Anthony Hopkins on Holocaust drama 'One Life': 'This can happen again at any moment'


In 1988, the BBC television series “That’s Life!” aired a program on Nicholas Winton, a former stockbroker who helped to save 669 children from the Nazis in the months leading up to World War II and the Holocaust. As seen in the episode, the producers of the show surprised Winton by seating him in the audience next to several now-adult survivors of the Kindertransport. Years later, Iain Canning, the Oscar-winning producer of “The King’s Speech,” rediscovered the popular clip and wondered about the story behind it.

“It was such a stoic, emotional moment,” Canning tells The Times. “I just felt it was a life and a story worth exploring in film.”

He and Emile Sherman, who, together, had recently established their See-Saw Films company, went to visit Winton, then 101 years old, in 2010. Canning describes him as “humble, generous and also incredibly kind,” but says Winton was reluctant to be painted as a hero onscreen. “He believed that we all have the capacity to do the right thing at the right time,” Canning recalls.

A few years later, the producers enlisted screenwriters Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake to adapt “If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton,” a 2014 biography of Winton written by his daughter Barbara Winton. She gave her blessing to the film, titled “One Life” — as long as her father was played by Anthony Hopkins.

Although the actor initially had to turn the role down, the opportunity came back in 2021 and he gladly accepted.

“It sounds weird to say that this story was personal to me because obviously I wasn’t involved in the Holocaust, but I do remember the war,” says Hopkins, 86, currently writing his memoirs and pleased to hold court in a suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel. (He wants us to take pastries and we oblige.) “I remember the bomb damage. That period of history encompasses my own life. It’s part of my consciousness.”

“One Life” shifts between two timelines. Hopkins plays Winton in the late 1980s reflecting on his life. Actor Johnny Flynn plays Winton in 1938 when he accompanies a friend to pre-war Prague and discovers that thousands of people are living in refugee camps in Czechoslovakia after fleeing Nazi persecution. Although Winton was at the time working as a stockbroker, he joined forces with the British Committee for Refugees, based in Prague, and devised a plan to move children across Europe by train to England.

“It’s hard for us on this side of the Holocaust to imagine that, in 1938, people didn’t know what these events were pushing toward,” Flynn says. “It was an existential threat, certainly for people back home in Britain. But Nicholas, who had Jewish heritage, connected to the plight of these people. Because of the type of person he was, he went there and saw it and he came back to England going, ‘No, these people are starving and dying.’”

Winton worked with a team of like-minded people, including Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai), Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp) and his mother Babette (Helena Bonham Carter). Traveling back and forth between London and Prague, he raised money, fought with the Home Office to grant visas for the children, many of whom were Jewish, and found foster families willing to take them in. Winton kept detailed records of his efforts in a scrapbook, now displayed in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial, that includes photographs of the children he shot and developed himself. The filmmakers also had access to Warriner’s 1984 book “A Winter in Prague” and Chadwick’s personal records, as well as other historical accounts to ensure accuracy.

“You always want to stay as close to history as possible — or at least I do,” director James Hawes says. “It gives it an authority. The nature of a drama is you always have to squeeze things for time, but we went out of our way to adhere to the truth. There are moments, like in the BBC studio, where we had an extremely good record of how things were, although we changed that slightly. But a huge amount of it is very true and anchored.”

Although author Barbara Winton died halfway through the filming, which took place first in England and then in Prague, Hawes remained in close contact with Winton’s grandson and son-in-law. “We could literally ring them up for photos and details,” Hawes says. “Because once you get into production beyond the script, props want to know, ‘What sort of car did they drive? What sort of meals would be right for each of them to eat in front of the TV?’ We went down to that kind of detail.”

Flynn shot his scenes after Hopkins wrapped so he was able to observe the elder actor’s portrayal of Winton. He also had footage of Winton in 1938, including a clip of him holding a rescued child, which was re-created in the film. Although it’s told from Winton’s perspective, the movie makes it clear that he didn’t work alone.

“Nicholas knew that he wasn’t the most important aspect of the operation,” Flynn says. “He was just the person who was there as a face for the children to see and meet. He was working back in England to get the bureaucratic side done with his mother, which was all done from their front room in their house. They had to be pretty ruthless with the Home Office and that’s all there in the film. Nothing needed to be exaggerated.”

To re-create the episode of “That’s Life!” the team built a replica of the 1980s BBC studio at Pinewood outside London. Instead of casting actors to play the adult survivors, the filmmakers invited the family members of the original Kindertransport children to be in the studio audience. Hawes approximates nearly 50 of them participated.

“We had organizations working with us to make sure that we reached as many children as possible to let them know it was happening and to invite them to be in the audience,” producer Joanna Laurie says. “The response was astonishing. On the day, everyone was weeping.”

Although the scene was emotional to shoot, it was important to the filmmakers to ensure it played authentically. Hawes shot it from Winton’s perspective, reframing the well-known clip.

“It was quite an experience,” Hopkins says. “But James didn’t want to make a spectacle of it. He didn’t want to make it sentimental.”

Hawes adds that much of the feeling in the scene came from the crowd itself. “If you look at the line [of people] just behind Tony in the second audience scene, there’s a family of three sisters and a brother and you can see the emotion they’re giving,” he says. “It breaks me just to remember it. They felt it utterly and honestly.”

Despite Winton’s reluctance to be recognized, “One Life” spotlights the importance of doing good — especially when no one is looking.

“He wasn’t trying to save the world,” Flynn says. “He was just doing what he could do in that moment. There’s so much cynicism around doing good things now because of the potential to virtue-signal. No good deed goes unnoticed by Instagram. But I think what’s nice is to remember a time when that wasn’t a part of it.”

Hopkins agrees that today “everyone wants to show how clever they are.” He sees a film like “One Life” as an opportunity for audiences to be reminded of what’s at stake if we don’t learn to compromise or help. He remembers meeting a survivor of Auschwitz more than 20 years ago, who told him she goes into schools to teach them that the Holocaust could be repeated.

“It’s easy to forget,” Hopkins adds. “And nobody wants to be lectured and have it jammed down their throats. But I hope for at least an awareness. This can happen again at any moment and if we are not aware of that, we are doomed. But the human being has, I think, the capacity also to survive and pull ourselves back from the brink.”



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