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From Hogwarts to Hitler’s Germany

Jason Isaacs is taking time out from his role as a Harry Potter villain to play a Jew facing Nazi persecution.

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He has played three priests, military men of various rank and he continues to menace Harry Potter as the evil Lucius Malfoy. But Jason Isaacs’s latest film role is much closer to his heart — and closer still to his background as a Jew.

His new movie is an adaptation of C P Taylor’s acclaimed play, Good. The drama, last staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 1999, deals with the gradual degradation of a man’s ethics. An intellectual called Halder (played in the film by Viggo Mortensen) considers himself righteous but sacrifices principles and friendship for career advantage under the Nazis.

Isaacs plays his best friend, Maurice, a bon-vivant and womaniser; a sharp-dressed psychiatrist and upstanding German. He is also Jewish. And if that was not at the centre of his life before the Nazis came to power, it comes, of course, to determine his fate.

The Liverpool-born actor has the sniffles today, but is heartened by his recent Bafta nomination for his television role playing the late Harry H Corbett in The Curse of Steptoe. After discussing cold remedies — he goes for Olbas oil over eucalyptus — he reveals how close he was to dismissing Good altogether when first approached by its “tenacious” producer Miriam Segal.

“I said: ‘Absolutely not. You are out of your mind — first of all, you will never raise the money to do it, and secondly, as a Jewish woman you should be ashamed of yourself making a film which is an apology for Nazism.’”

However, he continues: “I was bluffing. I hadn’t seen the play or read it. I’d known what it was about and had prejudged it, without looking at the material. And [after reading it] I thought it was a fantastic play. Mostly because it made me very uncomfortable about my own life today, who I am, what I can justify, and what I can rationalise, the choices and the things I am in denial about.”

Such was his commitment to the project that at one point during an aborted initial shoot in Berlin, he actually paid the salaries of its German crew members out of his own pocket. So why does he think this particular take on German history is so compelling, in light of the recent spate of Second World War films dealing with similar themes?

“For me, it wasn’t about the great actions at the centre of the state,” he says. “It wasn’t about Hitler and Chamberlain. It was about ordinary people who are swept up by these extraordinary events.”

The 45-year-old actor, who originally trained as a lawyer before turning to showbusiness, relates the issues raised in Good to the situation regarding civil rights here in Britain, which, he believes, are “being rolled back in a way that was unimaginable when I first started studying law”.

He explains: “This film is not about the Holocaust. It is about the early ’30s in Germany, which is one thing which differentiates it from other films. It’s about this gradual, incremental change in society that doesn’t affect most people. Most reasonable people thought it was terrible, but as each little step was made they just asked themselves: ‘What can I do about it?’

“I ask myself that question constantly — what should I be doing about the fact that the clothes I am wearing were probably made in a sweatshop, for example. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought them.”

Important as these perceived parallels are, perhaps of more significance to Isaacs is that Good is faithful to history, conveying a sense that what happens to Maurice is a precursor of the horrors to come. “You have to make sure you are not making a film that tells a classical redemptive story,” he says. “I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere near the film if Viggo’s character had picked up a machine gun [to resist the Nazis], or hid everyone in the attic.

“For me, Steven Spielberg did something very clever with Schindler’s List because, although it is a story of redemption and Oskar Schindler saves all those people, what you take away from it overall is the enormous sense of loss and wastage, and that was the anomaly. If there is anything to take out of it, it is that love didn’t conquer anything. There was random and arbitrary death. As Primo Levi said: ‘The best died first.’”

He will not be drawn on the current crop of releases, like The Reader, preferring to say that “very few films should touch the Holocaust and you have to make sure you make them for the right reasons and not in any way sanitise what was done”.

However, he has said he admires an earlier film, an underappreciated 2001 piece about the concentration camp Sonderkommando called The Grey Zone.

His Jewish roots give him a particular connection to Good, but a coincidence that happened after the shoot makes it even more personal.

When filming eventually took place in Hungary in 2007, Isaacs would listen to BBC recordings of the liberation of Belsen on April 15 1945. In these broadcasts, the army’s senior Jewish chaplain, 32-year-old Leslie Hardman, was asked to present a Friday night service from the camp to show the world that there were Jews there who could still pray.

This moving piece of audio helped Isaac focus on his film character. “My memory of making that film in many ways is that recording,” he says.

Fast forward one year or so later and the actor was asked to present some readings at a Holocaust Memorial Day event in Liverpool. “They said to me: ‘Mr Isaacs, I’m really sorry, you will have to share a dressing room backstage.’ So I went there and this 95-year-old man walked in.”

“And he said, ‘Hello, I’m Leslie Hardman’.”

Talking to Hardman — who died last October at the age of 95 — added a poignancy to his experience with Good, driving home what it meant to him as a Jew. How, then, does he expresses his Jewishness?

“In terms of religion, I don’t,” he says. “I have a wonderful non-Jewish wife, who I love, and I have two children who are a product of the two of us.

“I love being Jewish. I love the traditions. I love everything that makes me bond instantly with other Jewish people, my tribal connection. But I don’t think I will be passing it on to the next generation.”

What he did pass on was that we will not be seeing him in that blonde wig as Malfoy in the latest Harry Potter film this summer, but that he hopes to return in the next one. He will next be seen in The Green Zone, which is a thriller set in post-invasion Iraq. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” he warns.

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