Making the leap from playing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit to appearing in a film about a notorious Nazi war criminal is pretty much the exact opposite of typecasting and a challenge which Martin Freeman has relished.
Adolf Eichmann is universally regarded as one of history’s monsters. He was one of the key architects of the Holocaust and during his 1961 trial in Israel for genocide, he stunned a global audience for his apparent lack of contrition during day after day of shocking testimony from Holocaust survivors.
Eichmann’s trial was the first time many had openly shared their experiences of the Holocaust and so harrowing was the evidence unearthed and the footage played at the trial that even people watching it on TV fainted when confronted with the brutal truths and endless horror that Eichmann and the Nazi regime unleashed upon the world.
The compelling story of why the trial was televised and the team that made it a reality has never been told until now. Next Tuesday, as part of the BBC’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the man most famous for playing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, will appear in The Eichmann Show, a 90 minute film about the televising of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann was captured by Mossad and Shin Bet agents on the streets of Buenos Aires in May 1960, where he had been living under the name of Ricardo Klement since 1952. A young US producer called Milton Fruchtman managed to persuade the Israeli authorities to allow him to film the trial, and Freeman, who plays Fruchtman in a film, that mixes drama with archive footage from the trial told The Guardian that what he learned from being involved in the film was, “There are no monsters – there are just people who do bad things.”
“Eichmann was highly intelligent – Jesus, all of the top Nazis were smart guys – and his argument was: if you want to know your enemy, know why you’re hating them, and so, for instance, he learned Hebrew.
“To my mind there are not enough things that show the Nazis as human, as smart people, charismatic people, who are not inhuman naturally. But who are able to be fantastically inhuman when they choose to be.”
The Hobbit star is keen to stress that because the new drama actually incorporates archive footage from the camps and the trial, the role of the actors is secondary.
“The footage of the camps and the trial is way above my characterisation. That footage is actually way above this telly play. Tis is all going to be subject – everything we’re doing, dramatically, is all going to be subject – to when we see black-and-white footage of Eichmann, and when we see the footage in court of the camps – it’s way more important and horrifying than anything we can do, and we are, cast and crew, all just kind of an addendum to that.”
The trial took place 15 years after the end of the war, and then, and to a lesser degree, now, there were still many who disbelieved the Holocaust actually took place, or if it did, whether the Jewish people owned accidental complicity in their own fate, by too seldom standing up to the jackboot. The Hobbit star admits he asked a similar question to a friend who lived through the purges in Serbia and Bosnia.
“Yes, questions were asked in the 50s as to why they hadn’t fought back. I’d answer that by saying that I have a friend who lived through the purges in Serbia and Bosnia, and one of my questions to him was, ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ And he simply looked at me and said, ‘We didn’t have any guns.’
“So what the trial did, and this filming of the trial, was awaken the public to the fact that these stories were not mythologies. It was crucial. And I’d like to think that this current programme, this telling of the story of the story, is, too, important.”