Operation Finale (2019) is the story of the capture of the mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, the details of this capture and then in the final part of the film his trial for crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. This is a film where the story is known, but what is not known is the narrative, the specifics of the plot and dramatic tension this creates to engage the audience in the narrative. The film illustrates how the telling of the story can offer a successful drama with its form and its plotting, which Operation Finale does in several ways.
Dramatic Structure. The story establishes the central character, Peter, at the end of the Second World War arriving at a house in Germany to capture a Nazi war criminal. There is the tension of making this capture and then this involves a mistake, the wrong man is killed. The story illustrates that things can go wrong, so even though the story of Eichmann’s capture is known, the central character of the film faces a challenge. The opening scene also establishes a moral issue: the man killed has a family, so he is a person who is killed, and harm is done to the family.
This opening scene, that might be identified as a prologue or the first part of act one. The second part of act one is in Argentina and also Israel: it establishes how Eichmann is found, making the decision to capture him, the forming of the team to do this task. This act is quite long and this is because a wide range of characters is established and also what the capture of Eichmann risks and what success will mean. This act starts a number of storylines and also clarifies that anti-Semitism and fascism are not in the past. Act one has a lot to accomplish. Peter is established as the central character, he is Jewish, Israeli and is a soldier/agent. Peter is established as part of a team, and the different viewpoints of these team members are established with conflicts and differences between them: there is weight of the task and the duty this creates, and also that Eichmann must be captured not killed. Peter acts within a moral framework even though he feels a tension with this: dramatic characters need external challenges and internal personal conflict.
Act Two has a first part and a second part. The first part consists of the arrival in Buenos Aires of Peter and the team, the actions needed to capture Eichmann, Eichmann’s capture in detail and his being taken to a hideaway, a house before the team leave Argentina to fly to Israel. After the successful capture comes the crucial challenge and reversal of the story: the plane has not arrived, so the team are forced to stay in the country and then to get the plane to arrive Eichmann will have to sign an agreement that he is willing to be put on trial in Israel. This is the central complication of the story. It sets the team in conflict over what their actions should be, their situation puts them in jeopardy, and they have to achieve something. The second part of act two is this challenge, getting Eichmann to sign the paper, and here Peter is the central protagonist with Eichmann as one of three antagonists. The others are the leader of the German Nazis in Buenos Aires, and Eichmann’s son who are both searching for Eichmann.
The outcome of the story is known, Eichmann will be flown out of the country, but the telling of the capture and the wait in the house creates tension and its not certain what will happen: there is a risk and jeopardy for a range of characters: will they all escape.
Act Three: This is a climax and a coda. The climatic episode is the escape by plane from Buenos Aries when the team are being closely pursued, and the circumstances of this escape put the team in jeopardy: they are in direct danger and have to make a range of decisions. Here the audience can face the choices that the characters face and the need to succeed is clear: they will be killed, tortured if they fail and not all of the team can take the plane: there are complications. The end of the climax is the take off of the plane, and this might be considered to be the end of the third act and the next element is a coda. Eichmann is tried in Israel and the need and worth of the capture is made clear: Eichmann faces justice. Peter has worked to achieve this and the team who were in conflict before this point acknowledge that they acted well and that what they have done needed to be done. In some stories the dramatic unity places the end of the story with the climatic event, a story telling the capture of Eichmann has two: the team escaping from Argentina, and Eichmann finally being brought to trial: a plane flying out of Argentina might end the story, but then this sets asides the importance of Eichmann being tried and having to face his crimes. If the trial scenes are a coda, it is long for a coda.
If the three-act structure should have been guided by a page count, with a set number of pages for each act, as some writing guides suggest, then the structure of Operation Finale is a somewhat unbalance. The first act is long, because of the need to establish so many characters, the second act is long, so that the climax is relatively short and the coda is longer that is often the case. However, this is not a problem: the story needs to be told so that there is a complexity to the people, the planning, the danger they are in. It’s necessary to be wary of page counts and make a decision purely based on this sort of anonymous rule. A first act that is getting long has to be examined: is everything that’s in the first act necessary, can it be moved to later, can it be cut, or it can’t be, but not all stories work to the same length. The second act in Operation Finale is also long, to make the challenge of the capture difficult and then the delay, waiting in the house, being difficult and dangerous. The length of the second act mirrors the delay, being trapped, and also gives time for Eichmann to be developed as a character. It would be possible to cut the second act, most easily by removing characters and events: but then these story lines and the complications of the story are then lost: when the narrative is known there needs to be story lines that engage the audience and the outcome of these is unknown.
The third act covers the escape as a tense episode, but needs to keep scenes brief. This act may seem a bit perfunctory. The coda is long, but at the same time needs to make several points, and scenes move quickly. The trial does not attempt to create a dramatic climax, and single final event for the story: the outcome of the trial is given as a text panel at the start of the end titles. The coda/trail of Operation Finale cannot be full act because of the length of the other acts. This is a discipline for the storytelling, keeping a dramatic structure that presents a complexity that involves the audience: there’s always going to be a need to keep things brief or a long form single film will become a limited episode series.
What the dramatic structure of Operation Finale indicates is that each act needs to work successfully and this is a challenge. When the narrative is finally shaped in the screenplay and in editing the value and dramatic impetus of each character and storyline needs to have a through line that ends. What one needs to be wary off in this story is the ending being too rushed because there is so much in the first act, then the second, so there is little time for the third.
In scriptwriting it’s an early habit for the first act to be far too long. Its not clear what is essential, too much is told, its dramatically vague, then the second act is thin because this is not given enough detail and drama, scenes are long, but not much happens, then the final act is very rushed. To address this issue of dramatic form the length of the first act needs to be worked on in later drafts, the action of the second act needs to be more developed and the scenes concise, and the final act needs enough space to be significant and complete. Rewriting is essential, first drafts are often poorly structured, dramatically unfocused and the centre of the drama, the second act has a lack of tension and events.
Antagonists. Operation Finale makes sure that there are antagonists in the story. There is Eichmann’s son, there is the leader of the Nazi’s in hiding in Argentina and both of these are active in the story: their moral viewpoints are given, and their personalities developed. The idea of establishing these characters and their viewpoint, might be rejected, but without these characters, the antagonists, then there would be no clear sense of risk and jeopardy for Peter and his team: they would simply be sitting in a house, waiting. The antagonists have another crucial element to play, they allow for past history to be articulated and most important of all the continuation of fascist and racist beliefs: the struggle that Peter and his team face is not just a logistical task, it’s a moral fight, and the eventual trial its public impact and influence indicate they need to have taken this risk.
Eichmann’s son is drawn somewhat sympathetically, he cares for his father, and this might raise moral qualms, but if this were not done then the antagonists would be underdeveloped and seem perfunctory. The story of Eichmann’s capture as its told in factual accounts will focus on the team who captured Eichmann, what Eichmann was like, but a drama needs and benefits from antagonists.
Often in flawed screenwriting there is no antagonist, or an antagonist is not given any significant action. Its important for the planning of a screenplay to plot out what the antagonist does, and not just develop a storyline based on the actions of the central character. The writer needs to know what the characters do and then choose and craft the final narrative from this. Here parallel action, with the scenes going between protagonists and antagonists can be swapped and changed and crafted, to manage the timing of the script and the dramatic structure, and this is part of the work of re-drafting and rewriting. If the antagonist is perfunctory they need to be developed, if all of the plotlines are fully set out in a script, every story told in detail, then the screenplay is likely to be to be far too long: concision is always an issue for a single drama screenplay and here the need to have concision with a successful dramatic form is essential to meet: scenes need to be very carefully worked to tell as much as possible in the shortest time. What a scene needs to achieve in dramatic terms is what makes a scene successful within the narrative of the film: that’s the test for scene.
Eichmann. The publicity for the film depicts Eichmann, so it’s clear what the story is about. The film narrative revisits the issues raised over Eichmann’s capture and the nature of his personality. These matters will be very familiar to those who already know about Eichmann, but the story in the film has to include these, so that they are in place for an audience learning about the story for the first time and also because these create the moral aspect for the story. The actions to capture Eichmann are the basis of the plot, but the moral importance of Eichmann’s capture and trial and why Eichmann needed to be put on trial are essential. The issue here for the screenwriting can be making Eichmann too sympathetic, or of portraying evil over simplistically, and to overcome this, Operation Finale gives long and developed scenes to Peter’s response and reaction to Eichmann, leading the audience to understand his final position. There are scene humanising Eichmann, he is with his family, but then these are morally contrasted with Eichmann’s hatred of Jews and his disregard for their killing.
In the film, children and the killing of children is made a particular issue: Eichmann has a son he loves, he want his son to be safe, Eichmann witnesses the killing of an infant and mother where his distaste is for the messiness of the shooting, not its evil and immorality. Peter has no children: he is hesitant about bringing a child into the world. Peter’s sister and her children were killed and he has not overcome this trauma. These plotting, based around children creates the tensions between the two main characters, and enables the audience to see the suffering that Eichmann has caused and Eichmann’s indifference to it. It might be argued that in a feature film the portrayal of Eichmann is too much of an overview: it’s correct that the film does not set out in a detailed history Eichmann’s actions, but the film is a drama and the aim is to tell a specific story that can present the figure of Eichmann within a dramatic narrative. If any of the individual scenes are perceived as morally objectionable, the narrative overall and especially in its coda makes clear the moral position of the story. The challenge for the screenwriter is to craft a drama with a strong through line, the characters want to do something and the story is what happens when the central characters act to achieve their goals. A film is not a story of a task, a report on events, and there needs to be a moral and personal connection to the story for the audience: the story matters because of the deeds but also because of their meaning and value for the characters and the audience.
The Participants (2017) is a historical written account of the participants of the conference at Wannsee in Berlin on January 20th 1942 which Eichmann organized in his role as Head of the Office of Jewish Affairs and where he presented a list counting the eleven million Jews that the German, Nazi officials at the meeting intended to murder, a crime that was already underway and which was escalated and accelerated after the conference with Eichmann undertaking the planning and the actions for this genocide. As a historical account the book does not attempt to set out a drama, there is a chapter each of the fifteen attending participants offering a biography leading up to and after the conference. The form of a historical work is distinct from the form of a drama.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019