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The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal

Eyal Sivan and Rony Brauman's The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal (1999) may be of direct concern only to those interested in the history of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, or the State of Israel, but it is still a compelling snapshot of a stark moment in the 20th Century. Karl Adolf Eichmann was one of the main participants in "The Final Solution," Nazi Germany's horrific plan to exterminate European Jews. While he was not necessarily the chief advocate of the Holocaust, during his years in the Nazi Party he was regarded as an expert on the "Jewish Problem," originally advocating deportation to Palestine or Madagascar. But when Hitler finally ordered mass-murder on an unprecedented scale, Eichmann turned his renowned skill at bureaucratic affairs towards Gestapo Department IV B4 for Jewish Affairs, where he insured that trains would run day and night from major cities to death camps. By the end of the war in 1945, Eichmann was briefly interred in an Allied camp, but he managed to escape and flee to Argentina, where he lived under the name Ricardo Klement. He would not stay forever — Mossad agents captured Eichmann in 1960 and rushed him to Jerusalem, where he would stand trial in 1961 for crimes against humanity. The Specialist is a documentary made exclusively from Eichmann Trial footage — more than 500 hours was captured on videotape by documentarian Leo Hurwitz (the event was also broadcast on Israeli television). However, Hurwitz's tapes remained under lock-and-key until director Eyal Sivan was granted access. Using the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt as a guide, Sivan and co-writer Rony Brauman constructed their two-hour film, which is an oddly powerful experience. A subdued Eichmann testifies behind bulletproof glass, himself appearing relaxed and occasionally bored, sometimes obstinate, but never genuinely remorseful. In the meantime, visitors in the audience often gasp with shell-shocked reactions to his claims — he insists that by deporting Jews he was only attempting to "help" them, and also boldy says that the trains that carried Jews to concentration camps had extra cars where their personal belongings were ferried along. He notes several times that he wanted to resign his position, but could not (it's noted in reply that he never put such a request in writing). A film is shown detailing Nazi atrocities, which elicits no reaction from Eichmann, except for the apparent urge to nap. Finally he does mount an impassioned defense, claiming that he supported Zionism as much as any Jew, and also claims that he is sorry that things got out of hand. It was all a terrible mistake. And, above all, he was only following orders — he simply did his duty for his country, just as any foot-soldier would. Eichmann was convicted after the four-month trial and hanged in 1962. While The Specialist contains some remarkably powerful moments, it also is a compilation of courtroom affairs, and for that it tends to slow in spots. However, director Sivan compensates for the source-material with some creative editing, as well as a haunting score and sound design that underlines the terrors that lie behind the drab legal proceedings. Strict documentarians may frown on such tactics, but it's obvious that the filmmakers do not intend to give Eichmann a platform as much as they want to reveal his chilling persona. With his ceaseless defense strategy of "only following orders," we see a man who did not necessarily embody the viciousness of the brownshirts or the SS — specific people who performed specific functions as well — but instead a man who was seduced by the broad, and frighteningly casual, moral decay that led to Germany's rise and ruin between the two World Wars. Home Vision's DVD release of The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal offers a solid transfer in the original full-frame ratio (1.33:1) with audio in monaural DD 2.0. Features include a 60-min. French television interview with the filmmakers (with chapter-selection and English subtitles), an excerpt from the book In Praise of Disobedience about Eichmann, and a trailer. Keep-case.

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