Ben Kingsley on Netflix’s Operation Finale: ‘Eichmann was utterly unrepentant’
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Ben Kingsley on Netflix’s Operation Finale: ‘Eichmann was utterly unrepentant’

The veteran 74-year-old actor portrays the notorious Nazi captured by Mossad in Argentina

Ask Sir Ben Kingsley why he was keen to portray Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann in the new film Operation Finale and he describes the traumatic incident in which he first learned about the Holocaust.

The 74-year-old British actor was then in grammar school and at home alone when he turned on a documentary about the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“I remember my heart stopped beating for a while,” says Kingsley, who is not Jewish but believes he may have some Jewish relatives on his mother’s side. “I nearly passed out. And I have been indelibly connected to the Holocaust ever since.”

His connection was enhanced when he asked his grandmother about the atrocities, and she said that “Hitler was right” to have killed Jews.

“I went into deep shock and was unable to counter her,” Kingsley says. “But something must have clicked in my innermost soul that said: ‘Grandmother, I will make you eat your words. I will pay you back for that. You have not distorted or poisoned my mind.’”

Kingsley went on to portray Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the HBO film Murderers Among Us; the Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List; and Anne Frank’s father in a 2001 ABC mini-series.

Sir Ben Kingsley stars as Adolf Eichmann in the Netflix drama, Operation Finale

He also won an Academy Award for his turn as the titular Indian independence leader in 1982’s Gandhi.

During research for his Shoah-themed films, Kingsley became close friends with Holocaust survivor, activist and author Elie Wiesel.

Not long before Wiesel’s death in 2016, the actor vowed to him that “the next time I walk onto a film set that is appropriate to your story, I will dedicate my performance to you”.

So when Kingsley was offered the Eichmann role in Operation Finale after Wiesel’s death – a film that focuses on the Holocaust architect’s capture – he jumped at the chance.

Just as he famously carried a picture of Anne Frank during the filming of Schindler’s List, he carried a photo of Wiesel during the filming of Operation Finale, which is now in cinemas and on Netflix.

“Every day as promised, I looked at a picture of Elie that I carried in my pocket and said: ‘I’m doing this for you,’” says Kingsley.

Operation Finale tells the story of Peter Malkin and other Mossad agents who covertly hunted and captured Eichmann hiding in Argentina and brought him to Israel for trial in 1961, where he was ultimately executed.

The heart of the story is the cat-and-mouse game between Malkin (played by Oscar Isaac) and Eichmann, both of whom were master manipulators, according to the film’s director, Chris Weitz (About A Boy and A Better Life).

“Each one is trying to convince the other of something,” says Weitz, whose father, fashion designer John Weitz, escaped Nazi Germany in 1933 aged 10.

Oscar Isaac (centre) plays real-life Mossad agent Peter Malkin

“Malkin wanted to convince Eichmann to sign a paper indicating that he was willing to go to trial in Jerusalem. And Eichmann is trying out various defences that he will eventually use in Israeli court. So in that regard, there is the subterfuge of the escaped war criminal and also the subterfuge of the spy as he’s trying to turn a source.”

As for Eichmann, Weitz, 48, says: “The evidence shows a very chameleon-like figure who is constantly trying to serve his own ends and ambitions.”

Kingsley unabashedly sees his character as evil. “Not only did he commit these crimes as an architect of the Final Solution, he went to his grave proud of what he had done – utterly unrepentant,” he says.

Yet Kingsley said he chose not to portray Eichmann as “a B-movie, cartoony, comic strip villain”.

“That would have done a terrible disservice to the victims and the survivors I know and love,” he said. “It’s important for us to accept that the Nazis were ‘normal’ people. Twisted people, but they didn’t come from Mars.”

As research for the film, Weitz and Kingsley relied in part on the expertise of former Mossad agent Avner Abraham, who has curated a now-touring exhibition about Eichmann.

Weitz said he had “trepidations” about depicting images of the Holocaust, and so chose to do so through the lens of the Mossad agents’ memories.

“[Their] memoirs indicate they found it deeply unsettling to be so near the person who had taken part in the murder of their families,” he says. “Some of them were disappointed that all this evil could have the face of this rather unprepossessing man, which felt terribly out of scale to all the damage that had been done.” (JTA)

Operation Finale (12A) is now on limited release at select Curzon cinemas and available to view on Netflix

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