Six days from now we’ll have reached the 44th anniversary of the Mossad’s capture of SS Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who’d been hiding in Argentina since the end of World War II. His arrest and trial were international sensations, rekindling interest in other Holocaust perpetrators who had eluded justice, and providing storytellers with a new trope: stories of escaped war criminals and their pursuers.
So let’s go on a tour of the impact Eichmann’s capture made on the pop culture of his time.
Marathon Man: William Goldman based the character of, portrayed by Laurence Olivier, more on Josef Mengele than Eichmann. Szell is a torturing sadist who’s eluded capture because of a cozy relationship with US intelligence. When Szell’s brother is killed in a road rage incident, Szell leaves Argentina for New York to collect a cache of diamonds his brother had been holding. When a member of the agency connected with Szell tells him he’s not welcome in the US, Szell kills him for his trouble. This leads to the involvement of the agent’s brother, a graduate student and long distance runner named Babe (Dustin Hoffmann). Danger, excitement, and evil dentistry ensue.
The Boys From Brazil: The movie adaptation of the Ira Levin novel stars Olivier, this time as the hero, the Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (modeled loosely on Simon Wiesenthal, among others). When Lieberman receives word that Josef Mengele is in Brazil, he’s not surprised. But he is disturbed when his informant’s phone call ends with sounds of violence and the a voice that sounds like Mengele himself (played by Gregory Peck). In contrast to the real Mengele, who was on the run and living in poverty under an assumed name at the time of the film’s release, the film’s Mengele has a fine country house with a well supplied lab where he’s continued his experiments in cloning Adolf Hitlers (!) and making local kids’ brown eyes blue. What follows has Lieberman unwinding a plot so fantastical that only Hitler himself could have dreamed it up. The Boys From Brazil is, ultimately, ridiculous, but some wonderful actors–Olivier, Peck, Uta Hagen, James Mason, and Felicity Kendall–make sure it’s told with style.
The Statement: A lesser Norman Jewison film in which a Vichy-era policeman, played by Michael Caine, kills a man he thinks is a Nazi hunter, but who is actually a hit man hired by his former Nazi friends who wanted him dead before investigators on his trail could find him.
Star Trek Season 1 Episode 13: “The Conscience of the King”: Obviously in this one we’re not dealing with actual Nazis–though Star Trek would later air an episode concerning Nazi imitating planet. I include it because the Eichmann arrest and trial was still in the air at the time the episode was produced and so it likely served as inspiration. “The Conscience of the King” begins with Captain Kirk attending a performance of MacBeth with an old friend. His old friend swears that the actor playing MacBeth, Anton Karidian, is in fact escaped mass murderer Kodos the Executioner, erstwhile governor of planet Tarsus IV. According to the story, a food shortage inspired Kodos to seize full power and decide based on his own standards who would receive rations and who would be put to death. It’s necessary to suspend some disbelief in this story–establishing a man’s identity shouldn’t be that big a challenge in the 23rd century–but the episode does contain some of the Original Series’s most powerful dramatic moments.
Columbo Season 5 Episode 5: “Now You See Him”: The Great Santini, not to be confused with the Robert Duvall character, is a gifted stage magician and former guard at a Nazi concentration camp. The owner of the club he’s playing at discovers this and decides to blackmail Santini. Santini murders the club owner, using a series of stage magic tricks during his show to give him the alibi he needs. The story is very much in the Columbo pattern. We see Santini execute his murder plan, and then watch Columbo methodically unravel it. It’s a treat.
The Saint Series 5 Episode 12: “Locate and Destroy”: While vacationing in South America, Simon Templar (Roger Moore) stops in an art and antique shop. A German man comes to pick up a repaired frame for one his paintings when two men burst in, carrying guns. They want the German man, but they also threaten Templar. Templar thrashes them, earning the German fellow’s gratitude. But it turns out that this German, a mine owner, is the former Nazi director of mines, responsible for the murder of thousands. The men after him are Mossad agents. The episode isn’t the high point of the fifth series–that would be the prison breakout episode “Escape Route” co-starring a young Donald Sutherland–but if you can suspend disbelief in the strangely narrow thousand foot deep mineshaft that they fight over in the climax, it’s a smart and fun thriller.
Airwolf Season 1 Episode 7: “Fight Like a Dove”: A young woman wants Airwolf’s crew to help her avenge the death of her father, a Nazi hunter, at the hands of a war criminal named Kruger, who’s holed up in a fortress in Paraguay. Despite The F.I.R.M.’s insistence that Kruger remain unmolested (they use him as a conduit for smuggling exotic weapons), Stringfellow Hawke and Santini take Airwolf on a mission to destroy Kruger and his operation. The trope of escaped Nazis making themselves useful to various intelligence agencies figures into a large number of these stories, a sign of how Americans felt about US intelligence, particularly after Watergate and the Church Committee hearings.
Night Gallery Pilot Episode Painting III: “Escape Route”: A Nazi war criminal (Richard Kiley), in South America and on the run from Mossad agents, discovers that he can project his spirit into works of art at a museum. One painting in particular seems to hold out the promise of escape from not only his pursuers but also his painful memories. It’s a good segment to help launch Rod Serling’s second network anthology series, though I honestly don’t remember this one as well as I do Roddy McDowell’s turn in the opening segment “Cemetery” or Joan Crawford’s role in the Steven Spielberg-directed “Eyes”
This is hardly an exhaustive list. Feel free to add to it in comments. (I seem to remember a Trapper John MD episode about a fugitive Nazi, but I can’t find anything on which one. A free ebook copy of Summer of Long Knives goes to whoever can name the episode.)
The echoes of Eichmann’s capture have largely faded from pop culture, largely because chasing down the remaining living fugitive ex-Nazis, though an important job for history and for justice, isn’t exactly a strong thriller plot element anymore. Future iterations of this trope will be as period pieces, or will involve younger criminals from more contemporary genocides. Let’s hope humanity doesn’t give our screenwriters too much more to work with.
All of these movies and TV episodes are available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and streaming.