The Man Behind the Monster

  • Amon Goeth, commandant of the Plaszow death camp, strides into the basement of his barracks mansion and sees his maid, the lovely Jewish internee Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz). He had chosen her as window dressing for the mausoleum he runs, but her strength and grace have touched him. For a crucial moment, on the face of actor Ralph Fiennes, evil pauses to consider itself. Could I have a decent feeling? Could I love this base creature, this beautiful thing, this Jewess? Just as quickly, and subtly, Fiennes' face tells us no. Goeth's fists flail out, not so much at Hirsch as at the recognition that he is doomed to solitude by his wickedness.

    More than anything else in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, this potent, poignant scene illuminates the moral stupor of the totalitarian heart. And the performance has made an instant star of an actor previously known only in Britain. Already Ralph Fiennes (the name is Welsh and rhymes with safe signs) has a Golden Globe Award, a New York Film Critics Circle citation and, as of last week, an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his work in Schindler's List. In September moviegoers will see him as Charles van Doren, that fallen savant of '50s TV, in Robert Redford's much touted Quiz Show. After that, who can say? Spielberg can: "If he picks the right roles and doesn't forget the theater, I think he can eventually be Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier."

    He is already -- and this is creepy, considering the quicksilver brutality of his Goeth -- a burgeoning sex symbol. Doughy and dark in the movie or slim, handsome and smiling in person, Fiennes, 31, is the improbable hunk.

    The real Amon Goeth was no hunk. But he was an artist of evil -- grandly deranged, creatively sadistic. He would set his dogs on children and watch them be devoured. "The people he whipped," Fiennes says, "had to keep count of the strokes. If they lost count, the whipping started from the beginning."

    How could anyone live inside this monster's skin for the three harrowing months of filming? Perhaps for so mesmerizing a role, the question must be, How could any actor not want to? "In playing Amon," says Fiennes, who put on 28 lbs. for the part, "I got close to his pain. Inside him is a fractured, miserable human being. I feel split about him, sorry for him. He's like some dirty, battered doll I was given and that I came to feel peculiarly attached to."

    Fiennes is as reluctant to discuss his personal life as he is ready to analyze Goeth's. But it is no state secret that he was born in Suffolk, eldest of the six children of Mark Fiennes, a farmer turned photographer, and his wife, Jini a novelist and travel writer who died last year. His family moved often, and the boy was educated by Episcopalians, Catholics, Quakers and his mother. After graduation from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he rocketed through the British repertory system. Then he attracted the best kind of attention: Spielberg's.

    The director saw Fiennes in the TV film A Dangerous Man: Lawrence of Arabia and then in a remake of Wuthering Heights. "His Heathcliff," Spielberg says, "was a feral man, a kind of grownup Wild Child." He met Fiennes and tested him for Goeth. "Ralph did three takes. I still, to this day, haven't seen Take 2 or 3. He was absolutely brilliant," the director says. "After seeing Take 1, I knew he was Amon." In Fiennes' eyes, Spielberg says, "I saw sexual evil. It is all about subtlety: there were moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold."

    During last winter's grueling shoot in Poland, Fiennes vacuumed up nuggets $ of Goethiana from every source: newsreels, Thomas Keneally's Schindler novel, testimony by the Schindler Jews. But he needed no research to feel the chill of hatred in his bones; simply by appearing in his Nazi uniform he enlisted volunteers of bigotry. "The Germans were charming people," a sweet-faced woman told him. "They didn't kill anybody who didn't deserve it."

    When Fiennes, in full Hauptsturmfuhrer regalia, was introduced by Spielberg to Mila Pfefferberg, a Schindler survivor depicted in the film, the old lady trembled. "Her knees began to give out from under her," Spielberg recalls. "I held her while Ralph enthused about how important it was for him to meet her -- and she vibrated with terror. She didn't see an actor. She saw Amon Goeth."

    In that malevolently malleable face, the world's filmgoers are seeing Goeth. And soon, in what looks like the blooming of a brilliant career, they may even get to see Ralph Fiennes.