Three years ago, Israeli journalist Yaron Svoray accomplished the near-impossible: He successfully infiltrated Germany’s fascist movement.
Backed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the son of Holocaust survivors posed as an Australian neo-Nazi sympathizer named Ron Furey. His sting operation ultimately exposed several of Germany’s ultra right-wing supporters and uncovered links between neo-Nazi groups in that nation and the United States.
“The Infiltrator,” premiering Saturday on HBO, dramatizes Svoray’s compelling and frightening experience. Oliver Platt stars in the “HBO Showcase” film, written by Guy Andrews from Svoray and Nick Taylor’s book “In Hitler’s Shadow: An Israeli’s Amazing Journey Inside Germany’s Neo-Nazi Movement.” John MacKenzie (“The Long Good Friday”) directed.
Executive producer Francine LeFrak acknowledges that, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and Americans’ heightened awareness of militant groups with an anti-government agenda, the movie “hits home in a way that’s really intense. It’s very chilling.”
After watching the film, Svoray realized “for the first time what the hell I have done. It’s only when you watch it do you realize it was dangerous. The deeper I got into it, the further I figured since I was going to die--these guys were going to catch me--let’s get the most out of it. There wasn’t any sense of heroics. I was doing the right thing at the right moment.”
What “drove me nuts,” Svoray says, is the fact that the German government was saying at the time that the neo-Nazi movement consisted of “a bunch of young men who drink too much beer and go and beat up foreigners, something akin to the street gangs in Los Angeles, and [the movement] is not connected to the old Nazis.
“I said, ‘This is impossible. There are no neo-Nazis. A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi. These guys are real dangerous.’ ”
Svoray learned of the German neo-Nazi connection to U.S. groups during his nine-month investigation. “I was giving out my name and details only to the Nazis in Germany,” says Svoray, who had been living in L.A. “They were trying to figure out who I was. They called their Nazi friends in America. These were the guys who checked up on me. That was very important because until I entered Germany, the assumption by the FBI was the Nazis in America fed material back to Germany, but that Germany was not in connection with them. Of course, I was able to prove there has been an ongoing relationship.”
As Svoray moved up the neo-Nazi hierarchy as right-wing journalist Ron Furey, he started meeting bankers, lawyers, mayors of little towns, police officers. “The scary thing was not only how well-organized they were, but how much support that they got from the average population.”
“That’s what’s very upsetting,” says Oliver Platt, who plays Svoray in “Infiltrator.” “It’s very easy to project onto skinheads those kind of [neo-Nazi] qualities, but to think that a guy who is a professor at a university might be cultivating his students for some sort of takeover is truly sinister.”
Platt (“The Three Musketeers”) jumped at the chance to play this role. “It’s a great undercover story,” he says. “The fact that it actually happened and was topical was just gravy. Just as basic entertainment, I thought it was a real page turner.”
The reason the Simon Wiesenthal Center “undertook the mission in the first place was in order to show the [German] government they ought be doing more against the extreme right in their country,” says Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Center. After evidence from the infiltration operation was presented to the U.S. Congress and the German government, Rabbi Hier says, attitudes toward the right-wing in Germany have changed. Because of their findings, Germany’s Interior Minister identified ring-wing terrorism as the nation’s greatest internal security threat.
“Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl made some startling admission that they hadn’t done enough,” Hier says. “Six months after the mission, not only because of the mission, but because of a lot of criticism from us, from Congress, from other human rights organizations from the West and from their allies, Kohl finally admitted things were not working. But they are very slow to recognize it. That has been their Achilles’ heel, their inability to deal with the right.”
Just a small percentage of Germans are Nazis, LeFrak points out. “Also, when you have a racial incident, then you will see sort of a candlelight vigil. I think people respond and care. My opinion is that the German government has refocused.”
Shot in England and Germany last fall, the production encountered difficulties filming in Hamburg, LeFrak says. “It was uncomfortable because we staged a lot of the skinhead fights. ... Can you imagine looking out of your window and seeing skinheads beating foreigners and immigrants? We were in a number of neighborhoods which in fact were left-wing. Immediately, they would call the police or the press.”
Fortunately, the skinheads did not come near the film’s locations.
Ultimately, says Rabbi Hier, “The Infiltrator” is “a wake-up call. We have to pay attention to our society.”
“We have to deal with the fact that there is intolerance,” LeFrak adds. “This is a big issue we have to deal with. These people are organized. They are not disconnected.”
“The Infiltrator” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.