Since you presumably know the basics about the Holocaust–if you don’t, I would suggest that a movie review is no place to learn them–I will jump to the main question about The Specialist, a new documentary that focuses on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. What can we gather from this film that isn’t in the books?
The answer lies in the way The Specialist was made. It is based exclusively on footage shot at the trial, which began on April 11, 1961, continued through sentencing on December 15 and was videotaped in its entirety. Such comprehensiveness was unusual but not surprising. Having organized an event that was, in the most sober sense of the term, a show trial, the Israeli government made a complete record of what was shown, which was nothing less than the full scope and logistics of the Holocaust.
To carry out the videotaping, the government hired Leo Hurwitz, an American whose professional credentials were impeccable and also distinctly left-wing. (A one-time member of the Film and Photo League, Hurwitz had collaborated on pictures such as Native Land.) He placed four concealed cameras in the courtroom and connected them to a control booth, where he could give instructions to the camera operators and edit in real time from the feeds. The result was some 500 hours of videotape–an invaluable historic document, which the Israelis almost immediately abandoned.
Not only were the tapes left to deteriorate in an uncatalogued heap, with the rights to them sold piecemeal–a frequent fate of film and television footage–but the material was eventually made inaccessible. When the young Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan learned of the tapes in 1991 and asked to see them, he was informed that this footage didn’t exist.
This wasn’t a complete lie. When Sivan and writer Rony Brauman at last got their hands on the tapes, they estimated that a third of the footage had decayed so badly that it could no longer be viewed. Even so, I wonder if something beyond mere bureaucratic incompetence was at work in the general disappearance. During these years, the Israeli government had been holding on to another document from the trial: Eichmann’s memoirs, an 1,100-page manuscript composed in jail. Knowing that written material can be quoted, misquoted, excerpted, paraphrased, recombined, framed and reframed, the Israelis decided to lock up the manuscript. They did not allow it to emerge until the last of February 2000, as evidence to be used by the historian Deborah Lipstadt against the Holocaust denier David Irving. Given that the Israelis were so cautious with Eichmann’s memoirs, I would guess they felt just as uneasy about the uses to which the videotapes might be put. Such materials, too, can be framed and reframed, and with far more force than the written word, since people think of moving images as objective.
But in The Specialist, Sivan and Brauman make no pretense of objectivity. They are sophisticated people; as a filmmaker, Sivan has been concerned with the politics of memory and with the Israelis’ attempts to write the Palestinians out of history, while Brauman, as a past chair of Médecins Sans Frontières, knows something about the relationship between relief efforts and the news media. The two filmmakers seem to have noticed the irony inherent in the “complete record” of the Eichmann trial, which is not complete at all but rather the semi-rotted remains of whatever Leo Hurwitz selected from whatever could be seen from four distinct viewpoints. It might have been possible to conceal how these materials, with their blind spots and damage, fall short of the implied goal, which is omniscience. Instead, Sivan and Brauman have chosen this very inadequacy as their theme.