18 Dec 2023

British 'Schindler' has his story told on the big screen

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 18 December 2023

Boxing Day films are usually blockbusters with big special effects but One Life (starring Sir Anthony Hopkins) tells an epic story that is powerfully human at the same time.

It's about Sir Nicholas Winton - a man who became known as the "British Schindler" after successfully rescuing 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia and certain death in Nazi camps on the eve of World War II.

Nicky, as he was known, wanted to be remembered as an ordinary man who simply did the right thing, his grandson Laurence Winton tells Jesse Mulligan.

Sir Nicholas Winton

Sir Nicholas Winton Photo: MICHAL CIZEK

It was emotional seeing his grandfather’s life recreated on the big screen, Laurence says.

“It's all very personal to me. I was actually born in 1988 when That's Life [aired] - the TV show that told Nicky’s story and led so many of the rescue children to find him for the first time.

“So, I grew up with a huge amount of these kinder as sort of my extended family which was amazing.”

Laurence's mother Barbara collaborated on the film until her death halfway through the production, he says.

“I was very happy to see that she is credited as an executive producer, she really wanted to tell the definitive story of her father to correct some of the myths that had swelled up around him, for example, that he did it all on his own, which he didn't, he collaborated with many others.”

Barbara was adamant that Hopkins should portray her father, Laurence says.

“My mum was very certain that he was the one who should play Nicky. She had a lot of his force of will, if you like, and I think that particularly comes across in the film through his mother, my great-grandmother, played by Helena Bonham Carter, but certainly that force of will or pig-headedness, maybe as a family trait, so she was sure that it should be him and he certainly delivers.”

In late 1938, Sir Nicholas travelled from England to Prague where he encountered refugees from other parts of Czechoslovakia.

“He saw people living in these awful conditions, families, children, and he connected with people already working to rescue and transport to safety people who were politically active, sometimes Jews, socialists. And he said to them 'why isn't more being done for these people? Why isn't anything being done for the children? I must do something.'

“So he worked to set up and organise what became Czech Kinder Transport. He found homes for them, foster families in the UK, and he wrote to many countries, most of which said 'no thank you'.

“But the UK said it would accept unaccompanied children if there could be a 50 pounds for their guarantee of repatriation, and also a foster family found.”

Sir Nicholas was described as Britain's own Oskar Schindler, although he didn’t see himself as a hero.

“I think certainly it’s a nickname that he deserved, though he was always keen to say that he wasn't a hero, he thought of himself as an ordinary person.

“But he always maintained he was never in danger. He never put his life on the line, as many rescuers and people who were working to evacuate people at other times were.

“But he certainly was extraordinary in his own way.”

When the That’s Life programme aired on the BBC it changed everything, Laurence says.

“For the first time some of the kinder, some of the rescue children, found out about what had happened to them.

"Many of them had no idea exactly how they had come to be transported. They knew they'd come across on trains, and they'd never seen their family again, but they didn't really know the details of who organised it.”

Many thousands of people are alive today because of Nicky Winton's efforts, Laurence says.

“I think that's the lesson that we really want as a family, for anyone who's moved by the story and moved by the film, to think, yes, you can make a difference, you can step forward.

“There's so many issues and difficulties in today's world, there's so many people who need help, and we need to always act from a place of compassion for other people, even, or maybe especially, if they're very different to us.”

Some reviews of One Life suggest that the world needs this film now more than ever, Laurence says, and with this he agrees.

“I think it's a really important message for everybody. With so much suffering going on, we really need more people like Nicky.”

One Life starring Sir Anthony Hopkins opens on Boxing Day here in New Zealand.