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Bergman & Eichmann

Can the same ethical precept be honest and courageous on the lips of one person, and abject and cowardly on those of another?

What do the genius of good and the genius of evil have in common? Apart from being human, what joins Ingmar Bergman and Adolf Eichmann, one of the greatest talents in the history of cinema, and one of the greatest criminals in the history of humanity? Between the creator and the destroyer, one who left works of beauty and insoluble complexity behind him, and another who left a trail of ugliness and lethal simplicity.

Between a beacon of light and a black hole of darkness.

I wondered along these lines while watching a recent documentary on the trial of Eichmann in 1961 in Jerusalem. Because I had just seen another documentary where Bergman, interviewed in his old age, is seen talking about almost everything under the sun. At one moment the interviewer mentions the nine children he had by different wives, and asks if he regrets having abandoned them. Bergman responds immediately, as if he had thought long and hard about it. "I did," he says, "until I realized that feeling remorse about something so serious as abandoning your children is pure theater, a way of living with a suffering in no way comparable to the suffering you have caused."

Feeling remorse is pure theater, a way of living with a suffering in no way comparable to the suffering you have caused"

The answer impressed me. I thought of Spinoza, who said that remorse is one of the human being's worst enemies (the other is hatred); a repugnant thing that in the long run destroys us. Bergman's response is that of a free man, an honest man, who knows men and knows that it is wrong to aggravate a sin you have committed by that of suffering for having committed it.

This is why, in the Eichmann documentary, I felt a frisson when Eichmann said much the same thing. Near the end of the trial the prosecutor asks him if he feels guilty for the murder of millions of Jews. "From the human point of view, yes," answers Eichmann, "because I organized the deportations." He adds: "But remorse is useless -- it won't bring back the dead. Remorse is meaningless. Remorse is fine for children. What matters is how to avoid having it in the future."

Was Eichmann right? How can you not feel remorse for having brought about millions of deaths? Bridging for a moment the unbridgeable abyss between Bergman's mistake and Eichmann's crime, did this rejection of repentance really unite the genius of good and the genius of evil? How? Can one and the same ethical precept be honest and courageous on the lips of one person, and abject and cowardly on those of another? Or does it all depend on the difference between a horrendous crime, and a mere moral error? Was there some trace of decency in the SS man?

One answer to these questions (or what then seemed to me an answer) came immediately afterward, in the same documentary, when, having admitted that he was guilty of the extermination of the Jews, Eichmann denied it, retreating to his usual line of defense during the trial: he considered what happened to the Jews a monstrous crime, but he himself could do no other thing than what he did, having been no more than a technician who was obliged by his oath of obedience to do what he did: thus, in his mind he felt "free of responsibility."

The first difference between Bergman and Eichmann is clear, the scale of their errors. Nor is the second banal. Bergman entirely accepts his responsibility. Eichmann, only in appearance -- in fact he rejects it. Pascal observed that only two classes of men exist: on the one hand, the just who believe they are sinners; on the other, the sinners who believe they are just. Bergman was perhaps a sinner, but unlike Eichmann, he did not believe himself to be one of the just.

This is perhaps the first condition for being one of the just.