Helena Bonham Carter has told Jewish News she was “born to play” the role of Babette in ‘One Life’, the extraordinary story of British stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazis.
The movie, made in collaboration with BBC Films, also stars Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn and Jonathan Pryce. It honours the life of war-hero and ‘British Schindler’ Nicholas Winton, who saved hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1939.
The incredible story of Sir Nicholas, who died in 2015 at the age of 106, was brought to the wider public’s attention by Dame Esther Rantzen in 1988 during a screening of the programme That’s Life.
BAFTA-award winning Bonham Carter, who appears in ‘One Life’ as Nicholas’s indomitable German mother, born Babette Wertheim, said she’d seen the famous clip. “I knew who he was and had been approached to play the role ten years ago.”
Winton was a young investment banker when, over Christmas 1938, he went to see what help he could offer in Prague. Over the next nine months, he organised the evacuation of 669 children, most of whom were Jewish, to escape the Nazis in an operation later known as the Kindertransport. Hopkins and Flynn play the older and younger versions of the man known as the ‘British Schindler’.
Bonham Carter said: “James Hawes, a director I had worked with, approached me about two years ago when he came on board for the project. I thought it was one of those things that was never going to happen and then it suddenly coalesced. And then Hopkins (Anthony) said he was going to be in it. And then Johnny.”
She adds: “For me, it was just such a great story and I wanted to be part of it. Nicholas Winton is such a hero.”
Bonham Carter says she wishes the role of (Babi) Babette could have been bigger, but knew she couldn’t “unbalance the part”.
She says the most important thing was to “make sense of the hero. What made this man, this exceptional man, so modest, do the most extraordinary things.” What was unusual was this was a mother-son team and theirs was an “unconventional, very dynamic relationship”.
Bonham Carter adds: “It was in my DNA to play this role because I come from Austrian Jewish heritage. And on top of that, on both sides, both my grandparents helped a lot of Jewish people with visas to get out of Nazi Europe.”
Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the older version of Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Winton, with Johnny Flynn playing the character during the second world war. Bonham Carter says she “loved the idea of being able to say I was Anthony Hopkins mum.”
Bonham Carter is of Jewish descent on her mother’s side. Her maternal grandfather Eduardo Propper de Callejon was a Spanish diplomat who defied his government’s orders and helped Jews escape the Holocaust during the Nazi invasion of France.
Her English paternal grandmother Lady Violet Bonham Carter, a mother-of-four and liberal politician, also fought anti-Semitism as a volunteer air raid warden.
‘One Life’ is based on the biography ‘If It’s Not Impossible… The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton’, written by Winton’s daughter Barbara Winton.
Bonham Carter was able to speak with Barbara, who died during filming. She was “so excited to know the film was being made but was so disappointed that she knew she herself wouldn’t see it. So I literally caught the end of her life. And I told her the film was in the best hands. The whole team was definitely going to do it justice. I think she felt she had to carry him forward. I found it very moving that we got to speak when she was already quite weak.”
The actress said she “got to work with a lot of Czech children who didn’t understand a word I was saying, in Prague, pretending to be at Liverpool Street Station. It was a really bonkers shoot.”
She thinks the film could be “hugely educational” in terms of Holocaust education.
“The story is about someone who does such a humanitarian act and I think it’s quite empowering because it makes most of us feel utterly impotent in the face of world disaster. You have this man who stubbornly, with his mum, worked out how to extract these children from horrendous circumstances. It’s absolutely crucial to Holocaust education but also crucial to any kind of humanitarian realm.
Whilst both Nicky and Babette were Jewish, Bonham Carter says Winton would have “done what he did for any people. Logistically, he defied probability.”
With ‘One Life’ now appearing 85 years after the Kindertransport, Bonham Carter believes the film still resonates because what happened then is happening now. Referring to his biography, she said: “Nicky says that what we can learn from history is that nobody ever learns from history. Maybe we can learn from him. When we filmed it this time last year, it was in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, so obviously there were refugee children and it was incredibly relevant what we were filming. And now it’s smack in the middle of this horrendous situation (Israel-Gaza).”
For Bonham Carter, the role of Babette “resonated on a different level. I come from a Jewish background. My great grandmother was Austrian. So most people in my family will recognise my great granny who just popped up when I put on the accent and the clothes. So in a way, she just came to life.
“Also for me, both my grandparents on both sides did a lot for getting visas for a lot of Jewish people. My grandfather in Spain was a Czech diplomat. He got about 3,000 Jewish people out on June 17th 1940 with transit visas and defied his government. And my grandmother sponsored a family from Prague, bizarrely.
“So there was a lot of overlap with my actual history. Echoes. So I felt when asked to do it that it was in the stars. It’s in my DNA to play the part. So I was compelled to do it.”
- One Life is now in UK cinemas
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