“He never got close to me, he never got near me, he never infected me.” – Sir Ben Kingsley on Playing the Evil Adolf Eichmann
Sir Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for playing one of the most revered leaders of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi, and in Operation Finale he portrays one of the most despised leaders of the twentieth century, Adolf Eichmann, one of the masterminds behind the Holocaust. The film depicts the hunt for Eichmann in the late 1950s after he had fled to Argentina. In an interview with NPR, Kingsley speaks about why he didn’t get too close to Eichmann’s mindset while portraying him.
So how did Kingsley get into the head of one of one of the most vicious war criminals that has ever lived? Actually, Kingsley has a surprising answer. He says, “I didn’t — that was the secret. Let’s imagine I’m a portrait artist. This man was in my studio, I had him in one corner, I had my canvas in front of me, and I put him directly onto the canvas. I was not a conduit for him. His ideology was not the guiding force for my performance. The guiding force for my performance was the victims, and his silhouette was molded by their accusation, by their memory, by their reverberating grief — but nothing from that man ever touched me or entered me. I simply transferred his image onto canvas, by that I mean film. He never got close to me, he never got near me, he never infected me.”
One of the reasons why Kingsley preferred to keep his distance from the real-life Eichmann is because of the horrible things Eichmann did. He explains, “The tragedy is that these men and women were part of a national movement that mobilized their military, their ideology, their culture, their language, their engineering, to annihilate as many of Europe’s Jews as they could. But these people — however difficult it might be for us to swallow — were human beings. To play them as a two-dimensional comic strip villain or a run-of-the-mill-“baddie” would be to do a terrible disservice to history and the memory of those that they murdered. For the years of extermination between 1933 and 1945, it was men and women who did this. It was not my duty to humanize anything because tragically, it’s already human.”
Then, when the project is finished, Kingsley is able to put the character away. He reveals, “I put down my brushes, I wipe the paint off my hands, I cover my portrait, and I leave my studio. The hard part is that now I’m having to talk about [the film]and it is important that I talk about it. But I can’t give [Eichmann] away to the camera, I can’t give him away to the canvas, and I find talking about it quite difficult. So I’m not done with it. I would rather I was, but I’m not. Somehow the brushes are put back into my hands and I don’t quite know what to do with them. So I’m talking about something that I hope I let go of forever.”