NEW YORK — Sir Ben Kingsley, a few months shy of 75, is waiting for me in a hotel room. In the hall, publicists zoom as journalists kill time. In a different room sits Oscar Isaac, in another Nick Kroll, somewhere on a different floor is director Chris Weitz. All are here to promote “Operation Finale,” the quite good caper flick in which a bunch of spies hunt down, capture and then extract a war criminal.
For some it’s just another Hollywood picture. For Jews and Zionists, the Eichmann Affair is foundational stuff. In the broadcasting of his highly publicized 1961 trial, most pro-Israel advocates agreed that only by showing the world — in deadening detail — the enormity of the attempted Nazi genocide, would people begin to understand the necessity of a Jewish state.
By and large, Weitz’s film does a strong job of being both entertaining and, for lack of a better word, important. When a sagacious David Ben-Gurion interrupts a send-off party before the team slinks to Argentina and basically tells them “don’t screw this up,” it elicits both a chuckle and chills.
All the performances are good, but Kingsley, so recognized for playing righteous men, is an inspired choice for the nuts-and-bolts engineer of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann.
The British-born actor of half-Indian descent was a modestly successful television actor before achieving worldwide fame and winning every conceivable award in 1983 for the role of Mahatma Gandhi. He later played Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Otto (father of Anne) Frank. In 1993 he co-starred in “Schindler’s List” as Itzhak Stern, something of a proxy for the dignity (and sechel) of all Holocaust survivors.
Through the door I overhear a colleague say “thank you” to Sir Ben, and as the actor collects himself his handler for the day says “next up is someone from The Times of Israel.” As one who has been promoting projects to the press for over 35 years, Kingsley can easily spot his cues. His responses to my questions make reference to people like Leah Rabin and Elie Wiesel. But it doesn’t come off as mere name-dropping.
Kingsley is an increasing rarity in Hollywood; one who is unafraid to suggest an alliance with Israel. (He also mentions that “Schindler’s List” is coming back to theaters in December — you heard it here first.)
Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.
You were a young man at the time, but were you aware of the Eichmann capture when it happened?
I do have memories of him in the glass box. Almost like a Francis Bacon painting. And I recall it as an icon of Israel’s emergence as an extraordinary, restrained, humane country. The miracle that they didn’t just shoot him like a dog; they got him back there to stand trial.
It’s funny you mention the glass box, because I was kinda hoping we’d see that image in the film, and we do at the end. It’s gratifying, in a way.
Yes, I was very glad to read that in the script. Very glad. Because I watched footage of him in the box, and the arc of my performance definitely had its punctuation at that point.
It’s interesting that you noted Israel’s humane side — there are some that would take just that as a controversial statement — but the unwillingness to use capital punishment, even with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, it’s —
Only once! With Adolf Eichmann.
I met Rabin. It was wonderful. We had dinner and he asked me to sit with him for a while and we had a lovely conversation. Then after his tragic death, I spent time with Leah, his widow, in Israel, and later again in New York.
It always astonishes me the level of balance between justice and revenge, and how that was maintained in the [Eichmann] context. I do still find it astonishing that he was brought to justice in a way that was civilized, and in a way that was justified, and that allowed the victims and survivors to have a place where they could at last be heard.
Obviously it was cathartic for them because they hadn’t spoken for years. But at last we began to appreciate — never understand — but to appreciate the scale of the enormous tragedy, and that terrible loss to Europe that he perpetrated. The immeasurable loss of imagination, science, culture, language, music, the arts, medicine, architecture. Oh, the list is endless of what we have lost.
It’s a common saying among actors that villains never think of themselves as villains, which I think might be particularly apt considering the common understanding of Eichmann. Is this something you thought about?
I didn’t need to think it, it is embedded in the script: “Save the country I love from being destroyed.” The sense of righteousness that the Nazis had; that they were enacting the will of the Nation and maybe even a higher purpose. So his sense of righteousness was something that I derived from his victims. You can measure him by the damage he did, rather than measure him ideologically.
Now, I did not measure him ideologically. I did not collude in that side of his portrait. What guided my hand in the creation of his portrait was my love for Simon Wiesenthal, and my acquaintance with Miep Gies and Jacqueline van Maarsen, who were friends and close associates of Anne Frank that I met when I played Otto Frank. And, of course, meeting the Schindler survivors when I worked with Steven Spielberg, and, finally, spending some time with dear Elie Wiesel. So, my perspective walking onto that film set was the perspective of the victim, and I put myself in their place in order to create their torturer.
Did playing one of the great, noble survivors of the Holocaust in “Schindler’s List” mitigate any hesitation in playing Eichmann? Or did you have any hesitation in the first place?
Not at all. My first acquaintance with a prophet and hero of the Holocaust was Simon Wiesenthal. Simon located Eichmann in Buenos Aires. I had already played him so I knew the circumstances and how long it took to get the Mossad to listen to him. I spent a long time with Simon and I knew him very well; we were very fond of one another. Likewise Poldek Pfefferberg and his wife Mila on “Schindler’s List.” I have had occasion to spend hours with survivors and I’m overwhelmed by the combination of unimaginable grief and extraordinary dignity, so when I was last with Elie Wiesel we had a wonderful conversation, and he embraced me as “a lover of truth and wisdom.” Those are his words. And I reciprocated by saying that the next film set that was appropriate to his story that I was to walk onto, I would dedicate my performance to him.
So, unswervingly, I accepted the role because shortly after Elie’s passing, I got offered the role of Eichmann and I thought “Ah! I’ll do this for Elie.”
Well it’s a heck of a film. Important, meaningful but also it’s quite entertaining.
It’s a wonderful thriller!
Starts and ends as a caper film, and then, in the middle, shifts a bit into a two-hander between you and Oscar Isaac, head-to-head. I’m curious about the rehearsal process between you two.
We had a very well organized read-through of the script, which was informative. And I think I had dinner with Oscar maybe once or twice throughout the whole shoot. I didn’t socialize with my colleagues. I thought it would interfere with our dynamic if they are sitting across the interrogation table with me and I was the guy they just had dinner with last night. Not to diminish their powers of concentration, but I just thought, “let’s make it as effortless as possible.” So Oscar and I hardly discussed those scenes. It’s possible he spoke with the director; I wasn’t privy to that, but between Oscar and I, it was “action!” and then bang.
There’s a remarkable scene in the film. Very dramatic. But, it’s a little touchy. In it, you answer the call of nature. It’s not something you see a lot in movies –
And it must have happened, because all our incidents are based on the actual events. I mean, clearly, that must have happened on more than one occasion.
When you read a script, as one who has been in so many projects on film, television and the stage, are you on the lookout for some new challenges, and, “Ah, I’ve never done this before!”?
Well, in “Iron Man Three” I allude to it by flushing the toilet and advising people not to go in there for 20 minutes, so …
But this was an intelligent opportunity to remind the audience, however regrettably, “Look chaps, this was not a monster, this was a guy.” And I even say in the film, “Everybody shits, Papa!”
It gives him a commonality that’s chilling. You know, when there are serial killers and the neighbors say, “Oh, we went down the pub, he was a nice man, he kept to himself,” everyone is always shocked that this man doesn’t sprout horns. They are men. Homo sapiens. It’s a terrifying thought, but we have to take it on board.
Earlier this year there was an anniversary screening of “Schindler’s List.” Twenty-five years. Was that the first time you’d seen it in a while?
I think it might have been the late ’90s. But I’m so proud of Steven [Spielberg] that he’s made the decision to re-release the film this December, this winter. I was with Steven at that screening, and I embraced him. This was after I had played Eichmann, and I am curious to hear his response, as I know he is committed, as I am, as Elie Wiesel was, and Simon was and others are still are, to — “Let us tell tales,” is the beginning of one of Elie Wiesel’s most beautiful poems. So I take that to heart and we must continue to tell these stories.