In 'Operation Finale,' Ben Kingsley Summons The Evil Of A Holocaust Architect

Aug 29, 2018
Originally published on August 29, 2018 11:14 am

It was an undercover operation set in Argentina, 1960. An elite crew of Israeli agents tracked down and secretly kidnapped one of the world's most notorious war criminals: the Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who was hiding in Buenos Aires.

Eichmann was among the major organizers of the Holocaust, responsible for transporting millions of European Jews to death camps. The film Operation Finale, starring Ben Kingsley, recounts the daring mission to bring Eichmann to justice.

Kingsley famously played accountant Itzhak Stern in the 1993 film Schindler's List and Otto Frank in the 2001 miniseries Anne Frank. He also portrayed the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the 1989 film Murderers Among Us.

In Operation Finale, his character is seen as the very embodiment of evil. Kingsley tells NPR's Rachel Martin that his performance in the film is dedicated to the late Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

"Shortly after Wiesel passed away, I was offered this role in Operation Finale," Kingsley says. "The focus, the strength and the determination to honor Wiesel's memory carried me through the difficult days on set portraying Eichmann."


Interview Highlights

On getting inside the mind of Eichmann

I didn't — that was the secret. Let's imagine I'm a portrait artist. This man was in my studio, I had him in one corner, I had my canvas in front of me, and I put him directly onto the canvas. I was not a conduit for him. His ideology was not the guiding force for my performance. The guiding force for my performance was the victims, and his silhouette was molded by their accusation, by their memory, by their reverberating grief — but nothing from that man ever touched me or entered me. I simply transferred his image onto canvas, by that I mean film. He never got close to me, he never got near me, he never infected me.

On portraying a murderous ideology

The tragedy is that these men and women were part of a national movement that mobilized their military, their ideology, their culture, their language, their engineering, to annihilate as many of Europe's Jews as they could. But these people — however difficult it might be for us to swallow — were human beings. To play them as a two-dimensional comic strip villain or a run-of-the-mill-"baddie" would be to do a terrible disservice to history and the memory of those that they murdered. For the years of extermination between 1933 and 1945, it was men and women who did this. It was not my duty to humanize anything because tragically, it's already human.

On leaving Eichmann behind

I put down my brushes, I wipe the paint off my hands, I cover my portrait, and I leave my studio. The hard part is that now I'm having to talk about [the film] and it is important that I talk about it. But I can't give [Eichmann] away to the camera, I can't give him away to the canvas, and I find talking about it quite difficult. So I'm not done with it. I would rather I was, but I'm not. Somehow the brushes are put back into my hands and I don't quite know what to do with them. So I'm talking about something that I hope I let go of forever.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was an undercover operation set in Argentina, 1960. An elite crew of Israeli agents secretly kidnapped one of the world's most notorious war criminals, a Nazi SS officer hiding in Buenos Aires. His name was Adolf Eichmann, and he was among the major organizers of the Holocaust, the man responsible for transporting millions of European Jews to death camps. The new film "Operation Finale" is the story of that daring secret mission to capture Adolf Eichmann and bring him to justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPERATION FINALE")

BEN KINGSLEY: (As Adolf Eichmann) You have no interest in what I have to say unless it confirms what you think you already know. My job was simple - save the country I love from being destroyed.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays Eichmann in this movie. It's a far cry from the first time the actor has grappled with the Holocaust in film. Kingsley portrayed Oskar Schindler's accountant, Itzhak Stern, in the 1993 film "Schindler's List" and Otto Frank in the 2001 miniseries "Anne Frank." He also played the famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the 1989 movie "Murderers Among Us." But those men were sympathetic characters, heroes even. In "Operation Finale," Kingsley plays a man seen as the very embodiment of evil.

How did you get into his head?

KINGSLEY: I didn't. That was the secret. Let's imagine I'm a portrait artist. This man was in my studio. I had him in one corner, I had my canvas in front of me and I put him directly onto the canvas. I was not a conduit for him. His ideology was not the guiding force of my performance. The guiding force of my performance was the victims. And his silhouette was molded by their accusation, by their memory, by their reverberating grief. But nothing from that man ever touched me or entered me. I simply transferred his image onto canvas - by that, I mean onto film. So he never got close to me. He never got near me. He never infected me.

MARTIN: At the same time, you are remarkably able to - humanize him feels so trite and it's not the right word but portray him in a multi-dimensional way. He is so very ordinary at this point in his life. He's living outside Buenos Aires with his wife. He takes the bus to work every day. How did you strike that balance between the man who was and the man who is when we meet him?

KINGSLEY: Rachel, you use the word humanize, and it's interesting that in fact I did not humanize him. And the tragedy is that these men and women were part of a national movement that mobilized their military, their ideology, their culture, their language, their engineering, to annihilate as many of Europe's Jews as they could. But these people, however difficult it might be for us to swallow, were human beings. And to play them as a two-dimensional comic strip villain or, you know, a run-of-the-mill baddie would be to do a terrible disservice to history and the memory of those that they murdered. These - for the years of extermination between 1933 and 1945, it was men and women who did this. I didn't - it was not my duty to humanize anything because it was already - tragically, it's already human.

MARTIN: Yeah. The Israeli agent who ends up being instrumental in capturing Adolf Eichmann is Peter Malkin, played beautifully by the actor Oscar Isaac. Could you talk us through how the relationship unfolds between Malkin and Eichmann because they do develop one?

KINGSLEY: They are both committed to manipulating the other. This head-on collision of manipulative forces provides the central drama of the film. And fortunately, it is Peter Malkin's restraint that allows Eichmann to get from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem and to stand trial. But the tension between those two characters is palpable, and our discussions about the scenes were minimal, Rachel. We hardly spoke about them. They were intuitive. We both came from our corners, if you like, and used our mandate to see us through those scenes. And Chris Weitz, a wonderful, wonderful director, captured I think beautifully the essence of those debates and those manipulative exercises.

MARTIN: Were you glad to be done with the filming because of the weight that it carried?

KINGSLEY: I put down my brushes. I wipe the paint off my hands. I cover my portrait. I leave my studio. The hard part is that now I'm having to talk about it - and it is important that I talk about it - that I can't give him away to the camera. I can't give him away to the canvas. And I find talking about it quite difficult. So I'm not done with it. I would rather I was, but I'm not. So I have - somehow the brushes are put back into my hands and I don't quite know what to do with them. So I'm talking about something that I hope I've let go of forever.

MARTIN: Yeah.

KINGSLEY: It's strange. It's strange.

MARTIN: Over many years of preparing for roles in films about the Holocaust, Sir Ben Kingsley has met with survivors. He developed an especially close friendship with the late Nobel laureate and author Elie Wiesel. And Kingsley dedicated his performance in "Operation Finale" to him.

KINGSLEY: This is the poem that Elie Wiesel gave to me and signed. He did not dedicate it to me, but the poem is universal. May I read it to you?

MARTIN: Please.

KINGSLEY: (Reading) Let us tell tales. All the rest can wait. All the rest must wait. Let us tell tales. That is our primary obligation. Commentaries will have to come later, lest they replace or becloud what they mean to reveal. Let us tell tales so as to remember how vulnerable man is when faced with overwhelming evil. Let us tell tales so as not to allow the executioner to have the last word. The last word belongs to the victim. It is up to the witness to capture it, shape it, transmit it. Elie Wiesel.

MARTIN: Sir Ben Kingsley - he plays Adolf Eichmann in the new film "Operation Finale," out today.

Thank you so much, Sir Ben.

KINGSLEY: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "MALKIN'S MEMORIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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