Like many things, journalism used to have a gravitas that has all but disappeared from today’s media. That point is brought home in “The Eichmann Show,” a BBC film about what is deemed the first globally broadcast televised documentary.

In 1961, American producer Milton Fruchtman and filmmaker Leo Hurwitz filmed the trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for engineering the deaths of millions of Jews during World War II. During the final days of the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina, but he was later hunted down by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. He was arrested and taken to Jerusalem to face a trial that revealed not only the heinous crimes committed by this seemingly ordinary man, but also, through testimonials, the horror and pain inflicted on victims. The Eichmann trial lasted four months and marked the first time that Holocaust survivors publicly voiced what they had been forced to endure. Fruchtman and Hurwitz’s footage was distributed to 37 countries.

Directed by Paul Andrew Williams, “The Eichmann Show” is a straight-up account of the efforts of the Fruchtman-Hurwitz duo (played by Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia, respectively) to broadcast the trial. It was an uphill battle from the start: The courthouse in Jerusalem refused to let cameras inside (judges worried it would be “intimidating”), while Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion opposed the project, fearing that a televised trial would turn it into “a show.” Three days before the trial, however, the film crew were suddenly given permission, on condition that the cameras be hidden.

The Eichmann Show (Aihiman Sho / Rekishi wo Utsushita Otokotachi)
Run Time 90 mins
Language ENGLISH
Opens APRIL 23

Fruchtman cut holes into the walls of the courthouse, and strategically positioned the cameras (there were a total of four), to get maximum coverage of Eichmann’s face and posture, as well as the responses and expressions of victims’ faces. Fruchtman and Hurwitz were aided by a lawyer and another cameraman, both of whom were Holocaust survivors, and the entire team was determined to broadcast every detail of the trial and resurrect an awareness of the atrocities of Nazi regime.

“The Eichmann Show” was made for BBC TV, and it aired in the U.K. last January to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Although well-crafted and excellently performed, director Paul Andrew Williams seems to struggle with two factors here. One is the need to make “The Eichmann Show” palatable and entertaining to a TV audience without diminishing the weightiness of the material; the other is the often awkward merge of the fictional trial depictions with actual archival footage of the camps.

It’s still extremely difficult to witness the sight of small children torn from their parents and corralled like sheep to be taken to their death. Or the bodies of those starved to death piled up like trash. There is the real testimonial of one man, forced to work as a grave digger, who discovered the bodies of his wife and children as they were dumped from a truck along with hundreds of other corpses.

This is when the difficult logistics of a docudrama hits you with full force. The film swerves uncomfortably between horrific reality and fictional re-enactments. The director’s dilemma, however, is a reflection of Fruchtman and Hurwitz’s own battle to keep the world’s audience interested for the duration of the trial at a time when many were, astonishingly, still in denial about Nazi war crimes. At one point, Fruchtman is asked if it isn’t “ridiculous” to try one man for the deaths of 6 million Jews, while in another scene, coverage of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight eclipses the trial.

There’s much to ponder here, such as the moral issues involved in turning a historical event that inflicted untold damage to the human race into a televised “show,” however nobly intended.

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