Adam Skolnick | Longreads | August 2018 | 9 minutes (2,415 words)
“Every feature film is, in some ways, a lie,” said director Chris Weitz as he sipped his fourth double espresso. We were on set of Operation Finale, huddled under a tent next to acclaimed Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, and the specific lie up for debate was whether to turn a sunset scene into sunrise. That switch triggered some hand-wringing because moviemaking is an attempt to capture a scramble of moments, and if the look of one is altered, because, say, Oscar Isaac is still being primped in wardrobe as precious light fades from the sky, there are ripple effects, which can torpedo narrative flow and make even a true story feel false.
Whether or not the man Isaac was playing, Peter Malkin, actually landed at Ezeiza International Airport at dawn or dusk when he arrived in Buenos Aires in 1960 to help hunt down fugitive Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann, is beside the point. What matters is that Malkin’s arrival and all the moments thereafter feel real because this is a true story, one with urgent modern relevance. Plus, for Weitz this project is personal.
If he missed an opportunity to shoot the scene as planned, the production schedule would be shredded, money wasted from an already stretched budget, and that matters because this is not the kind of movie studios like to make anymore. The 48-year-old director credits MGM for investing in an entertaining movie about a serious topic (read: there are no flying robots), but he’d declined to shoot in Budapest, which would have saved cash, preferring the authenticity of Buenos Aires — and now this.
“¿Qué estamos esperando?” Aguirresarobe asked nobody in particular. Weitz was wondering the same thing. It was 6:42 p.m. and the sky was darkening, but despite the pressure and his caffeine load, Weitz projected an aura of calm on his bustling bilingual set.
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“Every day you’re making a movie it sort of gravitates toward a clusterfuck,” Weitz reasoned as he rolled up the sleeves of his pin-striped button down. “You just have to surf it.” Scattered all around us were a range of cherry vintage vehicles (a Citroën, two DeSotos, and a few Di Tellas, Argentina’s endemic automotive brand) and more than 50 extras dressed in mid-century period attire. All of it — the dusky light, the location, the costumes, the stakes — produced a magical quality as if we were in the eye of a Fellini or Kurosawa dream sequence.
We’d met up earlier that morning at Weitz’s rented house in Buenos Aires’ hip Palermo district, with its trendy restaurants, corner cafés, and cobbled streets, hopped in his chauffeured Camry, and drove an hour out of town to set, during which time I peppered him with questions about his 20-year career. Weitz has imagined almost every movie genre starting with the iconic coming-of-age sex comedy, American Pie, which he produced and directed with his brother Paul. Their follow-up, About A Boy (they cowrote and codirected), placed them among the best screenwriters of their generation and garnered an Oscar nomination. Since then he’s directed fantasy popcorn (New Moon) and channeled his inner Star Wars geek to cowrite a smash hit franchise spin-off in Rogue One. In between he published three young-adult novels in a post-apocalyptic trilogy, and contemplated ditching Hollywood “to do something a bit more useful,” he said. Makes sense for a man who sits on the board of Homeboy Industries and is a sucker for the radical inclusiveness of Burning Man, where he met his wife, Mercedes Martinez. This was his first turn at the helm of a major studio movie in six years.
As soon as we arrived on the Argentine air force base doubling as Ezeiza, he was whisked away by production designer David Brisbin (Drugstore Cowboy, New Moon) and prop master Ellen Freund (Mad Men) to approve the throwback terminal and control tower. A bit later he was greeted by the base’s real-life commandant, distinguished in his flight suit, who invited him to a pig roast the following evening. His invitation sounded more like an order, but in each instance Weitz was gracious and unflappable, because, when it comes to making movies, he has seen it all.
‘Every feature film is, in some ways, a lie,’ said director Chris Weitz as he sipped his fourth double espresso.
Weitz was raised around the business. His grandfather Paul Kohner was a prominent agent and producer who married Mexican-born actress Lupita Tovar. Their daughter, Susan, Weitz’s mother, also became an actress, who won two Golden Globes and was nominated for an Oscar for the 1959 film Imitation of Life. The brothers Weitz grew up in New York City, but visited their grandparents in L.A. often. That meant attending sprawling Bel Air dinners with scions of Old Hollywood, John Huston and Ingmar Bergman among them, but the reason MGM’s Jonathan Glickman hired Weitz for Operation Finale was because of his father’s history.
John Weitz was 10 when Adolf Hitler was declared Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Part of a wealthy Jewish family, he was sent from Berlin to St. Paul’s School in London, where he would stay until 1938 when the rest of his family finally fled Nazi Germany. Together they made their way to the United States. Weitz joined the army in 1943, and as a well-educated native German speaker, matriculated into the Office for Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor to the CIA. In late April 1945, John Weitz was part of the team that liberated Dachau, the notorious death camp, and became one of the first Allied soldiers to see the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand. He shared what he witnessed with a few close friends in a series of letters, but he never told his grisly war stories to his sons.
“When I think about it now,” Weitz said of his father, “it’s quite likely that he had some kind of PTSD. He never slept very well. He was tightly wrapped.”
After retiring from a successful career in New York fashion, John Weitz began writing biographies of Nazis, including one of the Minister of Economics under Hitler, Hjalmar Schacht, as if Nazism was a riddle he was still trying to solve. When Chris returned home for the summers while earning his degree at Cambridge, he was dispatched to the main branch of the New York Public Library to help with research. That meant poring over giant leather-bound catalogs in search of obscure German diplomatic histories. He’d frequently return to his father’s study with photocopies of entire books in hand.
In late April 1945, John Weitz was part of the team that liberated Dachau, the notorious death camp, and became one of the first Allied soldiers to see the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand.
“He was fascinated with how the upper classes in Germany made accommodations and kind of allowed or justified Nazis to themselves,” Weitz said, “having first mocked everything about it.” Still, his father never showed his scars from Dachau. It wasn’t until 2014, 12 years after his death, that Weitz received a copy of a letter signed by his father, dated May 5, 1945. It details a descent into an unfathomable waking nightmare.
Prisoners are milling around everywhere, the way they looked cannot be described … starved, beaten, scarred … They showed me the horrors… The gas chamber… the label over the door says in bitter irony “Brausebad”… cement walls and floors, little barred windows knee high… and eighteen nozzles in the ceiling… and next door the “control room” … where the SS men used to turn on the hot water then turn off the hot water and turn on the gas… and then the hundred or so… would choke to death, scraping their hands bloody on the cruel cement walls… tens of thousands died here… it can be smelled from hundreds of yards away… the stink of death …
Pull a thread from any of the tragic stories discovered at Dachau and it leads to Adolf Eichmann. He planned the logistics first for the mass deportation of Jews, then their herding into urban ghettos across Europe, and finally transporting them like abused livestock by train to concentration camps. Because of his meticulous design, at least 11 million people were murdered with brutal efficiency while he lived out the war like a gilded robber baron in stolen luxury.
Pull a thread from any of the tragic stories discovered at Dachau and it leads to Adolf Eichmann…Because of his meticulous design, at least 11 million people were murdered with brutal efficiency while he lived out the war like a gilded robber baron in stolen luxury.
Within weeks of reading his father’s letters for the first time, Weitz received the Operation Finale script from Glickman, who calls the movie “a riveting thriller” about Israel’s daring operation to capture Eichmann in 1960. Weitz knew the history. In the chaos that followed allied victory, some of the worst war criminals slipped free, including Eichmann, who escaped from a POW camp before he could be identified. Penniless and on the run, he worked as a lumberjack then a chicken farmer before connecting to an underground railroad for war criminals run by Nazi sympathizers within the Catholic Church. It was a cabal of priests that wrangled him a Red Cross passport — the same document Holocaust survivors depended upon — and, with the help of former SS-affiliated Argentinians, facilitated his escape from Italy to Argentina, where he built a life as Ricardo Klement and eventually sent for his family. It wasn’t until the daughter of a Holocaust survivor started dating his son, who still carried the Eichmann name, that his presence would register on the radar of Israel’s national intelligence agency, Mossad.
The original script, a debut written by 28-year-old Brit Matthew Orton, was terrific, and Weitz guided rewrites that would make it even better. Eichmann could have had an inner Hannibal Lecter quality, but Orton and Weitz resisted this interpretation. “That’s very juicy stuff, but I wanted him to be less of a villain so that he could end up more of a threat,” Weitz said. “Humanize him, and he becomes even worse.” That tracks historically, too. By the time Mossad agents found him, Eichmann was living the ordinary life of a factory foreman on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, hidden in plain sight.
In a fascinating bit of casting, Weitz tapped Sir Ben Kingsley to play Eichmann, which offers the Oscar winner, who brought Itzhak Stern to life in Schindler’s List, a chance to explore the Holocaust from the wrong side of history. Soon after, Oscar Isaac came on board as a Mossad agent who is haunted by his family’s death at the hands of Nazis. One week into shooting, Weitz shared the Dachau letter with his cast.
Originally slated for production in 2016, the schedule shifted to 2017 to accommodate Isaac, and an old story found modern relevance thanks to Brexit, Trump’s election, and a widening acceptance of racist, authoritarian thought. There was Charlottesville, of course, and Trump’s reaction to the tiki torch bearers who managed to be shocking, yet easy to dismiss in their buffoonery, making them even more dangerous. After all, how many steps is it from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Warsaw, Poland, where 60,000 angry people, including thousands of skinheads and Nazis took over the streets last November. And how different is the Trump administration — which championed a horrifying and brutal family separation policy for illegal immigrants that was widely condemned as child abuse (at least 528 children remain separated from their deported parents, and one toddler who was taken into ICE custody on the border has died) — from the coalition government in Austria, which includes leaders of their radical right Freedom Party, or Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary, which has consolidated power by demonizing Muslim immigrants and refugees. Are we just as bad? Are we worse? How much worse might we soon become?
I like to think part of the reason “alt-right,” nationalist ideas are thriving today is that somehow the idea of Nazism has been sanitized of its horrors, and that too many have forgotten — or were miseducated in the first place — about what the Nazi flag represents. A similar Nazi resurgence swept Europe, particularly Germany, in 1960, when Israel sent Mossad agents to Buenos Aires to kidnap Eichmann to put him on trial in the promised land. Back then, Germany hadn’t yet tuned their education system toward truth and reconciliation. Cleansed of blood, denial was comforting. The thrill of nationalism, nourishing. If Eichmann was offered a fair trial, the theory went, with the opportunity to defend himself, hard evidence could be displayed, witnesses would testify, and the entire truth about the Holocaust could be laid bare before a worldwide televised audience.
I like to think part of the reason “alt-right,” nationalist ideas are thriving today is that somehow the idea of Nazism has been sanitized of its horrors, and that too many have forgotten — or were miseducated in the first place — about what the Nazi flag represents.
“There is a line in the movie when Eichmann says, ‘Your lawyers and your lying press will frame me,’” Weitz said. “That very phrase is propped up in ‘alt-right’ circles today because if you attack the sources of information you attack the notion of truth itself, and if you destroy those sources you have the right to impose your will.”
Weitz has no illusions that his film, which includes a depiction of that trial, will influence policy or stem the tide of nationalism, as if it’s 1960 all over again. His focus has always been to tell an entertaining and suspenseful tale. “What’s cool about this story,” Weitz said, “is the [good guys] don’t have guns. Their job was to get him out alive.”
Of course, first they had to find him, and that meant a sunset — or perhaps sunrise — arrival at an exotic airport for Peter Malkin. Just before 7 p.m., Isaac appeared on set looking every bit the movie star, and the cameras rolled. By 7:10 p.m., after a couple of hiccups there was just enough light for one more take, and Isaac delivered. Though the scene was utilitarian — he’s getting picked up curbside — and is more an orchestration of extras and camera movements, he found the tension in his rival agent in the driver’s seat. “Avi sent you?” Isaac asked, annoyed. The camera held for a long beat, and the entire set exhaled.
“OK, OK, OK,” Weitz said, “We live.”
Adam Skolnick is an author and journalist living in Los Angeles.
Operation Finale stars Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, and Mélanie Laurent, and is in theaters on August 29, 2018.
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