Randall Christopher and the Spy Who Enthralled Himby Natalie Jacobs January 30, 2017
When Randall Christopher read a front-page article about Adolf Eichmann in the New York Times last year, the San Diego-based artist had only a preliminary understanding of the Holocaust. He was aware that it happened and that it was terrible, but that was about the extent of it. Randall, who is not Jewish, grew up in Florida and says before last year, he wouldn’t have recognized the name Adolf Eichmann as one associated with the Holocaust.
The article he read in the Times was a small piece about the letter that Eichmann hand-wrote to Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. It was 1962 and Eichmann was pleading for pardon after being convicted and sentenced to death for the war crimes he perpetrated against millions of Jews during the Holocaust. In the letter, NYT’s Isabel Kershner reports, Eichmann begged for the Israel Supreme Court to “draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders.”
The article was published when the Israel State Archives released the Eichmann letter to the public. Reading the article, Randall realized how little he actually knew about the Holocaust and was inspired to work backward from the Eichmann trial into the annals of history.
“As I started watching some documentaries and reading some books, my head was spinning,” he says one brisk evening at Holsem Coffee in North Park. “I was asking myself these questions like how did this happen?
“It’s a weird situation where you have Western values, ostensibly even a Christian nation, that this happened in. It’s not some barbaric war. It’s a systematic, calculated murder. How did a country get to that point? The whole country was on board? That’s crazy to me.”
After about a month of attempting to understand the hows and whys of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, Randall decided to make an animated short film. He focused on the unsung hero of the Eichmann retrieval operation, Zvi Aharoni, the Mossad agent who discovered Eichmann living and working in Argentina.
“I Watched Ricardo Klement Get Off the Bus” is a first person narration that imagines Aharoni telling the story of how he discovered Adolf Eichmann, who was using the pseudonym Ricardo Klement, on public transportation “at the end of the earth,” as Randall puts it. The film briefly mentions Aharoni’s own experiences living through the Holocaust, and touches on the brutal “murder factory” at Treblinka. But mostly, the short is about the James Bond aspects of the stakeout and capture of this notorious war criminal, 15 years after the demise of Eichmann’s Nazi co-conspirators.
Randall Christopher is an artist, illustrator and animator who has published comic books and animated short films. He also co-runs the popular San Diego drawing meet-up Sketch Party and paints with acrylic, mostly on wood panels.
“It’s all funny,” Randall says of his animation work prior to “Ricardo Klement.”
“Nothing like this. I wasn’t looking for something like this, but the story found me.”
Although his work is usually light hearted – a pigeon named Bear playing chess with a snake named Fox; skater bros trying to get their board back from a hound dog who resembles a Vietnam vet; cat tessellations – Randall says he thinks about deeper stuff like politics and culture all the time. Since beginning the film, he’s talked with friends and acquaintances about the things he’s learned about the Holocaust and the Third Reich and has been dismayed to realize that many people don’t know much about the history.
“I do think people need to hear about this,” he says. “We hear that all the time and it’s a cliché at this point, but that doesn’t change anything. It’s still something that I really feel like people need to know about. Because it could happen again.”
He sees similarities between Hitler’s rise to power and the current populist movement skyrocketing forward with the election of Donald Trump.
“I have a much more thorough knowledge of what led to the Third Reich and how Hitler was democratically elected. I don’t know if two years ago I could have said that.
“He came to power saying literally I’m going to get jobs back and I’m going to make Germany great again – everything that we’re hearing now. If I hadn’t done this project, I would have problems with what Trump’s saying but now it’s like, dude, he’s saying the exact same stuff Hitler was saying. For sure. It’s not even debatable.”
There are approximately 100 drawings in the 14-minute short film. Randall drew them all. When it came time to draw Hitler, he says he was having trouble finding a photo he liked.
“I decided to just do a freeze frame from one of his speeches,” Randall explains. “I was in Influx café in Golden Hill watching Hitler speeches. There was a real moment for me where I’m watching it and it really sunk in. It seems like ancient history. It’s abstract. But, I’m watching video of this guy. This wasn’t a movie. This really happened. That guy was real. Millions of people died because of that one person. It really registered.”
What started out as a “fun spy film” turned into a project that connected Randall Christopher to a history that isn’t really so far away.
“I’m hoping this film does that for other people,” he says.
In addition to doing all the drawings and animation, Randall wrote the script. A close friend and collaborator is creating music for the original score, an expert touch that makes the film seem more full, urgent and exciting. The actor Mark Pinter provides the voice-over of Zvi Aharoni with an enthralling German-Hebrew hybrid accent.
Randall is still working on the finishing touches of the film, but he produced a live version last summer at Verbatim Books in North Park. Mark Pinter performed, alongside a violinist and scenes from the film. Afterward, Randall gave a lecture and local Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler spoke and answered questions from the full house. Randall says he would ultimately like to do more presentations like this with the film, but first he’s aiming for a world premiere at a major film festival. Ideally for Randall, this would happen sooner rather than later.
“When you’re sitting in front of Rose Schindler and she has a short sleeve shirt on and you can see the tattoo, something registers. It helps people cross that threshold and you realize it’s really important for people to know about this.”
Once the film receives its festival debut, Randall would like to release it online for free.