From Los Angeles Jewish Journal, 14 May 2001
An interview with actor Kenneth Branagh, the star of a new HBO movie about Wansee Conference, reveals the harsh conditions of making such a film
By Naomi Pfefferman
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 lavish Wannsee villa where 15 high ranking
Nazis, over Lucullian food and drink, matter-of-factly planned the Final Solution on Jan. 20, 1942. Branagh was playing SS General Reinhard Heydrich, who led the brief, top secret meeting like a ruthless CEO. His fellow actors sipped liquor and puffed cigars as Branagh completed the scene, feeling repulsed.
"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 Shakespeare. "That meant that at the end of every take you rushed out of the room, pealed [sic] 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," confided the Oscar-nominated actor-director. "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 director Frank Pierson (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Dog Day Afternoon") who labored for eight years to bring the project to the screen. Though Pierson is not Jewish, he felt close to the material. As a scholarship student at a lucrative 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, the director of HBO's "Truman" and "Citizen Cohn." "But I watched it like I was seeing a terrible auto wreck. I couldn't take my eyes away."
Pierson hoped to re-make 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).
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 smallish 16mm cameras 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 Prodestant [sic] home in Belfast in the 1970s. He did know something about bigotry and ethnic strife; when he was 9, his family fled the Troubles between Prodestants [sic] and Catholics by relocating to Reading, England. There, Branagh's thick broque made him the object of taunts by the 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 revealed. Branagh accepted the role, 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 said. He dutifully visited Holocaust museums and read biographical material, only to find that Heydrich's inner life remained an enigma. Mandel tried to help by typing up a
psychological profile of Heydrich, a talented musician also 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 in 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 ice-breaker 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>
From Tribune Media Services, 13 May 2001
The Evil of Wansee
'Conspiracy' covers meeting to decide the the Final Solution
Adolf Hitler may have gotten the most blame for it, but he was not the architect of the so-called Final Solution. A 90-minute meeting of Third Reich officials set the groundwork for one of history's most heinous cases of mass murder, and that World War II gathering is recalled in 'Conspiracy,' a new HBO movie debuting Saturday (9 p.m.). Filmed partially at the German villa where the conclave took place, it stars Kenneth Branagh as Reich security Chief Reinhard Heydrich, and Stanley Tucci ('Winchell') as his deputy, Adolf Eichmann.
Along with 13 other men, they paid a top-secret visit to a mansion in Wansee (outside Berlin) to determine the potential fates of millions of European Jews under Nazi rule. The plan was one of extermination, which Heydrich approached clinically - in terms of numbers and equipment - in explaining it to the others. Colin Firth ('Bridget Jones's Diary') and David Threllfall also appear in the drama.
"For those like me who were unaware of the Wansee Conference," Branagh says, "this story should be appalling, astonishing and fascinating at the same time. Everyone knows the horrors of the actual execution of the Holocaust, but I didn't know of the actual moment when it was set in motion, or of the nature and brevity of the conference."
In a stage and screen career that has spanned such roles as Hamlet and Henry V, esteemed actor-director Branagh maintains Heydrich is one of the most disturbing to him. "It was very hard to understand, from biographical information and any psychological conclusions you might draw, what happened to his humanity. The man seemed to be without pity or conscience, and I'd never encountered anything like his relish of the pursuit of power without coming across some kind of comprehensible, human dimension."
From the Sunday Washington Post TV Guide, 13 may 2001
"Conspiracy" Down to the Dirty Details
By Patricia Brennan, Washington Post Staff Writer
As Hitler's high-ranking functionaries, both military and civilian, met
in a villa outside Berlin to discuss the fate of the Jews under their
authority, a star was rising: Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, an ambitious man
who one day might have headed the Third Reich.
On Jan. 20, 1942, Heydrich, deputy to Heinrich Himmler, and Col. Adolf
Eichmann, head of the SS Jewish Affairs Office, met with 15 officials-
seven high ranking officers of the feared SS elite and eight state
secretaries of government ministries-to discuss implementing a plan that
would be new to some of them.
HBO's "Conspiracy," a dramatization of that conference airs Saturday at 9
p.m. and runs just under two hours, about the same length as the meeting
at Wannsee. The opulent villa - previously owned by a Jew, according to
the film - was a place that Heydrich hoped to claim for himself.
Kenneth Branagh plays Heydrich and Stanley Tucci is Eichmann. David
Threlfall, Colin Firth, Jonathan Coy and Barnaby Kay co-star in the
production, which was written by Lorin Mandel, directed by Frank pierson
and filmed in London, and Wannsee.
"People said that [Heydrich] would be extremely charming, but he had this
strange combination of characteristics," said Branagh. "He was a very
fine musician and a terrific fencer, a sort of sophisticated, suave,
urbane Nazi crature, tall and blond. He combined the kinds of things
that were Hitler's model."
On that day, Heydrich set about reviewing with the group a problem that
beset the Third Reich and possible solutions. As the German army rolled
over country after country during World War II, the Nazis were becoming
responsible for more and more people, millions of them Jews. The sheer
numbers were becoming overwhelming, making difficuilt the Nazis' goal to
expel Jews from the living space- and indeed from every sphere of life-of
the German people.
Jewish ghettoes were full. As other countries grew reluctant to take
more of Germany's castoffs, deportation was becoming less of an option.
sterilization would prevent those numbers from growing, but it wouldn't
solve the Nazis' problem-more than 11 million Jews, including 5 million
As the Nazis saw it, even firing-squad executions ere proving
unsatisfactory. Ordering soldeirs to line up Jews and shoot them so they
fell into mass graves that they themselves had dug was adversely
affecting troop morale. As it turned out, Hitler's more efficient "final solution" was already
In the film, after initial cordial greetings punctuated by the dramatic
arrival of Heydrich, the officials gather around an oval table to discuss
how to go about the ethnic cleansing of Germany. The meeting, which
includes drinks and a buffet lunch- sumptuous fare during war time- is by
turns good-natured (the officials rap on the table to show approval),
pedantic, forceful and even bullying as Heydrich puts on a show of
eliciting the participants' insights, concerns and suggestions.
"He seemed to have most things in his armory as far as arts of persuasion
was concerned, but when charm didn't work, he was ruthless," said
Branagh. "His force of personality, to some extent rode roughshod over
the others. Accounts from participants said that it was rougher and more
brutal than the written protocol might suggest."
But Heydrich, to whom the Jews are simply "a storage problem," eventually
lets the officials in on the new plan: mass deaths by extermination camps
with poison-gas facilities disguised as showers, after which the bodies
would be burned in ovens. Construction had begun two months earlier at
Belzec and Chelmno in Poland. Heydrich was commandant of SS and police
in the Lublin district of Poland.
Only Freidrich Kritzinger, ministerial director of the Reich Chancellery,
appears to be significantly uncomfortable with the discussion. Still,
when Heydrich tallies the group, Kritzinger says he won't oppose the
plan. There is some playing with words, "a certain caution about written
material," said Branagh.
In the film, Rudolf Lange, who supervised the killing of 30,000 Jews at
Riga, explains that "evacuation" is a euphemism for "extermination."
"Sterilization" is "social re-engineering." There is much talk about
"degrees of "mixed blood," what to do about Jews married to non-Jewish
Germans and the administrative work to be sorted out.
Erich Neumann, who is in charge of the Reich's Four-Year Plan, is
concerned about retaining enough workers in industries vital to the war
effort, but he is the sort of man whom others tend to dismiss. Anyway,
they tell him, most Jews don't know how to do manual labor and are a
drain on the economy.
Interior State secretary Wilhelm Stuckart wants to make certain that the
law will support their decisions. Stuckart had attended the 1935
conference that enacted the Nuremberg Laws (and was a co-author)
proclaiming the legality of a Jewish-free society and economy. A show of
hands reveals that, like Stuckart, many of the participants are lawyers.
As he bids the participants goodbye, Eichmann promises to provide edited
transcripts and asks each man to read and then destroy his copy. But
Undersecretary of State Martin Luther, of the Foreign Office, apparently
kept his. In 1943, Americans reviewing German Foreign Office papers
found the 16th copy of 30 - stamped Top Secret - of the Wannsee Protocol,
which refers to the gathering as a meeting about "the final solution of
the Jewish question without regard to geographic borders."
As it happened, Eichmann remained influential to the Third Reich, but
Heydrich died only four months later, in late May 1942, of wounds he
suffered in Prague when Czech patriots tried to assassinate him.
"His bravado, his arrogance of manner, led him to drive in an open-topped
car in Czechoslovakia - his aides asked him not to - and he did not vary
his routes to work," said Branagh. "This was part of his contempt, that
no one would have the stomach to kill him. There are conspiracy
theorists who say there may have been foul play involved in what may have
been wounds he might have recovered from. There was concern that he could have been the successor to Hitler. He was a man whose ambitions might not be easily assuaged. He did so much of the Nazi dirty work- he was in a position to blackmail everyone. One
of his techniques was to crete bogus sexual scandals. He was efficient
at collecting information....if there was anything unsavory".
The evacuation of millions of Jews to camps at Treblinka, Belzec and
Sobibor was named Operation Reinhard to honor Heydrich.
Before the war, Adolph Eichman had worked with zionists to help as many
Jews as possible emigrate to Palestine, which was under the control of
the British. In 1944, skirting British law, he sent to Palestine his
final evacuees, 1,000 Hungarian Jews.
After the war, Eichmann worked in Germany under a false name, then fled
to Italy and later Argentina. In 1962 the Israel Intelligence Service
kidnapped him there and took him to Jerusalem, where he was tried and
then executed. At his trial, he testified of the Wannsee conference: "...the gentlemen
convened their session, and then in very plain terms - not in the language
that I had to use in the minutes, but in absolutely blunt terms, they
addressed the issue, with no mincing of words......The language was
anything but in conformity with the legal protocol of clause and
paragraph....The discussion covered killing, elimination and
The Wannsee villa is now a Holocaust museum, memorial and conference
site. It opened in 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the secret Nazi
conference. "We shot the exterior sequences there," said Branagh. "I'm glad we
didn't do the interior scenes there. It was chilling enough to be around
the real place. It does create a very strong atmosphere of place. Just
to stand in the room where it happened gave one shivers. At all times
you had to shake yourself to remember that what we were doing was not a
From the Los Angeles Times
Sunday, May 13, 2001
When the Job Is Odious
To play the Nazi who directs the Final Solution in an HBO film, Kenneth Branagh learned to focus on the importance of the story.
By David Gritten
LONDON--It's hard to think of another actor who can so effectively convince laymen of the joys of his profession as Kenneth Branagh. He waxes lyrical about acting and actors, the process of putting on a show or rehearsing a film. There's a boyish enthusiasm about him when he talks this way. Here's an actor, it seems, who never encountered a role he didn't like. Until now, that is. In the chilling new HBO drama "Conspiracy," which airs Saturday night at 9, Branagh plays Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's most trusted lieutenants in the Third Reich; it was his job to set in motion the Final Solution, the extermination of millions of Jews across Europe in World War II.
To effect these plans, Heydrich convened a top-secret meeting of 14 high-ranking Nazi officers in a mansion at Wannsee, in Berlin's suburbs, in January 1942. "Conspiracy" is a dramatization of that meeting. Some officers around the table are uneasy when mass extermination enters the agenda, and voice objections. But as the meeting proceeds, it becomes clear that the Final Solution is not up for discussion. It is a policy approved at the highest level, and the task of the eerily persuasive Heydrich is to find a consensus among the group about its implementation.
"I found it disturbing to [portray] the man," confided Branagh, over afternoon tea at a large central London hotel. "There's a spiritual revulsion against playing him. You don't want to be saying the things he was saying, or be part of his psyche. I found it got under the skin in an invasive way." Still, Branagh plays Heydrich with verve. His hair dyed blond and swept back sleekly, he is the last person to arrive at Wannsee and makes a flamboyant entrance, immediately demonstrating his superiority. He goes on to run the meeting like the chairman of a corporation, sometimes showing deference and courtesy to other points of view, and frequently calling breaks for drinks and lunch to defuse tension, but ruthlessly proceeding toward a point where his 14 colleagues agree to genocide.
Most of the Nazi officers who attended Wannsee were obscure names--the exception being Adolf Eichmann, who was tried and executed for his war crimes in Jerusalem in 1961. He is played in "Conspiracy" by the cast's one American actor, Stanley Tucci; most of the others (including
Colin Firth as an uneasy Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, state secretary of the interior) are stage-trained British actors.
Director Frank Pierson (who won an Oscar as screenwriter of "Dog Day Afternoon" and who directed "Truman" and "Citizen Cohn" for HBO) placed most of the action of "Conspiracy" inside the meeting room--which was reconstructed at Shepperton Studios, near London, with four walls, to the exact dimensions of the original. (Exterior scenes at the beginning and end were shot at Wannsee.) With several extended scenes and long tracking shots, it feels like a play being filmed. The eye-level camera angles underline the feeling for viewers of being present in that room. After rehearsing, it was shot in 21 days.
"I think the experience got under the skins of everyone involved in it," Branagh recalled. "You'd rehearse moments, and a piece of dialogue would hit home. We partly coped with it all through a lunatic Monty Python humor. When I read the script, my reaction was jaw-dropping astonishment at the tone of this meeting and the apparently easy, casual quality to the discussion of the fate of an entire race across Europe. Yet it felt like the quiet political infighting of a board meeting at a big company.
"Being around that casual tone, and the manner in which the material was dealt with was as shocking as one's exposure to more obviously horrific elements of the Holocaust itself. This was a job, farmed out by a Führer who had decided issues like this could be delegated. It was all about logistics, and those people 'round the table were irritated. It was an annoyance, all that administration being brought in to solve this Jewish problem. 'Oh, it had to be
done, but what an annoyance.' That was the attitude."
Because of this contrast between the exasperated, morally indifferent manner in which these Nazis contemplated the Final Solution, and the unimaginable awfulness of its consequences, Pierson and his cast chose to play down the melodrama inherent in the Wannsee meeting. "Conspiracy" screenwriter Loring Mandel said Pierson and editor Peter Zinner became interested in doing the movie after they saw a subtitled 1984 Austrian-German docudrama, "The Wannsee Conference." Initial research revealed that minutes of the conference contained no direct quotes. The filmmakers then did extensive independent research on the meeting and the background of all the participants. Loring said he turned in his first draft in the fall of 1996. Several years and many redrafts later, "Conspiracy" flirts with being undramatic for much of its 87-minute length. As the Nazi officers arrive at Wannsee to be greeted by Eichmann, much is made of their repetitive "Heil Hitler!" salutes--to the extent they become creepily amusing. The camera lingers over the food and drink consumed at the meeting, and the place settings; Hannah Arendt's memorable phrase about "the banality of evil" often comes to mind.
"The idea was to stay away from being theatrical, and resist the lure of easy melodrama," said Branagh. "There was no desire to catch great moments. It's obvious from the way it was written that some of the information deserved to ring on the air a bit, but Frank tried to take that out."
Another problem for Branagh was finding anything in Heydrich's character or upbringing that might explain his cold-blooded willingness to undertake genocide on such a horrific scale: "But nothing in his background supplied any clues. He had a loving, supportive family. There seemed to be no traumatic incidents in childhood, no sibling rivalry. In some ways he was an ideal Nazi--he was an excellent musician, an Olympian fencer. "One of the questions you have to try and answer is some definition that allows you to play the character of the man you're playing. But I discussed this with Stanley Tucci, and he felt the same about Eichmann as I felt about Heydrich. You feel there's nothing there. "There was no compassion inside Heydrich. He had dirt on all fellow Nazis. Hitler and Himmler knew he was a lethal weapon who was happy to do all the dirty jobs. Anything no one else wanted to do, delving into moral backwaters, he had
no problem with. Playing him, I felt if he had been asked to eradicate Eskimos, cabinet-makers or gymnasts he would have proceeded with the task in the same way, with the same passionless, soulless quality."
For all his personal reservations about playing a character such as Heydrich, Branagh is happy to have been a part of "Conspiracy." "I thought it was an important story to be told," he said. He was also impressed by the attitude of HBO Films, a company he believes is now tackling substantial stories that might have once found a natural home at major movie studios. "It's
hard to imagine ['Conspiracy'] being financed in a feature context," he noted, "or for it to have been cast with the kind of actors we had. It was not about trying to be starry or grab
attention. "There's an audience for these kinds of stories, certain kinds of serious, not solemn films. HBO has found a creative identity, which is drawing filmmakers and actors because of the freedom it offers and the originality of the material."
Like much of Branagh's recent work, "Conspiracy" is a project initiated by someone else. Contrast this with his early career, when he was the prime mover of most of the films in
which he appeared. He first received world-wide acclaim in 1989 as the director-star of "Henry V," a triumphant film adaptation of Shakespeare's patriotic history play that critics compared favorably to the Laurence Olivier version. He was not yet 30 at the time, and he was saddled with a wunderkind label and an expectation that he would automatically join the pantheon of film greats. Branagh made himself the keeper of the Shakespearean flame on film, and his company, Renaissance Films, produced a well-received movie version of "Much Ado About
Nothing" and a distinguished full-length "Hamlet" on film. (He also appeared as Iago in a Castle Rock film of "Othello.") He interrupted his forays into Shakespeare with light, comic,
self-produced films with ensemble casts, like "Peter's Friends" and "A Midwinter's Tale."
But then about three years ago his film career seemed to stumble. He appeared in a series of movies that either failed artistically or did not effectively showcase his talents. These
included Robert Altman's "The Gingerbread Man" and Woody Allen's "Celebrity," as well as "The Proposition," "The Theory of Flight" and "Wild Wild West." Last year his film version of Shakespeare's "Love's Labours Lost," staged like a classic MGM musical, received a critical mauling and died at the box office. Branagh recently turned 40, so he can no longer be classified as any sort of wunderkind.
And clearly he is in a transitional mid-career period. Certainly he has not been inactive, and has been acting in other people's films for a spell. He stars in "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" with Robin Wright Penn, which was shown at last year's Toronto Film Festival but has been tied up in distribution problems. "It's a very funny, black piece of work, a contemporary comedy," he said. "I play an English playwright in Los Angeles, railing against the world and suffering from writer's block. His wife wants children, but he doesn't. He's funny and witty in the world, but he can't write the great play."
Branagh has also completed "Rabbit Proof Fence," an Australian film directed by Philip Noyce. It deals with a lost generation of half-caste Aborigines separated from their parents and re-educated in settlements. "It's based on a true story about three girls--they're aged about 14, 11 and 9--who escape from the settlement. They're pursued by a Mr. Neville, who I play. He's a stubborn but compassionate imperial administrator." Still, Branagh's new project is the one that excites him most. Shortly after this interview, he departed for Greenland to make a film about the legendary English polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, and his doomed 1914 attempt to cross the frozen wastes of Antarctica. The film is being financed by Britain's Channel 4 television.
"The director, Charles Sturridge, approached me about it a year ago," he said. "I'm fascinated by exploration, polar exploration, and that whole golden age. It's been a great ongoing research project. I love research. It's like having your own little private university--your Third Reich library increases, then your exploration library." He smiled. "Sometimes the film
gets in the way of the research." The original idea was to shoot the Shackleton film in
Antarctica: "But Greenland is more practical from an infrastructure point of view. It's so hard to get down to Antarctica, and we have to get people out if they fall sick. There are 75 speaking parts, and 120 crew. We'll be living on an ice-breaker, four to a cabin. Shackleton was a remarkable personality, and a great leader of men. It will be the opposite side of the coin from Heydrich, who was fascinating to research but horrible to play."
Next March, Branagh will return to the British stage for the first time since he played "Hamlet" with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992. He will play Shakespeare's "Richard III" at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, in the north of England. (The Crucible is making a name for itself as one of Britain's most adventurous provincial theaters: Joseph Fiennes recently starred there in a production of Marlowe's "Edward II.") Branagh's next Shakespeare film will almost certainly be "Macbeth," which he expects to embark upon at the end of next year. This time, he will not direct. He sounds as if he has his hands full, yet he admits he has kept a relatively low profile: "I didn't work a lot last year. I'm happy to say it's been quiet on the Ken Branagh front." He grimaced as he said this--over the years, Branagh has attracted some
extraordinary hostility from the British media. "It's nice to check out from time to time," he added. "You have the luxury of some choice. It's what interests you, what you find yourself drawn to that you think you might do good work with." One assumes he won't be playing too many
murderous Nazis in the near future? Branagh took a sharp inward breath. "Not for a while, maybe," he said.
David Gritten Is a London-based Writer and Frequent Contributor to Sunday Calendar
From the Orlando Sentinel
HBO Depicts Nazi Meeting that Changed History
May 9, 2001
Actors will always tell you that the bad guys are much more
fun to play than the good ones. Stroking their beards,
peering out from black capes, hovering menacingly in the
shadows -- all that's good for the actor's soul.
But what if the villain is an attractive spit-and-polish
bureaucrat with no gleeful hisses or histrionic threats?
Then it's not so fun.
To play a villain well one must identify with him, says actor
Kenneth Branagh, who says his darkest dude was Iago in
Othello. That is, until now.
The Irish-actor stars as SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich in
HBO's production of Conspiracy, premiering May 19 at 9
Inside the part of Iago are motivations that seem all too-human, says Branagh. But to portray the man who detonated the Nazi plan for exterminating the Jews, that's another matter. Heydrich seems to be "without soul, without conscience," says Branagh, "and one of the disturbing elements of playing it was to discover that. In many ways, I hope there is
little of yourself that you can bring to it. And part of the drama of it, part of the intoxication of it, is to see this sort of naked exercise in power."
Heydrich was the subordinate of Heinrich Himmler, and in January 1942 he called a meeting of 14 of Germany's chief officials to draft a solution to the "Jewish problem." What was decided in that secret meeting was to reverberate to the ends of the Earth for all time. The swift and efficient extermination of an entire race was their goal; how they would manage that was outlined in clinical detail. The session lasted less than two hours. Minutes of the meeting -- known as the Wannsee Protocol--were carefully edited by Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, who was head of the SS Jewish Affairs Office and Heydrich's co-conspirator. Only 30 copies were disseminated.
With the collapse of Nazi Germany all copies disappeared except one, which was discovered in the files of the Foreign Office in 1947. Those minutes are the basis for Conspiracy, which is directed by Frank Pierson and filmed in a room exactly like the one where the meeting took place.
There was a side of Heydrich that relished the rush of power, thinks Branagh. "He was enjoying, it seemed, a craven exercise in absolute power. This is both chilling, it's also very gripping. But to play it is very, very disturbing and unusual -- unusual and unsettling for the actor ... It was very disturbing. I suppose you could end up saying he was a fantastically efficient executor of an absolutely extraordinary, awful and desperate plan. But it was very hard to find what was human inside him."