When Ben Kingsley Played Nazi War Criminal Adolf Eichmann He Aimed To Deliver A Warning From History

Operation Finale tells the story of the unsung heroes in Mossad who captured Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the ‘final solution’, who oversaw the Holocaust and systematic murder of six million jews. Sir Ben Kingsley, now 74, has a host of cinematic achievements including an Oscar for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi and three more Oscar nominations for his work in Sexy Beast, The House of Sand and Fog and Warren Beatty's Bugsy.

He also knows how to deliver box office gold appearing in Iron Man 3, but his latest role as a mass murderer could be his most challenging yet. He reveals to RSNG why he felt compelled to show the human face of one of history’s most reviled men…

RSNG What a privilege it must be to be able to tell this story? SIR BEN KINGSLEY ‘I’m eternally grateful for the invitations to participate in the selling of an extraordinary story that possibly may never be forgiven, mustn’t be forgotten and probably will never be fully understood… If you look at some of the many threads in the work that I do, one of those threads is certainly the memory of the Holocaust, and I as a storyteller and as an actor perpetuating that memory in the light of experiences that I’ve had. And when I was kindly invited to join this extraordinary project it immediately connected to a previously existing thread, if you like.’

RSNG Did you feel a duty to get everything right? BK ‘We have filmed terrible things but then surely, I think it’s perhaps in some way our duty, our calling to say to a generation of viewers: “I’m sorry boys and girls, but this did happen.” I think capturing that and handing it to the audience in some ways has its triumphs, as well, and in order to show the boys and girls of today what we are capable of will have its terrible, tragic, dark days and we film them as storytellers.’

‘The Mossad thread of the story is thrilling in that the hidden monster, complacent hidden monster reflecting over the murders is found, is captured and is made to stand up and say: “Yes, I did it.” That’s the important thing.’

RSNG You’ve played so many real-life characters but how did you approach playing nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann? BK ‘My perspective to approach the character came from my friendship with Simon Wiesenthal when I portrayed him, my meetings with Mila and Poldek Pfefferberg and all of the other Schindler survivors who were with us on the set in Poland on Schindler’s List, thanks to the great Steven Spielberg. Meeting – in Amsterdam – Miep Gies, who sheltered the Frank family in the attic, when I portrayed Otto Frank and also meeting Anne’s school friend, Jackie van Maarsen.’

‘So, I know I am spelling out at length the privileges I’ve had to meet these extraordinary people, that they in a sense were my catapult into this role, because of course, to whom else should I dedicate my performance, but these extraordinary people and those who are no longer with us, to tell us what they witnessed?’

‘We have a dwindling number of voices from the Holocaust with us and they remain in my head and my heart, those that I have met, particularly [Holocaust survivor] Elie Wiesel, and therefore I felt utterly compelled to tell their story, far more than I wanted to enter his mindset.’

‘It was the urgency to tell their story and to point out to the audience: “He really did this, and he was really proud of what he’d done.’”’

RSNG Is it true you had a picture of Elie Wiesel on you? BK ‘That’s correct, yes. It was always in my… somewhere about my person. It was a kind of shield and also, I promised Elie that I would dedicate my next film of this period to him and although it’s 1962, it’s still rooted in Elie’s suffering because he in in Buchenwald and he was liberated at the age of 15, which is inconceivable.’

I’m sorry but wake up… this really did happen and it happened, historically, yesterday

RSNG Why is it so important that we need young people to see this film? BK ‘Personally, I feel that to get the six million is to kill them all over again and I do believe that, sadly, Europe did not grieve sufficiently, and neither were the roots and causes of that trauma fully investigated.’

‘These are represented in the fact Eichmann was found in Buenos Aires, thousands of miles away having lived there for years, so that sort of historical amnesia is extremely depressing and dangerous, and of course both Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal acknowledged in my presence that it could happen again.’

‘This is a great thriller and it’s a wonderful film that is redemptive, but underneath it is that simple truth. I’m sorry boys and girls but wake up… this really did happen, and it happened, historically yesterday.’

These were so-called civilised people in a country in Europe, they did not land from Mars

RSNG Your humanisation of the character was very interesting… BK ‘But I didn’t make him human – tragically, he was. That’s the terrible truth that we have to accept. I did not humanise anything, the man was a man amongst men. This is what we have to understand. These were so-called civilised people from a so-called civilised country in Europe, they did not land from Mars. That’s the terrible thing, they were homosapiens, men amongst men.’

RSNG What was it like working with director Chris Weitz? BK ‘Working with my director has been an absolute joy because I think that, you know, occasionally one has a sympathetic ear and voice and there’s a confluence of ideas and motives and it’s very, very rare and wonderful. Wonderful.’

‘In terms of the cast, every one of us has a dramatic function in this film and I think every one of us thanks the casting of the film. The casting process is very secure in that dramatic function: “What do I need to do in this film to help the bigger picture?”’ My corner of it comes from my own experience, but I am a colour on a canvas that is ultimately redemptive and thrilling and very exciting and beautiful as a film.’

RSNG You have been a mainstay in film for so long, yet other actors – Dev Patel for instance – have spoken about the difficulties as an Indian actor trying to make it in Hollywood – I wonder if you can relate and what your experiences were like? BK ‘Dev is probably much better qualified to answer that than I. I am part Russian Jewish, part English, probably part Iranian and part Gujarati Indian, and I have an amazing career. I'm blessed. I think that one has to focus on the craft, and I'm trying to address my answer to the young actor listening to you, reading you – focus on the craft and have an urgency in you to tell your story, and the angels will come.’

RSNG You have mentioned that you want to do more comedy, so do you have something planned? BK ‘Yeah, there are things planned and there are things in the can that will be released shortly. A lot of my stage work involved comedy, and it's great to revisit it, it's wonderful. And I always try and inject wit into everything I do. If the opportunity is not there, on the page, in the script, then I tend not to involve myself, but if there's an opportunity for satire, comedy, absurdity, then I like to pick it up.’

RSNG How does work feel for you at this point in your career? BK ‘Perfect, perfect. The only word I can use to combine it is joy. When I am working I am in a state of joy, no matter what I am going through, even if the process is a grim, gruelling, terrifying sequence in a really tough film, there's some initial spark and joy in me saying: I am telling this story. And even in the middle of Schindler’s List, there was that spark of joy saying, “This story is coming out, thank God, it’s coming out.”’

RSNG When you choose a script, what moves you to do it? BK ‘One doesn't really know until a script is placed in front of you and you don't know. I have no strategy, I honestly don't know, and then I open a script and say: “There you are.” It's just something that kicks in. I was brought up as a young actor in Shakespeare and the perfect structure of his characters and plays is a very, very high standard to meet. Whenever possible I see if the script is as perfectly written and balanced in terms of the human dance, as his were and are.’

RSNG What do you prefer to play, the good guy or the bad guy in the movie? BK ‘Absolutely balanced, provided I know what the central motivation is, if I can put it that way. Once I found that, then it's a joy to play. It is art.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Operation Finale, starring Ben Kingsley, which tells the story of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s capture and trial: