The capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann is one of the quintessential stories of the post-World War II era, a reminder that the Nazi party was not a random band of extremists but rather a political organization built by unexceptional men and women simply doing their jobs and living their lives while burning down the world. “The banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt called it, referring to the way Eichmann protested his innocence and explained his role running some of the most heinous concentration camps as simply a function of the job he was assigned. Eichmann’s claim: He managed the world from a desk. He never personally murdered anyone. Eichmann’s life and the tale of his capture is integral to our understanding of how hate movements develop and metastasize within “normal” social structures. It’s, you know, depressing as hell.
Orders from Above is about the old Nazi’s interrogation by an Israeli Mossad agent, Less (Richard Cotter), who visits Eichmann (Peter J. Donnelly) in the latter’s incarceration, hoping to get the full story and build a real case against him for the forthcoming trial. What Less discovers is the banal man rather than an outright monster. He lacks remorse but not because he expresses undue hate; rather, he sees himself as blamelessly complicit. Less goes on a journey of the soul, coming to terms with how a man who ruined his life as a child could be so, well, dull.
Cotter is great as Less, capturing the complexity of the man’s struggle to understand Eichmann’s odd normality. Unfortunately, Donnelly is a mixed bag at best. There are some sequences where he and Less connect and play off one another really well, but there are many more scenes where it feels like Donnelly is filmed out of focus so that he can just read his monologue straight from a printed script. His intonation and delivery comes off much the same as I probably sound when reading an overlong book to my son, trying to sound dramatic and entertaining but certainly not sounding natural, which is what a performance requires.
Part of the problem is the script by writer-director Vir Srinivas, which probably works better when read or performed on stage rather than filmed. Srinivas uses black and white cinematography and does a decent job creating a good-looking film, but it’s all fairly static. The movie more or less hones in on the idea of the banality of evil, which is the general approach to anything about Eichmann, and doesn’t add a whole lot to the discourse. It’s a good effort but not an essential one.