In The Fearless Vampire Killers, Roman Polanski’s campy 1967 comedy, Shagal, a philandering innkeeper, gets bitten by the fair-skinned Count Von Krolock, then returns home to taste the blood of a buxom chambermaid. She quickly pulls out a crucifix, but Shagal replies, “Oy! Have you got the wrong vampire!”
On its own, the joke rings a little silly and stale, but alongside the movie’s other stereotypes—Von Crolock’s horny, homosexual son; a bumbling scientist; and his equally befuddled assistant, played by Polanski—the Yiddish-spouting vampire deftly sends up notions as old as the Blood Libel. Nearly four decades later, Polanski is releasing his version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, with Ben Kingsley, that master of ethnic disguise, as Fagin. But the usually fearless auteur has Kingsley approach the “merry old gentleman” and leader of Oliver’s pack of London pickpockets cautiously.
Polanski sounds like the perfect director to tackle a cunning and complex Jewish villain. After The Fearless Vampire Killers, he moved onto Rosemary’s Baby, in which Rosemary, played by Mia Farrow, seeks advice from Dr. Abraham Sapirstein, a Jewish obstetrician played by the perennial pushover Ralph Bellamy. Turns out the genial doctor is also a witch who’s in league with Rosemary’s husband, her neighbors, and Satan. Much of Rosemary’s Baby, and of Polanski’s work in general, is built on those kind of deadpan inversions. Even when portraying Jewish suffering in The Pianist, Polanski shows the instincts of a sadist. It’s defiantly chilly—think of the early scene when a Nazi guard tips a man in a wheelchair off a balcony—and maybe the least sentimental vision of a Holocaust survivor on film.
There’s a cold breeze blowing through Oliver Twist, too. Polanski films the dark alleys of London in all their brutality, and shuns the novel’s redemptive coincidences—but he also reveals a gentler heart. Oliver starts the film with a quiet stream of tears, and keeps them coming. The sympathy extends to Fagin, as well. In an interview with The New York Times, Kingsley promised a more human take on Dickens’ notorious swindler than previous adaptations, notably David Lean’s 1948 film. That version starred Alec Guinness with a deep, creepy rasp in his voice and an absurd beak based on the George Cruikshank illustrations that accompanied Dickens novel when it was serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837. “I think we have to destroy the stereotypes and replace them with archetypes,” said Kingsley, who strived “to present the Collapsed Father.” Collapsed is the operative word: sporting a bad comb-over, hobbling with a cane, and speaking in a high-pitched, not-quite-Cockney accent, it’s hard to see how Kingsley’s Fagin climbs the stairs, let alone commands a flatful of boys or a killer as vicious as Bill Sikes.
The film is careful to align Fagin not with Sikes or the Artful Dodger—two generations of orphans he ushered into crime—but with that latecomer Oliver. Played by Barney Clark, Oliver spends much of the movie looking for a home, and settles happily enough in Fagin’s abode before crossing the path of Mr. Brownlow, who offers him posh real estate. When Oliver disappears, Fagin fears the boy may “peach” to the police, yet it’s also clear the old man genuinely cares for him, and maybe even sees some of himself in Oliver. In a scene dreamed up by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, Fagin heals Oliver’s wounds with a balm passed on from father to son—placing Oliver, it would seem, next in the family line. The novel never admits such sympathy—if Fagin loves Oliver, it’s for his innocent face: Who would ever pick such a sweet boy out of a lineup?
The only scene which reveals the true darkness in Fagin’s heart comes early on, when Fagin is admiring his private stash of jewels—think of it as a pension plan—and catches Oliver watching him. Immediately, Fagin lunges at Oliver with a pair of scissors (not a breadknife, as in the novel) threatening circumcision, even castration. The scene’s genuinely terrifying, if a little overdone, but at least it reminds us that Fagin is not simply the good old granddad he appears to be. Still, for most the film, it’s Fagin who seems emasculated.
The problem with Kingsley’s performance is not anti-Semitism—if you can look past his prosthetic proboscis, still generous but significantly smaller than the one on Guinness, the only obvious sign of Fagin’s origins is a late scene where, in response to a slew of bad news, he quietly repeats “Oy” a half-dozen times. The situation is quite the opposite: Polanski and Kingsley have transformed Fagin into a victim, depriving him of the scheming malevolence that makes him captivating as a character. Kingsley’s Fagin needs a hug—and he gets one in the next-to-final scene, when Oliver comes to visit him in his prison cell.
Kingsley and Polanski are right to be wary of playing into anti-Semitic tropes, but there’s a difference between depicting a villainous Jew, someone whose evil traits are based in stereotypes, and a Jewish villain, whose background and villainy coexist but are unconnected. To see the difference, one need only watch Ron Moody in Oliver!, Carol Reed’s still-impressive adaptation of Lionel Bart’s musical. Some chide Moody for trafficking in gay stereotypes, but it takes some effort to read his performance that way. What’s far more striking is his wicked charm, welcoming Oliver to his home only to scream at another boy, “Shut up and drink your gin!” when he complains about the sausages. (In case you were wondering, Fagin, in the book and the films, does not keep kosher.) While Guinness uses Fagin’s Jewishness to make him more repulsive, Moody makes it part of Fagin’s charisma, channeling a slight Yiddish accent in “Pick a Pocket” and “Reviewing the Situation.”
The second song, in which Fagin reconsiders but ultimately rejects the honest life, marks Lionel Bart’s only obvious effort to humanize the character, even forgive him—and yet, it never turns him into a casualty of the world the way Kingsley does. The musical’s Fagin knows he could forsake his life of crime but keeps choosing otherwise, even in the final reprise of “Reviewing the Situation.” If Fagin’s a victim, it’s of his own choices, not his circumstances. Kingsley, on the other hand, has imagined an elaborate backstory for Fagin (“brought up by his grandparents, who did not speak a word of English”), going as far as to compare his childhood in London to Polanski’s perilous wanderings in wartime Poland. Like Brody in The Pianist and like Oliver, Fagin simply isn’t in control of his life. When he plots with Bill Sikes, it’s hard not to wonder who’s really in charge.
Neither David Lean nor Lionel Bart had the heart to send Fagin to his death. Lean’s version ends with Fagin’s capture (and the mob’s applause), while Bart, who clearly likes Fagin too much to think of killing him, sends Fagin off into the sunset with the Artful Dodger. But Kingsley plays the final scene in prison, roughly adapted from Dickens’ novel, for all its Oscar-mongering pathos, and the final shot shows the gallows that awaits him. Attempting to avoid one array of stereotypes, he winds up feeding a whole other set: Jews as victims of history rather than agents.
Dickens professed shock when his depiction of a “very old shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair” earned him the ire of England’s Jewish community. In 1863, Eliza Davis, the wife of a banker who had bought Dickens’ London house three years before, accused the usually “large hearted” author of encouraging “a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew.” If Jews took offense, Dickens replied, then “they are a far less sensible, a far less just and a far less good tempered people than I have always supposed them to be.”
But Dickens had the daunting task of imagining a Jewish character in what was then a relative vacuum. Polanski’s Fagin enters into a quite different climate: fiction, film, and television are full of assorted depictions of Jews—nebbishes, hipsters, devils, and ordinary folks in between. If anything, The Pianist earned Polanski the right to create a Jewish villain not mired in stereotypes but nonetheless racy, in all senses of the word.