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Home Vision Entertainment presents
The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal (1999)

"I had orders. Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed in accordance with the administrative procedure."
- Adolf Eichmann

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: December 23, 2002

Stars: Adolf Eichmann, Robert Servatius, Gideon Hausner, Gabriel Bach, Ya'akov Bar Or, Moshe Landau
Director: Eyal Sivan

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:02m:55s
Release Date: October 22, 2002
UPC: 037429170021
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In 1960, in Argentina the Israeli military apprehended Adolf Eichmann, one of the most wanted fugitives from Nazi Germany—Eichmann had as much responsibility as anyone for the deportation and subsequent massacre of millions of Jews, Poles, Slovenians and Gypsies. He was taken to Jerusalem, where he stood trial the following year for crimes against humanity—he was found guilty after the four-and-a-half-month proceeding, and hanged. The Specialist consists entirely of footage shot during Eichmann's trial, and is as much a horrific revisiting of the crimes of the Third Reich as it is a meditation on the nature of evil, and capacity for wrongdoing, in the human heart.

Now that Court TV and gavel-to-gavel coverage of each week's trial of the century has inured us to courtroom drama—and this is to say nothing of the countless movies and television episodes that use the trappings of the law to gin up some drama—it may be hard for 21st-century audiences to recapture the searing catharsis inherent in Eichmann's trial. It was an opportunity for Holocaust survivors to bear witness, to confront a representative of the regime that had tortured them and killed their families; and it was an opportunity for Israel to ratify its status as the international spokesmen for those killed at the hands of the Nazis. The goal on some level must have been the seeking of that horrid buzzword, closure; one of the points of this film is that even under these circumstances, you won't find any.

Similarly, it does a grave disservice to the victims of the Holocaust to equate the Nazis with O.J., or the Menendez brothers, or whichever defendant is offered up for public consumption this week; a media slaughter is not the same thing as the premeditated and systematic murder of millions. On the other hand, without being too cavalier, we all probably want to steer clear of the genocidal derby of the last century that has too many entrants. Who was more horrible: Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot, or Milosevic? What was worse, Rwanda or Kosovo? Auschwitz or Siberia? They're unanswerable questions, and just the fact that we can pose them points up what a dark century the recently concluded one was.

That said, one of the principal points of The Specialist is that Eichmann doesn't make for much of a screen villain. There are no histrionic, foaming-at-the-mouth diatribes against the Jews or the proceedings, no wild-eyed furor for the Fuhrer. (The prosecutor frequently tries to get that kind of rise out of Eichmann, to no avail; Herr Eichmann is too busy reviewing memoranda and train schedules to get all worked up.) What's most chilling is that he's a recognizable type in our own world: Eichmann is the perfect company man. He seems, during the Second World War, not to have shot anyone, nor dropped gas pellets into the chamber, nor physically or verbally abused any of those imprisoned under his command—the portrait of him here rather is of some sort of Nazi Employee of the Month, astonishingly efficient, subservient to those above him in the chain of command, and helpful at every step of the way. Looking at the man, you wouldn't know that the product his company was in the business of manufacturing wasn't honey mustard or soft drinks or aluminum siding: it was the barbarously efficient slaughter of millions of human beings.

The filmmakers happened upon the complete video recordings of the trial, some 350 hours in all, in a Jerusalem archive, and they winnowed down the material and reshaped it into this two-hour documentary. Using Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, her landmark account of the trial written originally for The New Yorker, as their guide, the film is less an exhaustive record of the proceedings than it is a character study of Eichmann. It's especially artful, given that the defendant was either incapable or unwilling to engage in any self-reflection—as he says in response to one of the prosecutor's questions, "I refuse to reveal my inner feelings." He's forever fussing with his two pairs of spectacles, or rising to answer the court's questions with appropriate courtesy; he's an active participant in his defense, which is essentially that he was merely following orders. On some bizarre and disturbing level, the documentary humanizes Eichmann—when you entertain the notion that he was just some desk jockey doing his job, the enormity of the crimes committed by him and his colleagues becomes even more upsetting, for Eichmann seems no less rational than, say, a smooth-talking salesman at a Volkswagen dealership.

I do have some quarrels with some of the filmmakers' choices, though. They're overly fond of intensely dramatic music, which actually saps some of the energy and outrage from the material. Is the image of Eichmann watching films from Auschwitz made more powerful by scoring it with loud electric guitar licks? Of course not. I appreciate that some license had to be taken, but the music especially doesn't serve the purposes of the exercise particularly well. Similarly, and perhaps this is a translation problem: the choice of subtitle is an unfortunate one. Portrait of a Modern Criminal implies, to me, anyway, that we'll be seeing a film about a gangbanger or drug dealer; the point is that what's modern about Eichmann's criminality is that it looks exactly like bureaucracy, only it's in service of an evil regime. It's a point well taken, of course, but the subtitle almost trivializes these events, a dangerous thing to do when the subject at hand is the banality of evil.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: All the footage was shot in 1961, at the very dawn of the video age, which means that the technology, by our standards, was downright prehistoric. But great care was clearly taken in preserving and enhancing the picture quality. There's no getting around the limits of the source material, and even though the images have been digitized and restored, they retain that contrasty feel you get with video. Still, it's a pretty handsome job, and a good, clean transfer to DVD.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, French, German, Hebrewno

Audio Transfer Review: The filmmakers have enhanced and "improved" the audio quality in much the same manner they have done with the picture, and even giving them some a certain amount of artistic license, they're still bound by the limits of early video. Balance is all right, but even all the digital enhancement cannot remove buzz and hiss entirely.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, German with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. excerpt from In Praise of Disobedience, a 1999 book by the filmmakers
Extras Review: An extended interview (58m:16s) with the filmmakers, Rony Brauman and Eyal Sivan, offers much, including the delicate negotiations with the archives that housed the Eichmann footage, and about how Arendt's book served as their guide through the hundreds of hours of videotape. They're very candid about detailing their intentions—Eichmann as emblematic of a particularly contemporary sort of criminality—and see the film not as a re-creation of the trial, but as "an essay on responsibility and obedience." They are especially fascinating discussing how they manipulated the footage digitally. Eichmann spent nearly the whole trial in a glass booth, for instance, and the filmmakers enhanced the image by showing the reflection of the spectators in the glass.

Menus and subtitles are offered in French, German and English; the subtitles are generally legible, though there's the occasional typographical error (e.g., "as to wether"). Also on the disc are a very brief trailer, a link to a French-language site about the movie, and an excerpt from a book by the filmmakers, a brief character study of Eichmann.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

The Specialist is commendable as both a historical document of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a meditation on the nature of evil, and a study in the capacities and powers of editing in documentary filmmaking. The extended interview with the filmmakers is sure to provide almost as much food for thought as the feature itself. An intellectually nourishing and profoundly disturbing disc.


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