Planning the Holocaust

Kenneth Branagh, dapper in his SS costume, his blond hair neatly slicked back, coldly spat out the words during production of the HBO film "Conspiracy": "Dead men don’t hump. Dead women don’t get pregnant. Death is the most reliable form of sterilization."

He was sitting on a soundstage that was an exact reproduction of the luxurious Wannsee villa where 15 high-ranking Nazis, over lavish food and drink, matter-of-factly planned the Final Solution on Jan. 20, 1942. Branagh, the Oscar-nominated actor-director, was playing SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, who led the brief, top-secret meeting like a ruthless CEO. His fellow actors sipped liquor and puffed cigars as Branagh, feeling revolted, completed the scene. "It was very claustrophobic, very smoky, because once those set doors were closed, all the actors were in there all the time," said Branagh, who is best-known for directing and starring in film adaptations of Shakespearean plays. "That meant that at the end of every take, you rushed out of the room, peeled off your SS uniform, and took a breather from that creepily atmospheric place."

Branagh, who suffered sleepless nights as a result of the material, actually fled the set in the middle of one scene. He was reciting the dialogue where Heydrich refers to the gas chambers and advises: "The machinery is waiting. Feed it."

"I had to go outside for a little while," he confided. "I just felt the cumulative weight of it all. At all times I was reminded that this happened: It was not a fiction. It happened in a room like this, and it took only 90 minutes, and this man, this fantastically intelligent man Heydrich, was at the heart of it. I just felt this underlying revulsion at what happened and at the man himself. I didn’t want to say the lines. It was the most disturbing experience of my 20-year acting career."

"Conspiracy" is the brainchild of &’9;director Frank Pierson, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Dog Day Afternoon" and the director of HBO’s "Truman" and "Citizen Cohn." He labored for eight years to bring "Conspiracy" to the screen.

Though Pierson is not Jewish, he felt close to the material. As a scholarship student at a posh New England prep school in the late 1930s, he befriended two Jewish classmates who were refugees of Nazi Germany. The boys, who were outcasts at school, didn’t like to talk about their experiences. Pierson learned something of what they had gone through when he avidly read about the Shoah after the war.

Cut to the mid-1990s, when Holocaust refugee Peter Zinner, a film editor, gave the director a tape of the subtitled 1984 Austrian-German drama "Die Wannseekonferenz."

"I can’t say I enjoyed it," said Pierson. "But I watched it like I was seeing a terrible auto wreck. I couldn’t take my eyes away."

He hoped to remake the movie "to elicit in viewers a kind of tenderness for the thin veneer of civilization that keeps us all from savaging each other to death." He hired screenwriter Loring Mandel to write the script, based on the 15-page Wannsee "protocols" and meticulous historical research (see sidebar below).

Pierson’s goal was to engage audiences by "making them feel as if they were in that room at Wannsee, as if it were a live event," he said. To that end, he "kept the cameras always at eye-level, so viewers would imagine that they were sitting at the table." To allow the actors to feel they were really at Wannsee, he shot 10-minute takes at a time and used 16mm cameras, which are relatively small, so he could fit two on the set without having to pull out a wall.

During a Journal interview, Branagh, 40, confided that he had known no Jews while growing up in a working-class Protestant home in Belfast in the 1970s. He did know something about bigotry and ethnic strife; when he was 9, his family fled the strife between Protestants and Catholics by relocating to Reading, England.

There, Branagh’s thick brogue made him the object of taunts by school bullies; as solace, he lost himself in 25-cent paperback copies of Shakespeare’s plays. By the age of 24, he had been accepted to the Royal Shakespeare Company; over the years, he made his mark with film versions of "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet."

But nothing quite prepared him for the challenge of playing Reinhard Heydrich in "Conspiracy," he said. Branagh accepted the role, he said, in part "because I felt myself to be reasonably well-informed about the Holocaust, but was shocked to discover I knew nothing about the Wannsee Conference." He dutifully visited Holocaust museums and read biographical material, only to find that Heydrich’s inner life remained an enigma. Screenwriter Mandel tried to help by typing up a psychological profile of Heydrich, a talented musician known for his brute courage and bullying manner. "We were looking for elements that would lend to an understanding of his behavior, whether it be a childhood trauma or some physical or mental disability, but nothing seemed to make psychological sense," Branagh said.

"My previous experience of playing somebody quite so dark and evil was Iago in [the Castle Rock film of] ‘Othello,’" he added. "And yet, inside that part are many motivations — sexual jealousy, thwarted ambition — that you might regard as human, however unappealing. But I didn’t find that with Heydrich. It was very difficult to discover what was human inside him."

In the end, the key to Heydrich "was just that he relished power, his ability to judge and be ruthless with people," Branagh said. "I didn’t even think he had any deep-rooted hatred against the Jews. I think that if he had been asked to get rid of 11 million tennis players, he would have done it with exactly the same efficiency and skill."

The casual tone of the Wannsee meeting was as shocking to Branagh as the concentration-camp photographs he perused while researching his role. To cope with the difficult subject matter, the cast played a movie trivia game between takes "with a mad zeal that I have never encountered before," Branagh said. "We threw ourselves at the banal and the silly and the superficial in a hysterical way."

At the end of the Journal interview, the actor said he was flying off to Greenland to live on an icebreaker while making a movie about legendary British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. "He was a man who valued life and was awash with compassion," the actor said. "It will be healing to play him. He was the exact opposite of Heydrich."

"Conspiracy" airs May 19, 9 p.m. on HBO.