The Sunday Times, January 20, 2001, by Stuart Wavell


Brandy and cigars

and the Final Solution

Sixty years ago today, a group of Nazi bureaucrats assembled at a villa on the outskirts of Berlin to dine sumptuously and discuss a pressing matter. After 90 minutes they had broadly settled the logistical difficulties of the Final Solution. It became known as the Wannsee conference, one of the most infamous meetings in history.

Tracking in on this urbane gathering, thanks to a remarkable new television reconstruction, we catch the jokes and watch the cheese being passed as the agenda is pushed through briskly by SS General Reinhard Heydrich, played with chilling conviviality by Kenneth Branagh. At his elbow as a servile prompt is Adolf Eichmann (Stanley Tucci). 

But one of those present voices passionate opposition: is this a lone voice of conscience? The answer is much more bizarre, says Colin Firth, who plays Dr Wilhelm Stuckart, an interior ministry lawyer.

“There’s a moment when you think this one guy is going to champion humanity, and then you realise that is not what it’s all about. He wanted a much more subtle and thorough-going way of eliminating a race of people — sterilisation.” 

Firth, last seen parodying his doppelgänger Mr Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary, immersed himself in Holocaust literature for the part and found himself haunted by the experience. Yet the first month of filming was marked by fits of the giggles.

“That could be quite hard for people to understand, and possibly offensive. When you put 15 boys together and introduce something that makes them all a bit nervous, it’s a recipe for slightly hilarious ribaldry, although we weren’t joking about the subject matter.”

In fact, this flippancy served the mood they were required to create, he believes. “Those men were not sitting there discussing tragedy. They were simply dealing with the administrative difficulties of mass murder. That is what is so mind-blowing about it.”

In the initial read-through, the actors found themselves laughing at a scripted joke and instinctively covered their mouths in remorse, he says. “It was when they were discussing how to sterilise people without them knowing. Someone said you could have an x-ray machine hidden under a desk. At which, another character says, ‘I’m not coming into your office.’ ”

All the levity was knocked out of them, however, when they went to Berlin for the last week of shooting Conspiracy — The Meeting at Wannsee, which begins on BBC2 on Friday. The venue was the actual villa where the conference was convened by Heydrich in the suburb of Wannsee, preserved as a Holocaust museum.

“I was born in 1960, and for those of us not directly affected, the Holocaust had seemed like ancient history. It had been difficult for me to maintain my outrage. But there were photographs in that museum — medical experiments, some involving children — which are some of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen. I was haunted for months afterwards.”

Other memories intrude. One day the cast, wearing their German uniforms, were taking a break outside when they were spotted by a group of German schoolboys, who began cheering them. Firth is still not sure if it was mockery or something else. And near his lodgings in east Berlin, he noticed a synagogue surrounded by a protective ring of army trucks.

His most abiding sense was of the banality of evil that floated in the cigar smoke and brandy fumes filling the villa on January 20, 1942. His character, Stuckart, had helped to draw up the Nuremburg laws on racial purity, but balked at mass extermination because, paradoxically, it flouted the rule of law.

“His argument was not, ‘Save the poor, innocent people’ but, ‘Have patience. Wait a generation and we’ll rid the world of a pestilence through sterilisation. If you hurry things, there’s going to be a backlash’.

He is overruled with a few words by Heydrich: “Death is the most reliable form of sterilisation.”

Critically acclaimed in America, the film has already won two Emmys and three nominations for the Golden Globe awards. It is another chance for Firth to exorcise the heart-throb stereotype of his famous wet-look Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

“It does feel as if Bridget Jones has released me. I feel less associated with one television series, and one or two articles about me have come out without using Darcy in the headline. Not that I want people to forget it.”

Firth played an emotionally retarded Arsenal fan in Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s memoir of love and football. It led to him contributing to an anthology of stories edited by Hornby. Writing is a hobby that proved more exposing than he had supposed.

“I had no idea what it feels like to have your words and ideas out there in public, and how intimate the act of writing is,” he says. “It’s a bit scary to be asked to put your money where your mouth is.”

After Berlin, Firth returned to the home counties to star with Rupert Everett and Dame Judi Dench in The Importance of Being Earnest. The light stuff is trickier technically than the serious roles that actors love, he observes.

In a forthcoming film, New Cardiff, he plays an artist who flees London after being dumped by his fiancée, played by Minnie Driver.  While hiding away in a New England hotel, a local woman (Heather Graham) takes him in hand. Given that the story was written by Charles Webb, the author of The Graduate, can one detect the shade of Mrs Robinson? “It’s not entirely without parallel,” he says. “There’s a sophisticated, jaded woman who sabotages the guy’s chances with the fresh, innocent hope for the future. There’s even a scene where someone spontaneously takes their clothes off in front of me.”

How would Darcy react to that?

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