Capturing Eichmann - on Video

Shany Littman
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Shany Littman

The Eichmann trial engraved several unforgettable scenes in the Israeli collective memory: the breakdown on the witness stand of author Yehiel Dinur (better known by the pen name Ka-Tzetnik ), the opening speech by prosecutor Gideon Hausner and the testimony of poet Abba Kovner, who had been a fighter in the Vilna Ghetto uprising - to mention just a few. Out of the hundreds of hours of raw footage shot during the trial, these scenes were carefully chosen and used by various bodies to represent the proceedings over and over again. Others, which are not part of the national canon and show Eichmann unemotionally and meticulously offering his testimony, were, for example, included in Eyal Sivan's "The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal" (1999 ), a controversial film that attempts to examine the connection between memory and history, and between documentation and art.

The person who initiated the videotaping of the trial lives today in California, somewhat bitter that his important contribution to Israeli historiography has for the most part been unrecognized. When the Eichmann trial began, on April 11, 1961, Milton Fruchtman was a 35-year-old American producer. He had visited Israel for the first time in 1952, after studying communications at Columbia University in New York. He then worked on the production of "Salome," starring Rita Hayworth (1953 ) and afterward as a director for the Geva and Herzliya studios, where he made one of the first films about the local Arab population, "Son of Sulam," and a movie about kibbutz industries.

Milton Fruchtman (right, standing) in the production control room set up across the courtroom.

In Tel Aviv, Fruchtman met and married Hava Sternberg, the niece of Justice Minister Pinchas Rosen. Since the local movie industry was still in its infancy, and Fruchtman could not make a living from his profession, the couple left Israel with their baby daughter for the United States, where Fruchtman worked as a producer and director of feature and documentary films.

Today Fruchtman, 85, has been physically weakened by a stroke, but it has not damaged his booming voice or his excellent memory. He says that in 1959, while in Munich to make a television series, he was invited to a private screening of "The Triumph of the Will," the 1935 propaganda film directed by Nazi-supporter Leni Riefenstahl, which documented a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.

During the screening, the pub where it was shown filled with cries of admiration for the Nazis, he recalled in a recent telephone interview. A year later, when Fruchtman heard of Eichmann's capture in Argentina, he traveled to Israel to convince the government to allow him to document it on video - then a revolutionary technical innovation.

The government's first response to the idea, according to Fruchtman, was negative. Television broadcasts did not exist at that time in the country, due to opposition by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to the introduction of what he termed the "corrupting" influence of the medium. Fruchtman says Ben-Gurion initially did not want the proceedings to be filmed either, for fear that Israel would be criticized for turning it into a show trial.

After receiving a negative answer, Fruchtman traveled to a European television network conference in Spain, to see whether there would be any interest in the trial: Aside from a few small German and British stations that expressed a desire to cover the trial, there wasn't much.

When Fruchtman returned to New York, he managed to interest Frank Smith, the president of a small production company called Capital Cities, with whom he had previously worked on various projects. So it was that Fruchtman returned to Israel, this time as Capital's representative. A few years earlier he had filmed an interview with Ben-Gurion for the ABC network. "During that interview," Fruchtman says, "Ben-Gurion said that if I happened to come to Jerusalem, I should visit him. And so I did."

Fruchtman was granted an exclusive contract to videotape the trial for Capital; when the agreement was signed, the production company estimated the cost of filming at $500,000. Some people claim that the American's close ties to the justice minister were of use to him here. At the time Frank Smith said that the government preferred to grant the film rights to a relatively small and independent company, and not to a large media body.

The conditions outlined in the contract were strict: The trial had to be photographed in its entirety, and not for profit, and any proceeds left after the costs were covered would go to charity. The tapes themselves were to be stored in the Israeli government archives. The toughest condition was that the judges, who had not yet been appointed, could stop the filming if they felt it disturbed proper judicial proceedings.

Dr. Amit Pinchevski, who teaches journalism and communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has studied media coverage of the Eichmann trial, argues that the Israeli government was in fact aware at an early stage of the importance of filming the event - precisely because of its concern that it not be perceived as a show trial. This was the government's way to show the world that it was a real, just trial, he says.

"From the beginning it was unclear how it would be handled from a media standpoint," he told Haaretz in a recent interview. "At a certain stage foreign networks began to exert pressure on Israeli representatives abroad, and it was clear that the trial would be a big event. Then a struggle began between the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. The latter wanted to exploit the trial for political ends, while it was important to the Justice Ministry to have some control over the proceedings. The solution was to allow the trial to be filmed under strict conditions. Although those conditions seemed nearly insurmountable, Fruchtman agreed and convinced Capital Cities. No one knows how he got the contract; there was no bidding process," Pinchevski notes.

Letters from various foreign television networks show anger over the choice of Capital, and attempts to influence decision makers in Israel to go back on their word. After the contract was awarded to Fruchtman, they suddenly became interested in documenting the trial. The president of NBC, for example, approached then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir, arguing that Capital Cities did not have the capability or experience for such a broadcast operation. Pinchevski notes that NBC even promised to fly an entire crew and its equipment to Israel, and that the equipment would remain after the trial, if given rights to film the proceedings, but their bid was turned down.

Pinchevski also recalls that Harry "Tzvi" Zinder, then head of the Israel Office of Information, tried to work out an arrangement whereby NBC would supply the technological means for screening the trial footage in two-hour segments in movie theaters and other venues in Tel Aviv, since television broadcasting did not yet exist in Israel. But this idea too was rejected by the Justice Ministry.

Local studios - Geva, headed by Yitzhak Agadati and Mordechai Navon, and Herzliya, run by Margot Klausner - also protested the choice of a foreign company to film the trial. A sharply worded letter sent in February 1961 from Geva to Teddy Kollek, then director general of the Foreign Ministry, says that "the Government Press Office has decided, as you know, without any bidding, to award exclusive rights to film the trial to a foreign company called Capital Cities ... We see this as a most damaging decision."

The studio heads argued that they were asked by the Government Press Office to present three proposals for filming the trial, but never received responses to them. "And so Mr. Milton Fruchtman appeared in Israel a few months ago, and began negotiations with the responsible bodies about arrangements for the Eichmann trial," according to the Geva letter. "We were completely shocked to hear of the success of this foreign company. We can say with absolute assurance that authorities in the GPO and the police declared and promised publicly that the work connected to the filming of the Eichmann trial would be done by a local body ... If an Israeli team could capture Eichmann, an Israeli team conducted his interrogation, and the government of Israel rejected all attempts to transfer the judiciary proceedings to foreign hands - it is certainly preferable to leave the matter of filming the trial in Israeli hands."

Fruchtman explains that the local studios did not possess suitable means for such a task: "In Israel they only knew how to shoot with film, and I wanted to use video. The light in the courtroom was insufficient for film. Aside from this, at a trial you must work with four cameras. There is a huge amount of raw footage. It was impossible for the Israeli studios, from both economic and technical standpoints."

The Histadrut labor federation insisted that Fruchtman use local professionals to operate the special equipment he brought over, so four local cameramen learned how to operate video cameras for the first time. A few days before the trial opened, the judges came to tour the courtroom, and announced that they were not prepared to allow the cameras free access, so Fruchtman then enlisted a team of carpenters was built special booths to conceal them. The strategy succeeded and the judges agreed to the filming.

In addition, a control room was built across the street from the courtroom, in the Ratisbon Monastery, which was equipped with monitoring and other devices; from there the directors gave instructions to the cameramen. Brief summaries of the proceedings were prepared each day and flown to various foreign stations. The only way curious Israelis could see the proceedings was to watch them on closed-circuit television in the monastery, which had room for only 600 people; many were left waiting outside. The newsreels produced from the tapes were screened in local movie houses after a delay of two weeks, and the process of converting video footage to film impaired its quality.

Since the trial was expected to last 14 weeks, and the material from four cameras had to be edited during the shooting, Fruchtman hired director Leo Hurwitz to help.

"There was a list of people who were not allowed to work [in the U.S.] at that time, because of Senator [Joseph] McCarthy's blacklist," he recalls. "Leo Hurwitz was on this list, and could not work in the States. So I asked him to direct. But he did not understand German or Hebrew. I did know those languages, so I could cover for him. When the network heard this, they were annoyed, but I insisted he receive credit for direction. I arranged interviews for him with The New York Times, because I wanted people to know he was working again. He did not mention my name and took all the credit."

Fruchtman notes that neo-Nazis threatened his life before and during the trial. Recently, with the help of historian Esther Carmel-Hakim of the University of Haifa, he transferred all the documentation in his possession regarding the filming of the Eichmann trial - including that related to the negotiations with the Israeli government - to the government archives.

Despite a feeling that he was not recognized sufficiently for his work, Fruchtman is convinced today that he made an undisputed contribution to history. According to studies he has read, 80 percent of adults in Germany viewed the broadcasts, he adds.

"In the end every German television station showed segments of the trial each evening. Children who had not learned about the Nazis in school heard about the war for the first time," he says. "When I started to work on this, I was told that no one was interested in the trial, but afterward, I was told that [the broadcasts] were proof that individuals can change history."