For 35 years, few phrases have been as strenuously overworked as ”the banality of evil.” In The Specialist, we finally stare right into the face of Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi head of transport whose 1961 war-crimes trial in Jerusalem inspired Hannah Arendt, in her coverage of the event, to coin that legendary invocation of the Holocaust bureaucracy.
The movie whittles down hundreds of hours of archival footage into a hauntingly immediate précis of Eichmann’s trial. There he is, dour and bespectacled, shuffling papers in his bulletproof courtroom cage, looking ironically like Arthur Miller as he mounts his meticulous defense. Did he send Jews to the concentration camps? Why, yes, of course. But he was just following orders.
A quintessential cog in the Third Reich machine, Eichmann, to a disquieting degree, IS banal. Hitler and the death-camp sadists, on the other hand, were not; that’s where the paradox of Arendt’s famous phrase breaks down. Nevertheless, this lone, fallen Nazi’s obsessive distance from his actions is enough to give ”The Specialist” a lingering chill.