The Eichmann Show: New BBC Film Tells Story Behind Trial's Broadcast

Docudrama deals with the televised trial in Israel of the Nazi official that 'became the world’s first ever documentary series, and in the process changed the way people saw the Second World War.'

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Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961
Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961Credit: AP

As part of its coverage to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, the BBC is broadcasting a special televised Holocaust Memorial Day event and a number of programs.

One docudrama is the Eichmann Show, which will be broadcast on BBC Two. Starring Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia, the movie tells the story of groundbreaking American film producer Milton Fruchtman, who was given the job of televising the so-called "Trial of the Century" in Jerusalem in 1961. The broadcasts lasted for over four months and were shown in 56 countries - but the story behind them has never been properly told before. The trial was the first time testimony about the death camps had ever been broadcast live - and directly from the victims mouths.

The BBC will be broadcasting a wide variety of programs on the Shoah, dealing with the topic from many different perspectives. A number are meant to be integrated into the school curricula. As part of the events, hundreds of the living survivors of the Holocaust will gather in central London at an event to commemorate and share their stories of suffering and hope. They will be joined by leading political and religious figures at a ceremony based on the theme ‘keep the memory alive.’

The hour and a half Eichmann Story deals with a televised trial that "became the world’s first ever documentary series, and in the process changed the way people saw the Second World War," Laurence Bowen, the films's producer, told BBC. "It was the first time many people had ever heard the story of the Holocaust from the mouths of the victims. So it had a huge impact historically, but it also was a huge event in terms of television."

Tasked with producing the coverage of the trial in 1961, Fruchtman and his director Leo Hurwitz were told by the judges they would not be allowed to film in the courtroom, and then three days before the start of the trial they were told they had to find a way to hide the camera in the walls, in order to be allowed to film.

Bowen said he "was doing some research into the trial when I saw one tiny little thread mentioning the producer, Milton Fruchtman. I started googling away and was interested to discover the first trial ever to be televised and, with four cameras filming, treated like a drama with close ups and zooming shots. I became even more intrigued when I discovered Milton had hired Leo Hurwitz. He was a director who had been blacklisted by Senator McCarthy for ten years for his left-wing beliefs in America."

Fruchtman, who is 88 today and lives in California, cooperated with the filmmakers on the documentary. Freeman, who plays his character in the film, said that "from a career point of view, Milton knew this was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity and he wanted to be at the helm of it. The trial was seen by people all over the world. It was the first time people en masse had heard first-hand testimony from survivors. People obviously knew that something truly terrible had happened under the Nazis but maybe it was the first time the scale and breadth had had a human face put on it – the face of the survivors. Eichmann was a fairly unprepossessing looking person. People who can be responsible for these terrible things are not monsters; they look, sound and often even think quite similarly to us which is the scariest thing of all."

The 1961 film's director Leo Hurwitz "wanted people to understand that many people under certain circumstances could end up making the same decisions, said LaPaglia, who plays him in the docudrama. "But Eichmann never cracked; not once. He got through the whole trial and I think was completely unrepentant. He was virulently anti-Semitic and clearly felt that what he did was the right thing. That really bothered Leo. He thought it was too easy to write someone off as a one-dimensional monster, but sometimes that’s what they are."

As to the decision to mix archive footage into the final film, director Paul Andrew Williams said "it brings a sense of us being there, and will hopefully reawaken interest in the subject for those who have already heard about the Eichmann trial and those who know nothing about it. We’ve got a chance through drama to bring it back to people’s attention. As well as archive from the trial, we also use other footage of the day and news footage just to give everyone a really good sense of where we are and what timeframe we’re in."

In 2011, Shany Littman reported in Haaretz that Fruchtman was somewhat bitter that his important contribution to Israeli historiography has for the most part been unrecognized.

Fruchtman noted that neo-Nazis had threatened his life before and during the trial. 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.
"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."

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