trial is way
above my characterisation. That footage is actually way above this telly
play, and I'm sure [writer] Simon Block would agree. This is all going to be
subject - everything we're doing, dramatically, is all going to be subject -
to when we see black-and-white footage of Eichmann, and when we see the
footage in court of the camps - it's way more important and horrifying than
anything we can do, and we are, cast and crew, all just kind of an addendum
to that."
Actor Anthony LaPaglia plays director Leo, the more complex character. And
he grew "immensely conscious of the fact that Leo had several ethical
dilemmas. The way in which Eichmann was repatriated from Argentina. having
suffered under in essence another fascist regime, McCarthyism, perhaps Leo
had a more evolved idea about how it doesn't take much to turn ordinary
people into people who commit acts which are unjust and unreasonable.
"Part of his hope was that, in the prosecution of Eichmann, there would be
some sign of remorse for or acceptance of what he did. Leo felt that if he
could catch that moment, it would explain that everyone's capable under the
right circumstances of behaving in ways they never thought they would.
Unfortunately, Eichmann remained unrepentant, firmly believing that what he
did was ethically correct for him."
What did he, Anthony, believe, regarding capacity for evil? "Well." his soft
cadences falter. "I live in a generation which has never been tested. My
grandparents were tested. My uncles were both captured and sent to Belsen,
and I just don't think it's possible, unless you've been through that kind
of thing, to say what you would or would not really be capable of. Some
people rise to the occasion. In others it brings out the worst. Until you're
tested with the consequences of going against the grain - if you're cold and
hungry and scared, or even rich and well-fed and scared - I don't know if
any of us can say what we'd be capable of."
Anthony LaPaglia as director Leo Hurwitz with Martin Freeman as Fruchtman
The 37 countries that saw it stood transfixed': Anthony LaPaglia as director
Leo Hurwitz with Freeman as Fruchtman. Photograph: Algimantas
Martin Freeman again chooses his words carefully as he ponders "evil": "I'm
very much with Leo's mindset: there are no monsters - there are people who
do bad things.
"Eichmann was highly intelligent - Jesus, all of the top Nazis were smart
guys - and his argument was: if you want to know your enemy, know why you're
hating them, and so, for instance, he learned Hebrew."
Eichmann was, I mention, an avowed Zionist: his solution of choice would
have been an entirely new land, outside Europe, for all Jews: it was only
after 1942, and Wannsee, and after he'd relinquished his deluded fantasy of
transporting all Jews to Madagascar, that he was given responsibility for
otherwise expediting matters.
"Exactly!" says Freeman. "It had got to the point where: hmm, that's not
working, they're not leaving quickly enough, ha, let's think of something
else. But to my mind there are not enough things that show the Nazis as
human, as smart people, charismatic people, who are not inhuman naturally.
But who are able to be fantastically inhuman when they choose to be."
It is clear that all the major players here in Vilnius - even the Lithuanian
extras, for Lithuania has more than too many memories of how its Jews were
treated by both Hitler and Stalin - have thought deeply, read deeply, buried
themselves in the issues. LaPaglia is particularly astute on Jew-blaming.
"Yes, questions were asked in the 50s as to why they hadn't fought back,"
says Freeman. "I'd answer that by saying that I have a friend who lived
through the purges in Serbia and Bosnia, and one of my questions to him was:
'Why didn't you fight back?' And he simply looked at me and said: 'We didn't
have any guns.'
"So what the trial did, and this filming of the trial, was awaken the public
to the fact that these stories were not mythologies. It was crucial. And I'd
like to think that this current programme, this telling of the story of the
story, is, too, important."
British actor Nicholas Woodeson, who plays a vulnerable Jewish cameraman,
says: "I'm old enough, I'm afraid, to remember the programme. The scratchy
images on the telly, that twisted lip. My family was in Haifa, and I still
remember at school, back in England, the kind of casual unmalicious
antisemitism, my being so puzzled by it. I had loved Israel, and I later
found England deeply depressing.
"My character is the cameraman Yaakov, and what emerges is that he's also
been in a labour camp, and during the proceedings in a psychosomatic way,
like shell shock, the recollections get to him. So I identified with him,
and this programme, hugely. But the Israel I remember - it was a different
country. It was essentially eclipsed when Rabin was assassinated. For me
that was Israel's's Abraham Lincoln moment."
Adolf Eichmann
'In the prosecution of Eichmann, they hoped there'd be some sign of remorse
or acceptance of what he did'. Photograph: Popperfoto
The director, Paul Andrew Williams, best known for the acclaimed London to
Brighton, is a refreshingly unpretentious and unflappable director, despite
having had to conduct an orchestra of several languages and locations. He
also, as have so many, admits a fascination with how National Socialism came
to power, "and how they took antisemitism to the extreme, and normal people
jumped on board this bandwagon of persecution.
"Even though the trial was possibly only ever going to end in one way" -
Eichmann was hanged on 1 June 1962 and his ashes scattered at sea - "the
awareness raised was astonishing and important. I come from a generation
where it's been very well known, from school onwards, but that's indeed
thanks partly to this thing. It's been an experience here in Vilnius. If you
watch the footage of witnesses, their massive dignity - even just seeing
them, the actors, in that seat, in the correct clothes - it truly affects.
But I did get to work with Martin and Anthony. Actors thrive on different
notes, different ways of being directed, and that's great.
"Martin and I share the same sort of humour, but his craft - which is a
wanker's way of saying it - but it really is spot on; he really does his
homework. Martin has read up, thumbed through, a huge amount on Eichmann,
even though the character didn't necessarily need it. He might seem the kind
of guy you'd love to spend an afternoon in the pub with putting the world to
rights, but there's a reason why he is where he is. Hard work."
I tell him that The Eichmann Show, on my brief trip out here, deserves if
only for veracity of detail to make a huge impact. A hardboard sign, for
example, for "directions to press and for diplomats" is rendered
typographically perfect for 1961 Jerusalem. He smiles. "Just so long as it's
not shit."
It's not. In capitals.
Huge thorny questions still remain: about Eichmann's personality, and about
transference of guilt. Hanna Arendt, who covered the trial for the New
Yorker, may have coined, for Eichmann, the phrase "the banality of evil",
but in truth he was a deeply complex man, and very calculating in his
denial, and it's notable that he only shows a brief twitch of emotion when
caught out by the prosecution rather than when watching camp footage. Far
better to my mind than Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem is Martha
Gellhorn's coverage of the trial for the Atlantic, which manages to ask some
still-pertinent questions on German guilt, and the slow dehumanisation of a
people, and the existence of "evil": questions which still need answers.
Questions which, effectively, began with concealed cameras, in a Jerusalem
courthouse, in 1961.
The Eichmann Show will air on BBC Two on 20 January at 9pm as part of the
BBC's plans to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of

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