Academic journal article Shofar

Actuality of Banality: Eyal Sivan's the Specialist in Context

Academic journal article Shofar

Actuality of Banality: Eyal Sivan's the Specialist in Context

Article excerpt

Some forty years after the publication of Hannah Arendt's controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the Israeli-born filmmaker Eyal Sivan released his documentary film The Specialist, explicitly referring to Arendt's work. Sivan took archive footage filmed in 1961, during the trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and edited it to present a cinematic articulation of Arendt's book. The film discusses the fundamental flaws in the way the trial was conducted as well as the nature of Eichmann's crimes.

This article analyzes Sivan's use of narrative, editing, visual, and auditory stylistic devices to expose the way the trial was used by the Zionist movement and to challenge its active role within Zionist collective memory. If interpreted as part of a more general post-Zionist artistic and intellectual production, The Specialist could be understood as deconstructing the accused / accuser dichotomy, and suggesting that the accusers and their contemporary heirs might themselves be guilty of some of the charges made against the defendant.

The Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann was caught on May 11, 1960 by three Mossad agents while alighting from a bus, returning from a working day in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Eichmann trial began in Jerusalem eleven months later; it lasted eight months and resulted in the death sentence. Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, after his appeal was denied. Hannah Arendt, a German-born philosopher sent by The New Yorker to review the trial, published her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which was based on her remarks from the trial, in 1963. The Hebrew translation of this book, however, was completed only in 2000, a year after the appearance of The Specialist, a film by the Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, which was inspired by Eichmann in Jerusalem. Raising some controversial questions about the conducting of the trial and the judicial decisions, the book ignited an emotional debate. The Jewish philosopher's skepticism regarding the common description of Eichmann as a blood-thirsty antisemitic monster, and her criticism of the decision to hold the trial in Jerusalem, earned her many opponents among her own people. Thus, for instance, Gershom Scholem, the prominent Kabbalah scholar, denounced Arendt as "heartless," "malicious," and lacking in "love of the Jewish people." The controversy around the book is evidently the main cause for the 40 years' delay in its translation.

However, I do not enter here the bitter controversy regarding Arendt's view, as it belongs within the context of the historical or the judicial discourse. This article, rather, discusses two main issues in regard to Sivan's film. I shall present first Arendt's main arguments concerning Eichmann's trial, followed by a discussion of the way they are cinematically articulated and elaborated in The Specialist. In light of this approach, I shall stress the linkage between the film and the book's translation and the historic-ideological conditions under which both appeared.

Banal Murderous Specialism as a Universal Crime

In Arendt's view, the basic fault of the trial was its ideological oversight of the horrifying essence of Eichmann's crime. Arendt repeatedly stresses that Eichmann was primarily a criminal against humanity, and not only an enemy of the Jewish people. She claims that his main motivation, which had driven him through his murderous career, was not that of pure antisemitism, but a mixture of obedience, dullness, and a desire to satisfy his supervisors. She contends that Eichmann's arbitrary path was guided not by hatred of Jews bur by the banal ambition of a mediocre man.

Although Arendt frequently disputes the judges' opinion, it is worth noting that she agrees with the death sentence imposed on Eichmann. Although she tends to accept Eichmann's claim that he only obeyed orders and did not independently set them, she argues that since he could have avoided his mission without any risk to himself, and because he made no effort to mitigate the harm he caused, he deserved the death penalty. …

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