Ben Kingsley honors Holocaust stories with his film roles

Sir Ben Kingsley’s piercing brown eyes flashed when he was asked if he remembered the first time he learned about the Holocaust.

“I’m afraid I do,” the 70-year-old British thespian told the Journal at a recent United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) gala, where he became the first actor ever to receive the museum’s National Leadership Award. “As a child in the 1950s, I sat in front of the television alone and saw the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in a documentary. Thank God those poor shocked British soldiers were able to hold up a camera. And I thought I was going to die in front of the television, because I literally felt my heart stop beating. 

“I tried to explain my feelings to my parents, but my grandmother — wretched woman — who was devoutly anti-Semitic, was staying with us. And so I now say, ‘F— you, Granny.’ ”

Kingsley’s fierce sentiments have fueled his determination to memorialize the Holocaust on the large and small screens. The actor, who won an Oscar for his turn in 1982’s “Gandhi” as the famed Indian leader, has also made a name for himself by playing some of the most noted Holocaust survivors in history: the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in HBO’s film “Murderers Among Us” (1989); the heartrending accountant Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993); and Anne Frank’s father, Otto, in the ABC miniseries “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” (2001).

Now he will portray the Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy in yet another Holocaust-themed film, “Walking With the Enemy,” which spotlights the true story of a Hungarian Jew who donned fascist garb to rescue fellow Jews from concentration camps.  There will be a screening of the film this Tuesday, April 8, 7 p.m., at the Arclight Hollywood, following by a discussion with director Mark Schmidt and cast members including Jonas Armstrong, who plays the Holocaust hero.  To RSVP for the screening, email and indicate you would like to reserve seats for the “Walking With the Enemy” event.  The film opens theatrically in Los Angeles on April 25.

“In taking on these kinds of roles, Sir Ben has played a crucial part in bringing awareness of the Holocaust to audiences throughout the world,” Sara J. Bloomfield, the USHMM’s director, said in an interview.

Looking trim, his mustache and British accent clipped, his posture almost impossibly erect, Kingsley told the approximately 800 patrons gathered at the museum event that “to wear the yellow star in a film is an enormous responsibility.”

Thus, his research before tackling such roles has been beyond meticulous. For “Anne Frank,” he studied videotapes of Otto Frank and also met with Miep Gies, who helped hide the Franks in a Dutch attic. Under a portrait of Anne in her Amsterdam apartment, he said, the animated Gies acted out for Kingsley how she visited the attic after the Nazis took the Franks away, and found pages of Anne’s diary scattered across the floor.

Before shooting “Murderers Among Us,” Kingsley spent days with Wiesenthal in his office in Vienna, where, he recalled, the Nazi hunter gestured to his mass of files and said, “[These are] blood turned to ink.” Wiesenthal also described his liberation from Mauthausen, when dying Jewish prisoners fashioned Jewish flags by tearing up their blue-and-white uniforms, “which they were able to wave for a few precious moments before they collapsed in exhaustion,” Kingsley said. “It was their final act. And [Simon] paused in telling this story and openly wept tears.”

Born Krishna Bhanji, the son of an Indian physician and a British fashion model, Kingsley is not Jewish, even though he discovered some years ago that one of his mother’s parents was of Russian and Jewish heritage, he told the Journal in 2001.

He began his acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company before his stunning portrayal of Gandhi put him on the Hollywood map; Kingsley went on to star in more than 165 films, earning Oscar nominations for his turns as the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy,” a vicious sociopath in “Sexy Beast” and a mourning father in “House of Sand and Fog.”

His work on Holocaust-themed films, however, has been among the most excruciating experiences of his career. On the set of “Schindler’s List,” the actor said he “carried a photograph of Anne Frank with me, which sustained me throughout the shoot. I used to pull the photograph out of my pocket and say, ‘I’m doing this for you.’ ”

Then there was Kingsley’s encounter with a vicious anti-Semite during production of “Schindler’s List:” “It was a Sudetenland German-speaking Pole, who, in a five-star hotel in Krakow, walked across a crowded bar to my Israeli comrade, with whom I was having a quiet drink after filming all day, and insulted him and told him he should be hung,” Kingsley told the Journal, glowering. “And I responded with a physical confrontation. The fact that he said this in a crowded bar and no Pole had the temerity to say, ‘Shut up,’ infuriated me. I was the only one who said, ‘Shut up.’ ”

While Kingsley has recently appeared in such blockbusters as “Iron Man 3,” he also agreed to star in the upcoming independent Holocaust drama “Walking With the Enemy” because he was impressed by the passion of the film’s co-writer and director, Mark Schmidt. 

“He was a novice of a director, admittedly,” Kingsley told the Journal. “But he was so taken by this story that he put himself through film school and put his own money into the movie. Then he called my agent and said, ‘There’s a hole in the film that only SBK [Sir Ben Kingsley] can fill. And I said, looking at where he’s coming from, absolutely.”

Accompanying the actor on the red carpet at the USHMM gala was actress Kate Beckinsale, who co-stars with Kingsley in the upcoming film “Eliza Graves,” and who told the Journal she has her own “very personal connection” to his Holocaust films: Her beloved Jewish step-grandmother fled Essen, Germany, for London as a child during World War II and only as an octogenarian learned that her parents had died in concentration camps.

“Ben’s rather cornered the market in playing these [Holocaust] roles,” Beckinsale said. “He treats it like it’s a real honor to tell the story, and that really comes across.”

 Kingsley’s knowledge of the Shoah also fueled his performance as the eponymous Jewish prophet in the 1995 TNT movie “Moses.” 

“Toward the end of my portrayal, I embrace [the biblical] Joshua and tell him, ‘You’re going to have some terrible times ahead,” he said. “Moses didn’t know what I was talking about, but I most certainly did.”

During Kingsley’s tearful acceptance speech at the museum event, he encouraged filmmakers to continue telling Holocaust stories. 

“When your motivations are pure, the angels will come when you walk into an office with your precious manuscript under your arm,” he said. “May your story from these years of extermination be empowered by … the millions of lost stories, the silenced stories.”