March 19, 2019

Harry Potter and the “Half-Blood” Jews

As “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” opens today to mostly stellar reviews, the title itself evokes why the book and film series have so resonated with Jewish audiences. Like all the “Potter” films – based on J.K. Rowling’s best-sellers – “Prince” is rife with metaphors for racism and ethnic cleansing, including characters who refer to wizards as “pure-bloods,” “half-bloods” or mudbloods (a racist slur meaning mixed or non-magical parentage). 

In the new film, flashbacks reveal how the evil Lord Voldemort grows from a troubled child into a genocidal maniac bent on annihilating non-magic folk (muggles) and those with mixed heritage. “Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters, are obsessed with the preservation of blood purity,” “Potter” producer David Heyman told the Journal last year.  (Heyman is the British producer who bought the rights to the “Harry Potter” books in 1997 and steered the film franchise to become the highest grossing in cinematic history.)  “They’re not Nazis but they recall the politics and attitudes of Nazi Germany. And aesthetically—although it’s a cliché—the [Death Eater] Lucius Malfoy and his family are blond, like Hitler’s ideal of the quintessential Aryan.” 

In the new film, Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is given a potions manual inscribed with spells by the mysterious “Half-Blood Prince;” it’s well-known that the actor Daniel Radcliffe has a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and himself identifies as Jewish.  Heyman, too, has mixed parentage— his mother is non-Jewish, while his father’s family experienced the racial hatred of the Third Reich. The producer’s Jewish grandfather, Heinz Heyman (the original spelling may have been Heymann), was an economist, newspaperman and broadcaster based in Leipzig, who was one of the last announcers to speak out against Hitler in early 1933.

“He was on the radio, the authorities came for him, and he had to bicycle out of Germany,” the producer said. “When he arrived in England, he was at first interned in a camp because he was a German citizen.”  Heyman even made a 2008 film set during the Holocaust, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas;” see our interview with him.

Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the deranged Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange, also hails from an interfaith family with roots in Hitler’s Europe.  “People think of me as so quintessentially English,” she told the Journal a few months before we spoke with Heyman last year. “But actually I look just like my mum—[dark-eyed] and very Jewish.”

Here is more from our story on Bonham Carter:  (see the full text): While her paternal great-grandfather was H.H. Asquith, the British prime minister during World War I (and who earned an aristocratic title as a result), her maternal line hails from Jewish Vienna.

Mitzi Fould-Springer left Europe in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, a French treason trial prompted by anti-Semitism, the actress said.

Bonham Carter’s grandmother, Helene (a.k.a “Bubbles”), stood by her husband, Spanish diplomat Eduardo Propper de Callejon, as he illegally issued documents to help thousands of Jews flee Vichy France over three frantic days in 1940. “My mother, who was 5 at the time, said he at one point was stamping documents with both hands,” Bonham Carter said. “She thought it was the most important thing he ever did in his life.”

Yad Vashem honored Propper de Callejon—who was half-Jewish—as Righteous Among the Nations in March, as the actress was reprising her role as the mad witch Bellatrix Lestrange.

Bonham Carter describes Bellatrix as childlike, insane and hateful. “She’s a sadist,” the actress told Entertainment Weekly. “She’s very sick. She’s got problems. I think she’s been in prison a bit too long. But I suspect even before prison she had problems. She’s a racist, obsessed with blood purity. Like Adolf.”

Ironically, the most vicious of the Death Eaters, Lucius Malfoy, is played by the Jewish actor Jason Isaacs, who sports long, platinum blond hair for the role; Isaacs even appeared on the cover of the Jewish Journal in 2000, when he was all over the screen in the Revolutionary War epic, “The Patriot,” bludgeoning Mel Gibson in scenes of gruesome hand-to-hand combat.  At the time, Isaacs said he had carefully considered whether he should publicly discuss his Judaism because he feared lingering British xenophobia might hurt his career.

On a lighter note, I asked Heyman whether the genial Isaacs had had to dye his hair blond to play Lucius.  The producer laughed and replied that Isaacs wears a wig on set.  “He wishes he had that much hair,” the producer said, with a laugh.

Here’s the profile of Isaacs I wrote back in 2000:

Once a ‘wimp,’ actor thrives on portraying villains

When Jason Isaacs auditioned for the Royal National Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” he knew exactly what role he wanted. He insisted upon portraying the anxiety-ridden character of Louis, who is somewhat based on the life of the gay Jewish playwright.

The London producers raised eyebrows. They had a slightly larger role in mind for Isaacs, the rising British stage and screen actor. But the thespian was not interested.

“Look, I play all these tough guys and thugs and strong, complex characters,” he told the producers. “In real life, I am a cringing, neurotic Jewish mess. Can’t I for once play that onstage?”

Isaacs earned stellar reviews as Louis, but he remains best known, at least in the press, as an elegant brand of villain. He was Kurt Russell’s futuristic foil in “Soldier,” Dennis Quaid’s nemesis in “Dragonheart,” a sadistic ex-IRA terrorist in “Divorcing Jack” and a psychopathic soldier in the controversial BBC mini-series, “Civvies.”

Of late, he is all over the screen in the Revolutionary War epic, “The Patriot,” killing children in front of their parents, burning villagers alive in their churches and bludgeoning Mel Gibson in scenes of gruesome hand-to-hand combat.

During an interview, the actor, who is in his late 30s, was hardly villainous. He was witty, chatty and self-deprecating as he told stories illustrating how he is not a “tough guy” but a “total wimp.”

There was the time he was flying home from visiting his parents, who now live in Israel, when the soldier in the next seat recognized him as “that bloke from ‘Civvies.’ “

“He was horrified, however, when I cried all the way through the in-flight film, ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus,’ ” the actor reveals.

Then there was Isaacs’ audition for “The Patriot,” when the producers asked him, point blank, if he knew how to ride a horse. “I said, ‘Oh, Olympic standard!’ but I lied,” he admits. “I was terrified.”

“I’m a terrible coward; I’ve been hit all the time, but I’ve never hit anyone,” he says, his chatty tone turning serious. “So I think these extreme parts that I play offer some kind of therapy, some catharsis for me.

Maybe one of the reasons I do them well-ish is because I was always the bullied, never the bully.” The actor pauses, then laughs. “They are my revenge.”

Watching Isaacs in “The Patriot,” swashbuckling and dapper in his red uniform, his blue eyes glittering as he slashes his saber, it’s hard to believe he became an actor, in part, because of the residual fear of anti-Semitism he felt as a Jew in Britain.

The fear, he says, was handed down to him by his parents and by others in the closely-knit Jewish community of Liverpool, of which his Eastern European great-grandparents were founding members. The community was insular, Isaacs recalls, and young Jason attended a Jewish school and religious school twice a week.

Then the family moved to London, and the anti-Semitism Isaacs had learned about in theory became a reality. There were attacks on his local synagogue and, in the late 1970s, the National Front’s racist rhetoric spurred a rash of skinhead violence in his neighborhood.

Most of the time, however, Isaacs was low-key about being Jewish.

“I feel very vulnerable telling you this, because I’m an English actor and I don’t really want to see this in the English press, because it’s damaging,” he confides. “But there is the sense that Britain can be a very xenophobic country; it’s not just directed at Jews but at anybody who isn’t the perceived version of what ‘Englishness’ is.

While Isaacs’ parents reacted to the feelings of unwelcome by making aliyah in 1988, along with his three brothers (two subsequently returned), the actor responded in another manner.

When he entered Bristol University, he says, “There were lots of very upper and upper-middle-class British people with accents I had never heard before, and I felt very strange being a Jew from North London, completely out of sorts.”

After graduating from the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Isaacs began working in British television and, over the years, the roles kept coming.

Yet, he insists, he was shocked when he was actually hired after submitting a two-minute audition tape to “Patriot” director Roland Emmerich.

To prepare for his role, he immersed himself in research and learned that the real Tavington, actually a lieutenant colonel named Banastre Tarleton, was, like himself, the third of four sons from Liverpool.

Tarleton, known as “The Butcher” or “Bloody Ban” carried a map of the Carolinas with him, and after every victory he slightly enlarged the area he intended to claim as his property once the war was over. He also selected several wives he hoped to keep in the New World. Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin were receptive to Isaacs’ research and incorporated some of the information into his character.

Today, Isaacs’ Hollywood career appears to be kicking up a notch; recently he was in San Francisco to film “Sweet November,” in which he plays the drag-queen best friend of actress Charlize Theron.

Yet despite the steady work and the comfort level of being Jewish in Hollywood, Isaacs has no plans to move to Los Angeles. The environment is just too unstable, he suggests.

“When I was here doing ‘Armageddon,’ I had the key to the kingdom, but when ‘Soldier’ came out, I felt like I had professional and social leprosy,” he recalls. “And so I continue to live in London. I just need to look in people’s eyes who’ve known me for 20 years.”