“A rare mixture of charm and brutality”: Interview with Hartmut Becker on playing SS Gustav Wagner

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

Hartmut Becker is a German popular stage and film star. He has worked in theatre since 1968, during which time he has starred in dozens of plays and has been featured in many international and national film and television productions. His first leading part in an English language production was the BBC-film “Forgive our Foolish Ways”, where he played the role of a German prisoner of war alongside Kate Nelligan. Hartmut’s following international film was the American-English production "Jenny’s War" (Columbia Pictures) where he portrayed the main part of Karl Koenig, a character caught between love and war. For his widely praised performance in the following American production "Escape from Sobibór" (also starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer), in which he played the sadistic SS Deputy Commander Gustav Wagner, Hartmut was nominated for an Emmy Award. In total, Becker has featured in more than 100 feature films and TV - movies. He is a member of the German Academy of Film (Deutsche Filmakademie), and he lives in Berlin (Germany).


Hartmut Becker as Sgt. Gustav Wagner in Escape from Sobibór. Photo Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive

As detailed in the recent online exhibition “Sobibór on the Screen: Cinematic Representations of a Nazi Death Camp”, the teleseries Escape from Sobibór was broadcast first in the United States in April 1987 and in Britain the following month. Based on the 1982 book with the same title written by Richard Rashke, the screenplay was adapted by Reginald Rose and directed by Jack Gold. The film depicts the prisoner uprising at Sobibór death camp, and is notable for the involvement of camp survivors in its production. Overall, the broadcasts received high viewer ratings and were generally well received by audiences in both the US and UK, winning a number of awards. Thus, both Rashke’s book and the televised adaptation of Escape from Sobibór are an important part of the camp’s history and memory. Thanks to the input and guidance of those who survived, the smaller details of humanity, dehumanisation and every day camp life that feature in the script are considerably accurate. Although the primary aim of the film was to tell the story of the survivors and the uprising, both book and screenplay also approach the uncomfortable subject of perpetration at Sobibór. Descriptions of executions, violent acts and frightening encounters with the SS guards in the camp are disturbingly vivid in the recollections of those who survived. Before the camp revolt on 14th October 1943, in which eleven SS men and several ‘Trawniki’ guards were killed, the prisoners suffered enormously at the hands of these men, some more barbarous than others.

Gustav Wagner (Harmut Becker), Ada Lichtman (Patti Love) and Leon Feldhendler (Alan Arkin). Photo Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive

SS Gustav Franz Wagner, known as “The beast of Sobibór,” was born on 18th July 1911 in Vienna. During his time serving the Third Reich, his actions gained him a level of notoriety due to his brutal and blood-thirsty nature, which is frequently recalled by those who experienced it first hand. In Sobibór, Wagner held the position of SS Oberscharführer (Deputy Commander), who exercised absolute power over his subordinates, answering only to the camp Commandant. His primary role was to select newly arrived Jews for forced labour, and then to oversee camp workers. In the memories of the Sobibór survivors, Wagner is portrayed as being relatively poorly educated, but intelligent and quick-thinking. His calm and disturbing presence in the camp is repeatedly mentioned. Survivor Jules Schelvis later emphasises that Wagner was transferred to Sobibór following his earlier work at the Hartheim euthanasia centre for physically and mentally disabled individuals in Austria, which was typical of SS men who had worked at these earlier killing sites. Another survivor, Moshe Bahir described Wagner as: “A handsome man, tall and blond — a pure Aryan. In civilian life he was, no doubt, a well-mannered man; at Sobibor he was a wild beast. His lust to kill knew no bounds... He would snatch babies from their mothers' arms and tear them to pieces in his hands. I saw him beat two men to death with a rifle, because they did not carry out his instructions properly, since they did not understand German.”

After his time in Sobibór, Wagner managed to flee to Brazil with the help of German Catholic bishop, Aloïs Hudal, in Rome. In Brazil, Wagnerhe settled into a new life, yet the hunt for him ensued, as headed by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. After being positively identified at a police station in São Paolo by survivor Stanislaw Szmajzner, Wagner was arrested on 30 May 1978. Yet, extradition requests from Israel, Austria, and Poland were rejected by the Attorney General of Brazil [for more information on Wagner’s postwar trials, see Santin, Janaína & Cittolin Abal, Felipe. (2015). Gustav Wagner: The “Beast of Sobibor” and his extradition by the Brazilian Supreme Court]. On 22 June 1979, the Supreme Federal Court also rejected a West German extradition request. In 1979, Wagner was interviewed by the BBC as part of their ‘Panorama’ programme, during which he showed no remorse for his activities in running the camp, stating: “I had no feelings. ... It just became another job. In the evening we never discussed our work, but just drank and played cards''. In October 1980, Wagner was found with a knife in his chest. According to his attorney, Wagner committed suicide, though seemingly this has never been confirmed. Indeed, cryptic rumours have since spread that Szmajzner, who also served as a consultant on set for Escape from Sobibór, had some hand in the killing. In a conversation with Richard Raske, Szmajzner hinted that it had been no accident, and had previously confided in Thomas Blatt: “Don’t worry, Wagner’ll be taken care of”. Despite the motivations, Wagner’s date of death was determined to be 3 October 1980.

SS staff of Sobibór death camp during a party. SS Gustav Wagner can be identified as fifth from the left. Cat. No: 26378. Photo Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum

Reflecting on his time filming Escape from Sobibór, director Jack Gold stated that he required the German actors involved to watch documentaries of the SS training and antisemitic propaganda, with the intention of an informed realisation on their parts. Although some of the dialogue is creatively imagined and perhaps overdramatised, it is constructed from true testimony and the perspective of Sobibór’s few surviving witnesses. The violence and brutality of the German and Ukrainian guards was an important aspect of camp life, to which Gold gave considerable emphasis. The structure of authority, punishment and humiliation in the camp is truly embodied in the performances of those playing the guards; most prominent is the towering figure of SS officer Gustav Wagner, as played by German native Hartmut Becker. Becker’s Wagner embodies a calm, cruel sadist, whose cruelty features prominently in the memory of nearly all of the Sobibór survivors. In one particularly harrowing scene, the escape of two prisoners from a work detail in the nearby forest prompts Wagner to punish the remaining thirteen prisoners of the work detail, by selecting one other prisoner from the camp to die with them. As he executes them, Becker’s Wagner coldly warns: “There’s no escape in Sobibór, there is only death for those of you insane enough to try”.

Over three decades later, in an exclusive interview with the curators of the online exhibition “Sobibór on the Screen: Cinematic Representations of a Nazi Death Camp”, actor Hartmut Becker recalls his time on set of Escape from Sobibór, reflecting on the challenges of portraying such a complex and notorious character as Wagner:

Can you tell us a bit about how you became involved in the film Escape from Sobibór?

Becker: This was just a usual offer to my agent from the Rule-Starger Company (producer Dennis Doty) in 1986. Two years before in 1984, I shot my first American film (“Jenny’s War”) for Columbia pictures. Director Jack Gold saw this production and got in touch with my agency in London.

Had you been involved in any representation of the war or Holocaust prior?

Becker: Yes, beyond “Jenny’s War” (with Dyan Cannon)– where I played a German officer who helped the British resistance - I did my first British miniseries “Forgive Our Foolish Ways” (BBC-London) in 1980. My part was a German prisoner of war, who had an affair with an English school director (Kate Nelligan). A very interesting story about the possibility of human understanding during World War II.

Were you aware of the story of Sobibór and the prisoner uprising before?

Becker: Of course. Already at school, we learned a lot about “KZ’s” [Konzentrationslager/Concentration Camps] all over Europe, and also about this spectacular escape in Sobibór. German and World history was already one of my favourite subjects, since my school time.

How did you feel about playing the role of SS Gustav Wagner?

Becker: When I arrived before the first shooting day in Beograd, at the hotel a tiny little elderly man ran to me and said ‘You are Wagner’. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Then I found out that he was one of the invited survivors, and that he saw in me an ideal cast - although the real Wagner looked very different. Later, he told me that his first impression of seeing me was that I would have this rare mixture of charm and brutality in my physiognomy, and he also told a lot of Wagner stories. At the end he confessed the ‘secret’ that he killed Wagner in Brazil. We became friends during the production time in (former) Yugoslavia.

Director Jack Gold wrote that he insisted that in preparation for your role, the actors playing SS guards should watch real footage of SS training and anti-Semitic propaganda. Could you say a few words about this?

Becker: I cannot confirm this preparation. But: when I met Jack Gold before shooting, he asked me about my concept for this character and I said that I’ve no idea how to re-create this contradictory person. What can we do, he asked me? The only way will be to show him as a man doing an all-days-job, was my answer. This is cruel, but maybe the truth about his attitude. And he responded, okay let’s try this. By the way: during my shooting of “Forgive Our Foolish Ways” in Great Britain, I saw so many stereotyped interpretations of Nazi characters in TV- movies that I said to myself, whenever I would play a “bad German Nazi guy” in an international movie, I would try to do it differently. At least I got an Emmy Award Nomination for that role.

How did it feel being on the set of the camp at Sobibór?

Becker: It was not very hard to be in this decoration of a camp, it was much more difficult to slip every day into the uniform and stand opposite hundreds of extras in KZ-uniforms. And of course, all these stories of the survivors, who told me a lot about their experiences impressed me very much.

Did you work closely with Sobibór survivors Thomas Blatt and Esther Raab? How did that feel, having them there as consultants?

Becker: As I said already, meeting the survivors was impressive and very important for shaping my role of Wagner. And of course I met Thomas Blatt and Esther Raab. They were friendly and understanding people. A still with them on set with me exists. [The still to which Becker refers can be seen below]

Hartmut Becker in his SS uniform with Sobibór Survivors Esther Raab, Thomas Blatt and Stanislaw Szmajzner on set, 1987. Photo Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive

What was your most vivid memory about filming?

Becker: The most vivid and ‘tragic’ memory for me was when, during the filming of the great escape with actors and extras, some of the survivors ran, as in a trance, together with all the performers. One of them came after an hour disconcerted and with broken glasses back to the set.

[Read more about the incident to which Becker is referring, involving survivor Thomas Blatt, here:]

How did you feel about the reception/impact of the film, was it what you expected?

Becker: Looking back, I saw in the filming concept with a little bit too much American sentimentality, and too much concession to the blockbuster market. But at the end, most people said that this is the best quality film about Sobibór.

Did your participation in ‘Escape from Sobibór’ change your outlook at all?

Becker: My view on the German time of National Socialism changed because of the attempt to understand a character like Wagner, and trying to fill him with pure life. The meeting of the survivors was very important for all that. And that Rutger Hauer and I became friends - this was a most wonderful effect of this participation!


Written by Hannah Wilson ©

The curators of ‘Sobibór on the Screen: Cinematic Representations of a Nazi Death Camp’ thank Harmut Becker for his kind participation in this interview.

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