Jenni Frazer

Not the banality, but the epitome of evil

For the JC May 2022 by Jenni Frazer

Did the famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal really break into the home of Adolf Eichmann’s brother in Linz, to steal hundreds of pages of transcript of conversation between Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust’s Final Solution and a Dutch Nazi journalist, Willem Sassen?

Yariv Mozer, Israel’s premier documentary film-maker, believes it is more than likely. And this is just one of the astonishing nuggets in Mozer’s latest film, The Devil’s Confession. The film, based on material in long-lost tapes made in Buenos Aires in1957, opened to packed audiences at the DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv last week, and will be screened in three episodes on Israel’s Kan TV in June.

Mozer, 44, first learnt of the existence of the Sassen tapes two years ago from the man who became the producer of his film, Jacob (Kobi) Sitt. “Both Sassen and Eichmann were living in Argentina after the war”. Both were wanted men: Sassen had been an SS officer during the war.

As Mozer makes clear, Sassen and the coterie of Nazis who had fled to Argentina did not believe the claims of Jews about the extent of murders during the Holocaust. But Eichmann, in more than 70 hours of conversation with Sassen, often attended by other Nazis, had no qualms: he not only boasted about the killings but spelled out in hideous detail just what he had set in motion and witnessed.

And this is the core of Mozer’s film: that four years after his conversations with Sassen, Eichmann, kidnapped by Israel’s Mossad, and put on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, consistently lied about his role, presenting himself as a low-grade clerk who “was only obeying orders”.

But it is now plain that everything he said in Jerusalem, in front of a courtroom full of Holocaust survivors, was in direct contradiction to what he told Sassen. One of the most chilling moments in Mozer’s film is an interview with Alan Rosenthal, a British man who was part of a professional TV team who went to Jerusalem from London to provide the expertise of filming the trial — because Israel did not have television in 1961.

And Rosenthal tells the audience that it was his job to focus a camera on Eichmann, sitting in his bulletproof glass box in the Jerusalem court. “And we could see that he seemed to be smiling”, Rosenthal says. The camera moves in for a close-up on the usually blank-faced Eichmann, and the viewer can see his facial muscles moving as he watches bodies being shovelled into a mass grave. Yes, he seems to be thinking, yes, I got one over on the Jews.

Once Mozer got wind of the existence of the tapes — in Germany’s National Archives in Koblenz — he set out to persuade the owners who had deposited them there that he would handle the material responsibly. He had, besides Kan TV and the Israeli production company Sipur on board, the heavyweight presence of the American film studio MGM.

So an agreement was reached, 60 years after the Eichmann trial, and Mozer was given full access to the remaining 15 hours of sound reels. “When the tapes were made [the technology] was very expensive, so Sassen often recorded over previous interviews. But there was a transcript of every session.

“Sassen promised Eichmann in Buenos Aires that he would not use the material until he died. But when Eichmann was kidnapped, Sassen understood that he had something in his hands. So he contacted Life magazine in America, and they published an article a few months before the trial in Jerusalem. Imagine, Eichmann himself bragging about the Final Solution and what he did”.

But the tapes were not found or presented as evidence to the court. Gideon Hausner, the Israeli Attorney-General, who led the prosecution, could not lay his hands on them. What he was left with was the Life magazine article: and Eichmann repeatedly denied that he had said anything like the content of the feature. Not his words, he never said such a thing.

Nevertheless, Hausner did surprise Eichmann and his lawyer, Robert Servatius, by producing 700 pages of transcript of the Sassen interviews. Mozer and his team believe that Simon Wiesenthal broke into the office of Robert Eichmann in Linz and stole the papers to give to Hausner.

Some of the pages have Eichmann’s own handwritten notes and these were the only ones admitted in evidence by the Jerusalem judges. “To be able to produce the tapes would have allowed Hausner to break Eichmann’s line of defence, but he never managed to do that”, says Mozer. It did not matter, because Eichmann was found guilty and executed, his ashes scattered far out to sea.

For the first time in 60 years, Mozer, using advanced film technology, shows us the Eichmann trial in colour, together with much of the previously familiar black-and-white documentary footage. We see the horrified faces of the courtroom witnesses, the women in smart hats, the men looking down at their tattooed arms with their concentration camp numbers.

Mozer, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, insisted on this colourisation “because people went to the gas chambers in their own clothes and with red or blonde hair and blue eyes. And they were shot on green grass, surrounded by trees. We needed to show that”.

And the film touches on a “hot potato” issue which is still agonised over in Israel today. First is the extent to which David Ben-Gurion’s government tried to block the publication of the Eichmann tapes, because of the fear that he had spoken about Hans Globke, who became Konrad Adenauer’s right-hand man after the war. But though Globke had written the wartime Nuremberg laws, he and Adenauer were also, post-war, funding the building of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. So Israel-German relations were at a delicate and perilous stage.

Tied in to that was the notorious case of Rudolf Kasztner, the Hungarian Jew who negotiated with Eichmann for the release of 1600 Jews, including members of his own family, towards the end of the war.

Kasztner was assassinated in Israel in 1957 but Mozer believes that the tapes — in which Eichmann talks at length about their discussions — go a long way to exonerate the Jewish leader from the charge of betrayal. “It’s clear that Eichmann used Kasztner, and that he wasn’t in a position to negotiate on an equal footing”. Kasztner’s grand-daughter, Merav Michaeli, is today the Labor Party leader and Transport Minister, and is still weighing up whether to ask the Mossad to open its archives on Kasztner.

Mozer, despite his bloodhound determination in making The Devil’s Confession, is still left with unanswered questions. Why, he wonders, did Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority, never try to buy the Sassen tapes or make copies of them in Hebrew or English?

As well, he grew up with Hannah Arendt’s famed report of the Eichmann trial, and her conclusion that Adolf Eichmann represented “the banality of evil”.

But Yariv Mozer no longer buys that explanation. He believes that Eichmann spent the entire trial hiding the true self which he exposed on the Sassen tapes, particularly his boast to Sassen that “Had we put 10.3 million Jews to death, then I would be content and would say, Good, we have destroyed the enemy..It is a difficult thing to say and I know I will be judged for it, but this is the truth”.

Yes, says Mozer. “Suddenly, we have proof of the real face of Adolf Eichmann”.

  • 30 May, 2022
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