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Ralph Fiennes

Actor Ralph Fiennes has appeared in a number of films about the Holocaust. In this podcast, he talks with journalist Bob Woodward about his role as SS officer Amon Goeth in the Oscar-winning film Schindler's List.



ALEISA FISHMAN: Welcome to Voices on Antisemitism, a podcast series from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum made possible by generous support from the Oliver and Elizabeth Stanton Foundation. I’m your host, Aleisa Fishman. This week’s podcast is a little different. What you’re about to hear is a conversation between actor Ralph Fiennes and journalist Bob Woodward, recorded before a live audience here at the Holocaust Museum. Fiennes has been in a number of films about the Holocaust. In this podcast, he talks about his role as SS officer Amon Goeth in the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List.

Here, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, are Ralph Fiennes and Bob Woodward.

BOB WOODWARD: Tell us how you got the part as Nazi Commandant Amon Goeth.

RALPH FIENNES: Steven Spielberg was in London casting for all the roles in the film, and I was asked to meet him, and I met him informally. I had got through the book by Thomas Keneally called Schindler’s Ark. I had read it and I wasn’t sure who I was being seen for, whether it was Schindler or Amon Goeth. And then a few days later I got a page, which was in fact an amalgam of different lines from the screenplay into a speech, and I went to a..., on my own, I went to a recording studio in London and directed myself with a cameraman helping me in the speech. That was my directorial debut. And I sent off the test and then I remember early in the morning I got a call from LA saying, “You’ve got the part.” Which I was ecstatic about, of course. And that was it.

BOB WOODWARD: What did you learn about evil playing that role?

RALPH FIENNES: Well, that it’s every day. Evil is cumulative. It happens. People believe that they’ve got to do a job, they’ve got to take on an ideology, that they’ve got a life to lead; they’ve got to survive, a job to do, it’s every day inch by inch, little compromises, little ways of telling yourself this is how you should lead your life and suddenly then these things can happen. I mean, I could make a judgment myself privately, this is a terrible, evil, horrific man. But the job was to portray the man, the human being. There’s a sort of banality, that everydayness, that I think was important. And it was in the screenplay. In fact, one of the first scenes with Oskar Schindler, with Liam Neeson, was a scene where I’m saying “You don’t understand how hard it is, I have to order so many-so many meters of barbed wire and so many fencing posts and I have to get so many people from A to B.” And, you know, he’s sort of letting off steam about the difficulties of the job. And so I suppose you can step back and that is where the evil is, when you can step back and look at it.

BOB WOODWARD: Are there things in Goeth’s life—you really investigated his life, didn’t you? You read and you talked to survivors and you immersed yourself in this. Are there things that you found out he did that were not in the movie that were even more horrifying?

RALPH FIENNES: I remember there being accounts by survivors who talked about their terror when they saw him. He terrified the people of Plaszów. Many accounts of him were just full of the physical fear that people felt when they saw him.

BOB WOODWARD: With the extremism in the world now, so much of it—on the left, on the right, or particularly with the jihadists who do things to others but also commit suicide—do you see that we’re approaching genocidal actions that are alarming, or that are alarming to you as a human being?

RALPH FIENNES: Well I think that no one knows exactly what it is, that a whole nation can be led by a voice, a set of ideas, that could be geared into embracing a set of beliefs where they believe it’s right to destroy and eradicate another people and another culture. And it’s happened since, in Cambodia, and of course the purges in Stalinist Russia are another version of a kind of genocide. And I think we see extremist beliefs possible in all countries. And there can be reaction. One set of extremist beliefs leading to horrific and destructive things, create another response that’s the same or even more. And I think it can creep up on us before we know that we’re in it.

BOB WOODWARD: You’ve said that when you play a part like that, that it costs you something, that you make some payment. What was it? And talk about how you did that because…talk about it.

RALPH FIENNES: It’s hard to put into words the sort of imaginative quest that you go on. Every actor will have a different idea about what their method is, what their approach is, but I think it’s probably a good building block to look for that thing in yourself that might do what your character is doing or thinking or feeling. I mean I think there was something lost, in my head I suppose, I developed the idea there might be something lost about him. He drank a lot, he ate a lot, and these may be things…people do this to themselves to sort of keep themselves together. But maybe that excuses him too much. I don’t, I mean, I don’t know.

BOB WOODWARD: Do you have to be handsome to play that part?

RALPH FIENNES: Uhm. I don’t think so, no.

BOB WOODWARD: But there’s something about that handsomeness or the prettiness, the uniform. I mean, talk about that a little bit because it gives winds up amplifying what’s going on.

RALPH FIENNES: Well, certainly I think the uniforms, those SS uniforms and the Gestapo uniforms were designed, I think they were designed by theater designers. They were designed to have an impact, an effect. The cut of them, the caps, the high way the caps went up like that. That was all designed, I think, which shows the brilliance, the people employed by Goebbels and the Nazi Party to promote, visually, the message. It was brilliantly done and disturbingly so.

BOB WOODWARD: I looked through a lot of material and the one, and this was interesting, criticism of Schindler’s List—because across the board it’s praised and your performance and Spielberg and everything—but one says that by making Amon Goeth such a sadistic character that it distorts what the Holocaust was. That in fact the Holocaust was a bunch of non-psychotic people just playing little roles. And he went on to say that the presentation of that cleanses the genocide of its naked horror. Is there any validity in that?

RALPH FIENNES: I think there is, yeah. I think there is validity in that. I mean I think the problem is that Amon Goeth might not have been psychotic, I mean, these things became everyday.

BOB WOODWARD: Thank you.

RALPH FIENNES: Thank you very much.

ALEISA FISHMAN: Voices on Antisemitism is a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Join us every month to hear a new perspective on the continuing threat of antisemitism in our world today. In this series, you can also listen to Helen Jonas,, who was forced to work as Amon Goeth’s house servant at the Plaszów Concentration Camp in Poland. We would appreciate your feedback on this series. Please visit our website,