The Arty Semite

Ralph Fiennes on Playing Nazis, Holocaust Victims and Mohammed Atta

By Nathan Guttman

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“Do you have to be handsome to play the role of a Nazi commander?”

That was a question that actor Ralph Fiennes was asked during a January 9 discussion, titled “The Power of Film and the Holocaust” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Fiennes didn’t have a clear answer.

The British actor, whose role as Amon Göth, SS commander of Plaszow concentration camp in “Schindler’s List” was described by director Steven Spielberg as “sexual evil,” did not rule out the part aesthetics played in the Nazi propaganda machine. He recalled his first fitting of the SS uniform in his trailer on the Krakow, Poland set of “Schindler’s List.” “The uniform is designed to have an impact,” he said.

Later, still in the uniform, he was strolling the streets of the city’s old Jewish quarter with actor Ben Kingsley when they came across a coffee shop called “Jewish Café.” Kingsley, who played Schindler’s Jewish accountant, suggested they step in for a bite. But Fiennes refused, explaining it would be inappropriate to enter a Jewish restaurant wearing his Nazi uniform.

The discussion was moderated by investigative reporter Bob Woodward. Woodward suggested at one point that the British actor has a striking similarity to Vladimir Putin, and asked whether he would like to portray the Russian leader in a film.

Aside from playing a Nazi SS officer in “Schindler’s List,” Fiennes also played the role of Jewish Holocaust victims in the film “Sunshine.” “You feel wiped out after playing these scenes, you feel empty,” he said when describing the moments after the director calls “cut” and the actor is left with his thoughts.

Woodward, making a comparison between Jihadist terrorists and the Nazis asked Fiennes if he’d play the role of Mohammed Atta, the mastermind of 9/11 terror attacks, whom Woodward sees as “the modern [Amon] Göth.” Fiennes objected to the comparison, but said he would be willing to play such a role, were it offered to him.

Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director, noted that the Holocaust remains a popular theme for feature movies around the world. Eight of the 65 films submitted for Oscar consideration in the foreign film category last year dealt with World War II or the Holocaust.


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