‘Researching a story like this is overwhelming’: Harvey Keitel on the Tattooist of Auschwitz

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‘Researching a story like this is overwhelming’: Harvey Keitel on the Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Hollywood icon had never read the book, but tells Jewish News he knew the story was his.

Harvey Keitel as Lali Sokolov in his Melbourne apartment.
Harvey Keitel as Lali Sokolov in his Melbourne apartment.

Harvey Keitel’s face is lined and craggy, as befits a Hollywood grandee of 84. But when Keitel – renowned for being the good cop in Thelma and Louise and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant – smiles, the years fall away.

It’s 1967. Keitel is making his debut alongside newbie Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking At My Door.

In her review, the late Pauline Kael wrote: “De Niro is so intensely appealing it might be easy to overlook Harvey Keitel’s work. But Keitel makes De Niro’s triumph possible.”

Revered as one of the greats, De Niro did triumph, but Keitel held his own. He has the accolades, the trophies and an Oscar nomination for Bugsy (1991), but most impressively he convinced New York’s Italians that he was one of them, when he was really the son of Eastern European Jews.

Raised in Brighton Beach where his parents, Romanian-born Miriam Klein and Polish Harry Keitel, ran diners, as a kid, Keitel helped serve knishes and sodas.

Not the childhood one pictures for the actor who cleaned up bloody crimes
as The Wolf in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but it’s the perfect fit for his latest role – Lali Sokolov, the tattooist of Auschwitz.

Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman & Mili Eshet as Ivana & Tallulah Haddon as Hanna in the Death March from Auschwitz. January 1945.

Keitel had not read Heather Morris’s bestselling book of the same name before he was approached to star in the forthcoming TV adaptation. “But then something odd happened,” he says. “As strange as it might sound, I felt it was in the wind that Heather Morris’s book and I were meant to come together”. And he was right.

“The commitment and authenticity with which he approached the portrayal were breathtaking to watch,” enthuses series executive producer Claire Mundell.

Tali and Harvey.

Keitel, who famously bared body and soul in critically acclaimed The Piano (1993), brings the same strength and silence to survivor Sokolov. Consumed by guilt, every thought and fear is etched across Keitel’s face.

From 2003 to his death in 2006, aged 90, while living in Melbourne, Lali Sokolov  shared his survivor’s story with  Heather Morris.

New Zealand-born Morris, then a social worker, learned that while in Auschwitz, Sokolov was given the job of tattooing numbers on prisoners selected to work, and one of them was 18-year-old Gita Furman, with whom he fell in love. They eventually spent 60 years together and The Tattooist of Auschwitz is their story of hope, courage and survival against the odds. Despite criticism by Holocaust experts for certain inaccuracies, the book has sold 12 million copies to date.

Harvey Keitel

Keitel had his own reasons for accepting the role. “My initial reaction was to bear witness. It’s our duty to condemn the barbarism and inhumanity inflicted on Jews, Roma and Sinti, political dissidents and any of the communities that were persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust,” he says.

Watching testimonies by former camp prisoners was an integral part of the actor’s preparation for the role.

“I read texts by Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. There are so many important and valuable books. There are video interviews of Lali online… I watched everything I could get my hands on. I also met a wonderfully spirited woman – not unlike Lali and Gita – named Celina Karp Biniaz, a ‘Schindler’s List’ survivor, who was at a friend’s gathering to share her experiences with younger generations.”

Throughout his long and storied career, Keitel – a Method actor who was trained by the legendary Lee Strasberg – has dipped in and out of his Jewish background to bring an authentic note to his roles, notably as Meyer Lansky in Lansky (2021).

Unusually for the Jewish son of immigrants, Keitel joined the Marines aged 17 and served in Lebanon, where he earned a medal as a fire team leader.

Dylan Corbett–Bader as Jakub & Jonah Hauer-King as Lali Sokolov in Auschwitz.

He has said the experience taught him to look after himself physically and helped him overcome his fear of the dark. And after the Marines, Keitel did something else unexpected – he became a court reporter for 12 years, enjoying the silence and anonymity of observing. At the same time, he began acting classes and fell in love with the possibility of becoming other people. It is that study of human nature and his experience of war that he brings to The Tattooist, a role Keitel never considered a challenge, but an honour.

“The hope was to bring to light, through our dramatisation of Lali’s story, the horror of the Holocaust and keep this history relevant as there are fewer Holocaust survivors alive to tell their own stories,” he says. “The truth is in one’s research of a story like this, it’s overwhelming and it doesn’t let go of you”.

The actor has many ties with Israel – he married his wife, Canadian actress Daphna Kastner, in Jerusalem in 2001, and the couple’s son was barmitzvah at the Kotel.

In 2001 he was also guest of honour at the Haifa Film Festival, which was showing his film, The Grey Zone, in which he played a Nazi officer in charge of a unit in a Second World War concentration camp. He combined his son’s barmitzvah trip with the (so far) only film he has made in Israel, Esau, in which he played the patriarch of a family of bakers.


During shooting he told Haaretz: “I’m working on a project I really love, with a director I love. The people of Israel, I’ve worked with before, but never in this country itself. The vibe of the people here is something very…” He searched for the right word, before opting for ‘other’.

He added: “To stand by the Kotel was an experience I haven’t got the words to describe. The history of it, the image of it, the wonderful religious men I met there, gave me a deeper knowledge than I possessed about the meaning of Israel.The rabbis referred to Israel as ‘a house of study’. What a wonderful way to think of your country.”

That visit to the Holy Land 23 years ago made a bigger impact on Keitel than even he realised as he is “not letting age dictate future career choices”. But he jokes: “I’ll let the Divine decide when I retire. The human race can be ridiculous about religion. That idea that my religion has the connection to God and your religion does not seems absurd. I remember feeling that way growing up, that my religion was special and every other religion was not.

“Having grown up, I know what I know. I can say that there is only one Divine and that is the Divine. I grew up Jewish. Now, my religion is to do what is right”.

  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz begins on Sky TV on 2 May
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