Armitage as researcher, or: believing in belief

It bears repeating: RichardArmitageNet.com, I love you!

Goooo. Another photo from Project Magazine, August 2011. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

So, I want to admit that after my crazy shallow reaction — meanwhile, I fear, I’ve become like one of Pavlov’s dogs (Pavlov also used visual stimuli) — I did notice something else about the interview.

(Aside from the fact that as in the Total Film interview (h/t RichardArmitageOnline.com), there’s no mention in the introduction of North & South. I wonder if this omission occurs because these reporters are from a group of people not interested in period drama? Because people are too lazy to read behind the first lines of a chronologically ordered CV? Or are they just recycling pieces of a larger text / press release? Or maybe the same reporter sold the same or similar copy to two places?)

OK, sorry for the long detour. As I was saying, I noticed something. I fear this is going to sound critical, and it’s not meant that way. It’s an observation about how two people with different standpoints use the same information very differently. (Read as counterpoint on “Armitage epistemology” that involves Mr. Armitage and me reading the same sources, as opposed to me reading him as source.)

***

So, right away at the beginning, Mr. Armitage says, in response to the question of whether it was hard to play a Nazi:

“I was very anal when I was researching the role. I wanted to play someone who completely believed in what they were doing. So I found this biography of a guy called Erich Gimpel, a German spy who’d been sent in to sabotage the Manhattan project. It’s a fascinating book, and it helped me to not just think ‘destroy, destroy, destroy.’ I had to try and conceive of my side being the right side, when it was so clearly wrong.”

I thought this was an intelligent comment, but almost every sentence reminded me again about my difference in perspective. I’m not British, I’m not an actor, and as a professionally trained historical researcher, I wouldn’t call the behavior described above “anal.”

What the difference in perspective tells us is: information is always for something. People are constantly engaged in the creation of meaning as they perceive, read, and speak, and sorting out these issues can be really tricky.

[At left: Erich Gimpel]

The Gimpel story is really interesting, and it’s also easily accessible (if you type in “Nazi spies” into amazon, Gimpel’s memoir is the third search result) as his memoir was published in the late fifties and appeared in English before it did in German. I read it at some point when I was a teenager, and as a reader favorite, it’s widely found in U.S. public libraries. Gimpel didn’t do very well with his task: he lasted a few weeks before his bumbling partner betrayed him, but it seems unlikely that someone with his background (he was a radio engineer) would ever have gotten very close to the Manhattan Project specs, as much of recruitment was done by networks of professional connections. Of course, the Manhattan Project was heavily infiltrated by Soviet spies, but they were (with one big exception) mostly spies of opportunity rather than trained moles directed at the project. Klaus Fuchs is probably the most well-known of the opportunist spies, but though he was a German, he was brought into the project through a British connection, and was in Britain in the first place because the NSDAP seizure of power in 1933 made communists even more obviously personae non grata than they had been before. Fuchs was emphatically not a committed Nazi. Incidentally, most atomic spies that we know about so far were Americans. Information on this activity is still emerging, and is likely to confound us for sometime: Having learned in school that the Rosenbergs were probably innocent and victims of U.S. red scare hysteria, I was stunned when declassified documents revealed about fifteen years ago that they actually were spies, or at least Julius was. Indications are that these people did spy out of convictions of various kinds: about the truth of various pieces of the communist message, or over fears of what would happen if the U.S. emerged as the only world power with an atomic weapon.

Heinz Kruger (Richard Armitage) doing it out of conviction. Publicity still for Captain America. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

In the Marvel Comics world, at least, Heinz Kruger is a Gestapo agent. The popular image (on what historians have concluded, see below) of Gestapo workers is that they were highly committed to the cause. So what must be obvious to you now is what hit me when I read this quote:  the problem with the Gimpel story as background for “someone who completely believed in what they were doing” is that Gimpel’s memoir reads pretty much as if he was a man without convictions. He liked the adventure, the spy lifestyle, and, as a man on the make, he was always in it for profit. He was pretty emphatically not moral even in the sense of Nazism as an anti-morality; indeed, the work opens with his refusal of any sort of moral, ethical, or religious consolation on the eve of his projected execution. Much of his account may involve bravado, of course. Memoirs are notoriously problematic as sources (which is part of what makes them so much fun to read and such great fodder for historical analysis). Context is important, for instance. It would not have been fashionable in 1957 to confess to an audience of English-language readers that one had been a convinced National Socialist. The 1950s were also the age of the Ian Fleming novels, the devil-may-care, love ’em and leave ’em, always just a little bit gin-infused spy. Fleming, who stood on the line between spy and novelist, and was said to have been involved in Operation Mincemeat, created a thirst in the reading public for all kinds of spy stories with the success of the James Bond novels, and what kind of story is better than a real one? All these factors play into influencing the content of the story that Gimpel relates a decade-and-a-half and more after the events it describes. Even so, even just reading literally, it’s hard to get from Gimpel’s story to convinced patriot, interpretively. Fuchs would have been a better choice if you were looking for someone who acted out of belief, but after his punishment for espionage in Great Britain, he was stripped of the British citizenship he’d been granted during the war, emigrated to East Germany, became a leader in atomic science in the GDR, and died without (as far as I know) writing a memoir.

Heinz Kruger (Richard Armitage) in his remote control operated submarine. Publicity still for Captain America. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

The main things that Gimpel seems to have in common with Kruger are that (a) Gimpel put an emphasis on being well-dressed in his preparation to spy, and (b) that Gimpel came over (to a deserted main coast) in a submarine. It took him five weeks. On the way pieces of the submarine’s equipment malfunctioned and had to be repaired above surface. Gimpel and his companion, another (American) man-on-the-make, were given $60,000 in cash plus diamonds in order to equip them for two years of anything. Gimpel’s English was broken and accented. Their clothing was of European cut, and the paper trail on the two suggests that it’s surprising they lasted as long as they did. Thus, the entire Gimpel story — like many stories about spying in general and World War II-era spying in particular — is fantastical.

Indeed, I submit that that’s a more plausible explanation of why it would make good reading as preparation for this role than the idea that Gimpel could tell us something about Nazi idealism.

I write all this not to indict Armitage as a researcher or even as an explainer of his own thought processes, but to point out that the most important piece of a story is a different one to every reader. From my perspective as reader, this data point obscures more than it tells us about Armitage prepared to play Kruger. BUT: If the point is to use an account to dream yourself into a world that doesn’t quite exist but has to have some interfaces with reality, you need to pick the pieces that are going to be most convincing for you. I increasingly have the impression that for many actors the point is not the accuracy of the whole historical picture with all of its data points, but rather the stunning image, that key sense memory or picture in your brain that you can resonate to, and that pulls you into a cognitive or emotional situation where you can play a role.

Heinz Kruger (Richard Armitage) believing it. Screencap from Captain American trailer. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

The question of how you can play a role that’s inherently unsympathetic brings up another interesting moment in this quote, Armitage’s remark that he “had to try and conceive of [his] side being the right side, when it was so clearly wrong.” On the conventional level there’s nothing to question about that statement — despite what my parents and several employers have called a disturbing willingness to argue for the sake of arguing, I’m not going to make some kind of devil’s advocate argument here in favor of the virtues of National Socialism — and this is a comic book character, so it’s not like Armitage was needing to research how to play Amon Göth, to name just one task of historical research performed by another actor that must have been viciously challenging to execute on screen. But, I think, if you’re coming at the period from the perspective of “sides,” and you assume the Allied side was the right one — and the intensity of this perception must be particularly strong in England, which was heavily damaged by German bombing and at serious risk of invasion and occupation, and where the memory of wartime sacrifice is still alive and well — then if you want to make a Nazi sympathetic, at least in your own head, so you can do your own task in a way you can get behind, one practical way is to create him as the firm adherent of a belief that has turned out to be wrong. I think that this characterization choice makes even more sense because of the comic book background, where Captain America et al seem to be represented primarily as the symbolic representatives of truth and justice. The point here, then, is much more the conflict of good and evil, and the fact of Heinz Kruger’s Germanness is more a historical particularity or a stumbling block than any real context other than one supported by an amazing art department that seems to far to be getting things really right. I’m not saying that that won’t sting for the German or German-identified viewer. For Armitage, though, it seems, it’s Kruger’s capacity to believe in something that makes the role playable.

Now, I have to say, speaking with the historian’s hat: adherence to National Socialism, even among Gestapo agents, was far more complex than simply the actualization of a blind faith in an idea which turned out to be terribly wrong, or a hypernationalism that disguised itself as the sort of patriotism a more or less human guy could put himself behind by thinking about his own capacity to believe in and love his country. But believing in belief — the mood that seems to stand behind this quotation — it seems to go past romantic (which it is) and endearing (which it also is) and move into the area of ethical speculation. All this for a comic book role.

And I wonder why I admire this actor so much.

***

[p.s. If you are interested in what historians have concluded about Nazi sympathies in Germany more broadly, a book I highly recommend as an introduction to this subject is Peter Fritzsche’s Germans into Nazis. If you are interested in the convictions of members of the Gestapo, you should look at Robert Gellately’s The Gestapo and German Society. If you need further reading tips on this period, please don’t hesitate to ask — I just finished teaching it and it was one of the comprehensive exam fields for my doctorate.]

~ by Servetus on July 15, 2011.

35 Responses to “Armitage as researcher, or: believing in belief”

  1. very interesting- My brain is on overload right now trying to finish up loose ends of book project and now you have me thinking of a new one—( NO No No- telling wheels to shut down got 3 other books to do first!)
    need a hot bath and glass of wine!

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  2. Absolutely brilliant, Servetus. I still regret I never heard one of your readings or was in one of your lectures. I must follow your reading tips, when work cools down a bit.
    What I don’t understand in his interview is, what does RA mean with an ‘anal’ research? I never heard this combination and just do not get the idea of it. I just thought ‘strange’, perhaps they quoted him wrong and he meant ‘banal’, and went on to read the rest.

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    • CDoart, when used like this, it means his research was very meticulous.
      If he said banal, oy! That would mean the complete opposite and mean he just dug up some cliches about the Nazis and that was it.

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    • Yes, what CC said. He meant that he researched further than one would ordinarily have done for such a role. Being “anal” usually implies taking things to an excessive extent.

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    • And to amplify very slightly, it’s an extension of popular Freudianism. An “anal retentive” for Freud was someone who became obsessed with control and organization as a result of the unsatisfactory resolution of the “anal stage” of psychosexual development. “Don’t be anal about it” means something like “don’t sweat the details.”

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    • Thank you very much for the explanation, CC, Judiang, Servetus.
      It had not made sense to me with my ‘banal’ explanation and was so unlike RA ;o) But with your background information it now makes complete sense. Thank you !!!

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      • also (not to be anal or anything here), the words are pronounced differently in English than they would be in German as far as emphasis goes — AY-nal for anal vs bahNAHL for banal. 🙂

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        • Thank you very much, Servetus, to point that out. I looked in diverse dictionaries to make out what RA could have meant, but the explanations given were not very favourable. I think the dictionaries must have been written by a strange kind of men and did not include anything close to your explanation ;o)
          So I thought it was much better to ask the RA-expert. Thank you!

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  3. And let’s not forget, history is written and shaped by the winners.
    Hindsight tells us who was right and who was wrong, but indeed as you’re in the middle of it, one needs to believe you’re on the right side to continue.

    While war is something I abhor, the mechanism of determining who is right and who is wrong is a fascinating thing. Because it does all depend on who wins and who supports the winners.
    The USSR was a good ally in WW2 and therefor on the right side. Until the West and the USSR had clashing agendas, all of a sudden an ally becomes your biggest enemy.

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    • For many interpreters, WW2 is always a problematic example for the argument that history is susceptible to the interpretations of the winners — we would like to believe, that because of the connection between Nazism and genocide, that the “sides” of WW2 were absolute in their moral valences. But I suspect the war will look very different to historians writing about it a century from now; even what we think WW2 was “about.” (To give a comparative example — the dominant interpretations of the 30 Years’ War concerned religion for a long time; today they are about the formation of the European nation-state system).

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      • Absolutely! That is why I always find it quite interesting. History changes as time goes by and will be interpreted differently since the long term consequences will be better understood. But also because the greater picture is far clearer.

        I’m always annoyed when people claim history is not important and there is not real need to study it, since “It’s history! It’s the future that counts!” Yeah, let’s completely discount everything that got us here.

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        • I think history is often not taught especially well, so that people begin to think in school that it’s not really relevant because they never got interested in it. I can’t tell you how often I meet people who ask me what I research / teach and I say “history” and they say, “ick.” 🙂

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  4. Servetus, this was very interesting. I was wondering about Gimpel and voila, you provided an immediate context. I find this aspect of German history fascinating because of the compelling need to understand and learn from it and not repeat it. Sadly, we still fail to learn from history. I agree, RA wasn’t looking for historical accuracy, he was looking for an image with which he could resonate and build an emotional framework.

    This approach is also used when representing clients in court. A lawyer doesn’t have to believe his client or anything about him. He just has to present a believable defense.

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    • Interesting, judiang, because I don’t think much about the courtroom as a rhetorical framework but of course, you’re right. I want to see it as a place where justice is done, but great point about credibility.

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  5. Agree with cc’s explanation. Focused as the actor is on the project in hand.

    The discussion of reading and interpreting history in the context of trying to determine how to approach a fictional screen character (in a way in which the actor can somehow relate and develop the character) is an interesting one.

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  6. I believe that if an actor is going to play a villain convincingly, more than just a cookie cutter villain, he or she has to on some level believe the character’s actions are based on beliefs, values, or impulses that justify the behavior, even when playing the most despicable character we can imagine. That gives the villain the human element and makes it more interesting to watch, and probably more interesting to play. He had to be Heinz Kruger and convince us he is. I think we all know other actors may not have researched this role at all, and just “phoned it in”, given that it’s a comic book character and not a major role in the film. I’m glad RA is who he is and I always learn much from his discussions of the characters he plays.

    Thank you Servetus for the wealth of information, I also was going to look up Gimpel. Much to absorb.

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  7. Some complexity to the role is far more interesting. Pure hero is boring. Pure villain, the same. (some complexity – Lucas 7 – is far more engaging.) Even Olivier, with putty Richard III nose, padded up shoulder and spider limp, embued THAT Richard with a peculiar seductiveness.

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  8. I can imagine Heinz Kruger being a difficult role. Mr. Armitage, neither American nor German, is playing a German in one of the dark times in their history for a mainly American audience. Mix all this in with his own national background and you get a headache.
    I wonder if the actor playing Captain America put as much thought into his portrayal as Mr. Armitage. If he plays it from the prototype of ‘truth, justice, and the American Way’ it might fall flat in comparison with a more complex villain.
    I recently saw the documentary, Third Reich: The Rise and Fall on The History Channel. It is supposed to have been the story of the Germans from their own point of view. I am usually a bit dubious of the History Channel. I was wondering if Servetus or anyone else might have any thoughts on it in relation to this topic.

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    • I haven’t seen the documentary, Lights. Many professional historians call the History Channel “the Hitler channel.” This was brought home to us again recently when a professional organization that I chair was asked to publish a request for information from them to professional researchers. What did they want to know? If there was anyone who was doing professional research on “pets of notorious Nazis.” 🙂

      The thing is that there were over 60 million Germans in 1933. So to say that “the Germans” had “a point of view” is always to oversimplify.

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  9. A little nitpicking here – a German of the thirties would most probably not have worn a side parting, but have his hair swept back like Gimpel. 😀 My father (who also had black hair and light eyes, green in his case) had a natural side parting, and his mother did everything to brush his hair back and keep it that way. On the other hand English boys of that era always had side partings in the old photographs, whether it suited them or not.

    Gosh, I love those new photos. Mr. Armitage looks regal here, a bit like George V or Tsar Nicolas. Me likey this beard now! 🙂

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  10. RA was brought up not far from Coventry, which is iconic in the UK.

    The city was bombed a fair few times, and in 1940 the cathedral was left in ruins, and Coventry’s ministry of peace and reconciliation was born.

    There’s a whole controversy over whether Churchill allowed the Coventry Blitz to continue in order to cover up the fact that the Enigma Code had been broken.

    So RA would have grown up with grandparents and others old enough to have remembered the bombings, in an area where the Coventry Blitz was even more important than it is to the rest of us (I, for example, am far more attached to the way in which Manchester was hit).

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    • Just a note: his parents weren’t from there. His mother is from Oxfordshire and his father from Yorkshire, if I remember correctly. Which doesn’t mitigate the general point about his surroundings, though.

      One reason I put that in there is that when I’m in Germany, I’m *always* hearing about “the war.” So it seems like it would have been an identification point that he could have transferred from “thinking English” to “thinking Nazi.”

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  11. Wonderful research Servetus 🙂 Thank You 🙂

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  12. This is a great post. There are many things to think about it. I’ll try to talk about what it called my attention, but I apologize for my English. First, I think the act of perceiving, read and speak, the creation of meaning, depends on our experience of life as individuals. And life experience in a broad sense, which involves culture, interpersonal relationships, internal experiences, etc. And at every new experience, I expanded my perspective or vision. So when I read or see something for the first time, my understanding of the subject is limited. And usually contaminated with all my preconceived ideas about it. A second reflection always brings a new perspective, because usually result to new experiences. Thus, the experience to read the interview with Richard was expanded after reading your post because you brought new knowledge and perspective. But as I speak also depends on how I perceive my listener.
    A second point is a little “how my mind works,” in general my mind is rational, observant, and analytical, which may be characteristics of a researcher. As a wildlife researcher, these characteristics have been accentuated in my life. But when I work my emotional, I try to be less rational as possible. So, I use more my imagination and creativity. And then, a historical fact may be only a background to create a scenario, while a detail, a picture or a word can be the key to trigger the link emotional or creation of meaning. But sometimes you need to wear the skin of the other and this is easier when we make an emotional way. I think an actor or an actor like Richard has both processes. A third point about how I read, understand and speak. I was born long after the 1°and 2 ° World War, one country (Brazil) which had its share of sacrifices, but that did not suffer the consequences of war on its own soil. My grandparents did not go to war, nor my father and brothers. But I live the fear of New World War. I do not understand people’s motivations for such acts of violence. I fear the manipulation of governments and the ignorance and fanaticism of the masses. There seems to be a taboo to really understand history. I’d love to have been your student to learn more about it. Anyway, this is a movie, the good and the bad, the good to win the bad guys. The world should be simple as that. I do not know.
    P. S. I’m reading “The pilot of Hitler, C. G. Sweeting who was recently released in Brazil.

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    • I don’t know if anyone really understands history, Ana Cris, and I say that after studying it intensively, i.e., as a fulltime occupation, since 1991. We can point to patterns, but we can’t really predict anything except in very general terms.

      Good point about the role of the listener as audience here. We don’t really know who that was, or how this conversation went. It’s part of why video interviews tend to be more interesting — we can get at least half of the interaction that involves speaking as response to the interlocutor.

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  13. Great discussions…! We have to send “feelers” to RA that if he does historical research on characters he’s about to play, to seek you out too as a point of reference or as an additional one. Does that make sense?

    I’ve read some Marvel, Dell & other Comic Classics as a child and my son is into collecting what he fancies. He is a bigger reader than me and into movies and sports. I wasn’t surprised tonight when he said he’s read TH and made some comments re:CA. I even discussed with him about the Japanese film/actor that you mentioned in this blog a while back and the correlation to Hamlet and he knows all about it. I’ll recommend to him to read your blog on historical facts like tonight.

    I’m looking forward seeing RA’s role in CA tho how short it might be because it’s a first for me on the big screen. The problem is I don’t think we have a playdate yet.

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    • I think he’s doing very well on his own, Tedgirl. 🙂 But if he needed historical advice, there are no doubt tons of professors right there in England who’d jump to help him out 🙂

      I’m wrestling with whether I’m going to go to the midnight 3-D premiere. I’m afraid my parents will think that I am crazy. They don’t know about all this, and the two days of Harry Potter were already a stretch for them. Though this at least has the advantage of not generating the need for a substitute babysitter for my nieces.

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  14. […] One consequence has been that, since Captain America: The First Avenger seems to be in regular rotation on some of the channels, I have seen the first part of that movie several more times. (I always switch channels after Kruger dies.) This was the one Armitage project that I never bought any media of. I had meant to look at it more closely but it always slipped on my priority list. Probably the dominant image of that film in my mind has been the look on Kruger’s face just before he detonates the bomb with the cigarette lighter, which to me seemed symptomatic of various things, not least Armitage’s unwillingness to let th…. […]

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