Sir Ben Kingsley has built a career on real-life portrayals, from his Oscar-winning role in “Gandhi” to lauded composer Dmitri Shostakovich in “Testimony.” However, it’s his work in projects related to the Holocaust and World War II that may resonate the most, including playing Anne Frank’s father in a 2001 miniseries, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in 1989’s “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” and perhaps most notably, Oskar Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”
Kingsley’s obvious depth of feeling for those parts make it striking that his latest role puts him literally on the wrong side of history. Chris Weitz’s “Operation Finale” dramatizes the 1960 operation to bring former SS officer and unrepentant Nazi Adolf Eichmann (Kingsley) to justice following his years-long escape to Argentina. He’s a twisted, terrifying figure, and even Kingsley didn’t relish the work, but he also was unafraid of what it required of him.
“It was a portrait that I was commissioned to paint,” Kingsley said. “He entered my studio, I put him on canvas, on film, with my craft. But I managed to protect myself from him … One can portray some person and not become infected by them or altered by them or begin to attempt to get into his head, because I still believe that is impossible. That head is impenetrable.”
While Kingsley inoculated himself from Eichmann, there are plenty of characters he’s happily let in over the years. Roles like Gandhi, Frank, and Stern sustained him when faced with something as challenging and dark as Eichmann.
“When it does linger, it is sometimes because I have had a great empathy for them, or sympathy,” Kingsley said. “Gandhi I loved. Simon Wiesenthal I loved. Otto Frank, I loved playing him. And Itzhak Stern in ‘Schindler’s List,’ I loved playing him. So there was an act of affection in my portrait there, and I allowed them in, because they sustained and nourished a side of me. They continued to sustain and nourish a side of me that had to portray this man.”
Even so, Kingsley endeavored to find the human being within — not to honor him, but to honor the people he harmed.
“The dilemma is that it was a human being. He was a human being,” the actor said. “He did not land from Mars. He was not a monster. Not a two-dimensional comic-strip villain. So that approach in my portrait would have been a grave disservice to his victims. … Rather than inhabit him, I decided to dedicate my performance to them, to his victims. So the torturer doesn’t have the last word, and to quote Elie Wiesel, the last word belongs to the victim.”
Kingsley is particularly fixated on that point: even while playing the “architect of the Holocaust,” the actor wanted to stay grounded by his respect and admiration for his character’s victims. Kingsley’s familiarity with the history of the time comes after decades of making films about World War II and the Holocaust.
“I have become acquainted with the heroics of others who are dealing with overwhelming grief with, I find, astonishing dignity,” Kingsley said. “And those that I have met, thanks to Steven Spielberg and his Shoah Foundation, and also my long, deep conversations with Simon Wiesenthal when I portrayed him, once they have overcome the trauma — which probably takes years, if ever, to overcome — they are able to articulate and to share their experiences.”
Kingsley can’t say enough about Spielberg’s work and the impact that “Schindler’s List” and its enduring legacy has had on the world at large. After filming his best picture winner, Spielberg was so intent on keeping the stories of survivors alive that he founded the USC Shoah Foundation to record their testimonies. The filmmaker originally aimed for 50,000 testimonies; more than 20 years later, the foundation has recorded almost 55,000. “I think that Steven Spielberg made an enormous contribution to our consciousness with the Shoah Foundation,” he said. “I think his contribution to our enlightenment is enormous.”
When asked what he hopes audiences take away from Weitz’s film, he offered a simple answer: open some minds, and provide a peek at something previously unseen. “Our job is to surprise as well as enlighten,” he said.
He remains intent on using his work to remind people of a history that can never be forgotten, to use art and storytelling to ensure that the unfathomable never becomes forgettable.
“Let us please take time to digest the immeasurable loss of six million European Jews,” he said. “What a gap in the universe, the consequences of which we are probably still suffering from. … I sense that the aftershock, certainly in Europe, the aftershocks of that indigestible lump of history, as Axel Waldenbucher called it, will never be understood. I’m not so sure it will ever be absorbed, but we must tell stories in order to allow people to accept the fact that it did happen. It’s not old, grainy, black-and-white movie footage from the past. We are living in that present. We are living in the aftershock of that event.”
“Operation Finale” is in theaters today.