I had an opportunity to speak with legend Sir Ben Kingsley about his complex portrayal of Adolf Eichmann in Operation Finale.
There are few actors in this world as renowned and captivating as Sir Ben Kingsley for delivering all-time great performance after all-time great performance. In Operation Finale, Sir Ben Kingsley portrays a man known for pure real-life evil, the architect of the holocaust, in a multi-deminesonial performance. Initially, Kingsley’s Eichmann is presented in Operation Finale as a seemingly ordinary father, who’s disappointed in his son Klaus after he lashes out against his (unknowingly) Jewish girlfriend. He poses the question, “This is how I raised you?” and to go make things right with Sylvia. The audience is then presented with an image of Eichmann sitting with his younger child, enjoying watching trains pass. An innocent activity out of context, a truly surreal, horrifying visual in-context as Eichmann.
It’s the first time in a film we see Eichmann in the context of his family life, showing the audience, these are in actor Lior Raz’ (who portrays Isser Harel in Operation Finale) words “real, real people” who did these horrible things. They are not otherworldly beings or monsters crafted in a book but real people who did the unspeakable. It’s of vital importance to note this fact because as Lior Raz has commented, “It could still happen today.”
One of the most enduring images in Operation Finale is that of an Eichmann being more preoccupied with wiping ink off his shirt sleeve as Jews are shot without mercy in trenches. Eichmann describes that he might have seen Peter Malkin’s sister among them holding her baby, asking for it to be saved, during what appears to be a flashback. Yet, is referenced by Eichmann as what he thinks Malkin believes happened right after. Leading the question if Eichmann recounted what did truly happen or not in the film. Yet, Kingsley’s Eichmann attempts to plead that his crimes were that of his superiors and he was just doing his job. That he should not take the brunt of the blame, or as he calls it in Operation Finale, be the “scapegoat” to Peter Malkin’s [Oscar Isaac] people in Israel.
Eventually, Kingsley’s Eichmann agrees to go willingly to answer for his unspeakable crimes if he is allowed the promise of seeing his wife again. Earlier Eichmann is constantly concerned if is family is safe until Oscar Isaac’s Peter Malkin confirms that they are indeed safe, “What do you think we are?” It’s ironic that Eichmann is so concerned about what might happen to see family when he saw through a plan to see millions of other ones to be permanently ruined.
Sir Ben Kingsley told me that he “was was very privileged to look at him (Eichmann) from the perspective of his victims.” How the “perception of the role was not defined by his [Eichmann’s] ideology,” and rather his preparation for the role, ‘was defined by acquaintance and friendship with his victims.’
Interview with Sir Ben Kingsley on Operation Finale :
Sir Ben Kingsley: Hello Nir!
Nir Regev: Hey, so you played a character that was very complex. I felt you brought a lot of sympathetic elements.
Sir Ben Kingsley: Good.
Nir Regev: It was an interesting character where even after he got caught initially and tried denying it, where I felt maybe again they caught the wrong guy. I’m really interested to hear your research and general inspirations to play this kind of completely new perspective, on what people envision as just evil, and the architect, and all that kind of stuff.
Sir Ben Kingsley: I think that the actual trial showed us how he was perceived from the point of view of his victims. The first time ever I think, that such a trial was televised worldwide and the world had an opportunity to see his victims point to him. In other words, he seemed to be in that glass box shaped and defined, not by his ideology but by his victims. That’s where the truth emerges. I spent time as you probably know with Simon Wiesenthal when I portrayed him in Murderers Among Us, the HBO series. He was the great Nazi hunter, who in fact discovered that Eichmann was in Buenos Aires. And I’ve already played that man, which is very interesting.
Then of course, I moved into Schindler’s List under Steven’s guidance and met the Pfefferberg family and other survivors on the list. And then I was graced with the opportunity of playing Otto Frank, the remarkable father of Anne Frank. In the film footage of the trial, you see the enormous grief unleashed from the witnesses’ perspective. I, from all the wonderful people that I’ve mentioned, including Miep Gies who hid Anne Frank in the attic with her family, was at the receiving end in them of a tidal wave of grief… Accompanied by an extraordinary dignity. And it is that wave of grief that defines what these people did to people. So my perception of the role was not defined by his ideology. And my preparation for the role, was thank goodness, defined by my acquaintance and my friendship with his victims. I was very privileged to look at him from the perspective of his victims.
Nir Regev: The scene in which you wipe off ink and it’s kind of almost like a flashback. I was wondering when I was watching the movie was that supposed to have actually happened? Or was that you just trying to kind of hone in on Peter [Malkin] and try to say ‘Oh, this is what you think I did?’
Sir Ben Kingsley: In the film, he mentions the child had some blood splashing on him. There is a very bizarre connection between cruelty and sentimentality. And also when a soul is stained, there is some obsessive, repetitive gesture that sometimes accompanies that. Like the famous washing of the hands of Lady Macbeth. And it’s a similar kind of dramatic gesture, that I think encapsulates the bizarre combination of utter indifference to the fate of people and yet making sure that his shoelaces are tied properly, and his tie is straight. It’s a very odd combination but it does exist.
Of that fastidiousness, in the dress. And also of course the scientific process, mechanical process, military process of the fastidiousness with lists and film footage, and photographs of destroying as many of Europe’s Jews as they possibly could. It’s very hard for us to understand but it is an extraordinary combination.
Nir Regev: Thank you very much!
Sir Ben Kingsley: Thank you!
See Operation Finale in theaters starting today.