Why Russell Crowe chose to play ‘larger-than-life tyrant’ in Nuremberg

Russell Crowe plays one of history’s most infamous criminals, Nazi leader Hermann Göring.

Russell Crowe plays one of history’s most infamous criminals, Nazi leader Hermann Göring. Photo: Supplied

When Oscar winner Russell Crowe read the script for Nuremberg, a historical thriller based on the trials of the defeated Nazi regime after World War II, he says he felt “emotionally exhausted”.

Crowe plays Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermann Göring, who is assessed over six months by US military psychiatrist Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Kelley (Rami Malek) inside an American detention centre in mid-1945.

“For the most part, the things that attract me are the things that terrify me,” Crowe tells Deadline, which was recently invited on set for two days in Budapest.

“I responded to the script straight away, but in a funny way I was also emotionally exhausted by it. How would you even attempt to play that guy? When that kind of question comes up, that’s usually what I’m attracted to.”

Based on the book, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, by Jack El-Hai, Nuremberg tells the story of Kelley’s sessions with several Nazi criminals tried at the end of the war (and whether they were fit to stand trial), including Rudolf Hess, Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher and their last leader, Karl Dönitz.

In Kelley’s personal papers released after 65 years, he wrote “the near destruction of modern culture will have gone for naught if we do not draw the right conclusions about the forces that produced such chaos”.

“We must learn the why of the Nazi success so we can take steps to prevent the recurrence of such evil.”

Hermann Göring, and next to him Rudolf Hess on December 4, 1945. Photo: Getty

Who was Hermann Göring?

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world was faced with the challenge of how to hold accountable the German leaders who were responsible for “the commission of monstrous crimes against humanity and international peace”.

With judges from the Soviet Union, Britain, the US and France, the chief prosecutors of the International Military Tribunal brought charges against 24 German officials, among them Göring.

The trials were held at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg (north of Munich) from November 1945 to October 1946.

A decorated fighter pilot during WWI, Göring joined the Nazi Party in 1922 after hearing a speech by Hitler. He eventually found his way into the inner circles of Nazi power.

According to the museum, after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Göring became Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), director of the Four Year Plan in the German economy, and, at the outbreak of war, Hitler’s successor.

It was Göring who ordered Security Police chief Reinhard Heydrich to organise and co-ordinate a “total solution” to the “Jewish question”.

The IMT charged Göring on all four counts: Crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

He was convicted and sentenced to death.

On the eve of his scheduled execution, he committed suicide in his prison cell in 1946.

‘Sparring with a larger-than-life tyrant’

Indeed, both Crowe (Gladiator, Land of Bad) and fellow Oscar winner, Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) are portraying complex, historical figures.

In the film, Deadline says the young American finds himself in a “complex battle of wits” with Göring as he works out whether he was fit to stand trial.

Crowe says Kelley “wouldn’t acquiesce to the common story of Nazism at the time, which was the story that the Allies wanted to push, that this was a group of mad men”.

“These people were involved in some very dark things that came out of situations that shouldn’t have directed them in that way … Göring was willing to get into bed with people he ordinarily might not have, because of the circumstances he was in,” Crowe said.

“For Kelley to be so convinced that he was there to ‘dissect evil’, as he explains in his book, and then to discover there’s nothing uniquely evil about Göring; in fact there’s humanity in there,” Malek said.

“He realised that anyone at any moment in any political landscape could be capable of an atrocity like that. How jarring, and how absolutely terrifying that must have been.”

For the record, Kelley found the murderous Nazi legally sane, free of psychosis and fit for trial: “He was undoubtedly the most ruthless human being that I have ever experienced.”

As their meetings were recreated in a cramped jail cell, one observer on set was clearly moved at how deep into character Crowe and Malek went.

“To say the hair stands up on the back of my neck doesn’t quite cover it,” Walden Media’s Cherilyn Hawrysh said.

“This is what it’s like to watch two Academy Award-winning actors at their fullest.”

Nuremberg presents at the Cannes film market this week

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