Stephen Fry on celebrating gay war heroes in new documentary and why he quit Twitter
The comedian and actor speaks about Willem and Freida – the LGBTQ+ war heroes he's honouring in his latest Channel 4 documentary – as well as his relationship with social media and activism.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Stephen Fry has made a documentary about the most remarkable Second World War heroes you’ll have never heard of. Willem and Frieda are their names and, once you know of their deeds, you won’t forget them.
Willem Arondeus, an artist and writer, and Frieda Belinfante, a cellist and conductor, lived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and became prominent members of the Dutch resistance in the 1940s. Both were gay. At least 80 per cent of the Dutch Jewish community were murdered during the war, but Willem and Frieda helped hatch a plot to forge identity cards, saving thousands of Jewish lives. It was a brilliant scam, all the more impressive because Dutch identity cards, which contained their own watermark, were then the most sophisticated in the world. But the forgery was merely the start of one of the most audacious acts of sabotage in the Second World War.
Willem and Frieda lived open gay lives in Holland – an act of astonishing bravery in itself at the time. Willem came out at the age of 17 to his father and was disowned by his family. Meanwhile, Frieda, who was Jewish, was invited to form a chamber orchestra at the prestigious Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and, in doing so, became the first female conductor and artistic director of a professional orchestra in Europe.
Fry, an actor-writer-director famous for his knowledge, says what amazed him most about the story is that he had never heard of it. “I don’t pretend I know the story of every resistance cell in every occupied country of the war, but I know a bit about [French resistance movement hero] Jean Moulin and [British secret agent] Violette Szabo, people like that. This was all new to me, though, and it’s a story that really should be told. I felt it was something I had to do. It’s the least I could do for such extraordinary people. It’s quite shocking how unknown they are, even in Holland.”
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Fry is Zooming from Los Angeles, where he is shooting the latest series of The Morning Show with Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. His hair is long and wild, his beard ragged, and he’s not looking his normal self. Fry apologises for his appearance, attributing it to another film he’s working on.
It feels as if Fry was born to tell this story. The 65-year-old is gay, Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust. Even now, having finished the documentary, he cannot stop thinking about Willem and Frieda. The film asks big questions about character – what made them willing to risk their lives for others, and was their bravery related to their profession and sexuality? To his shame, Fry admits he was surprised that artists could be such heroes. He shouldn’t have been, he says. “After all, the first act of putting paint on the canvas or putting out a book or poem that you expect people to read is an act of courage.”
It has also made him question his own courage. “Would I be that brave? In a peculiar way, I think I’m too much of a coward not to have got involved with the resistance. In other words, if I had a group of friends and they said to me, ‘We’re forming a resistance group and we need some of your skills and ideas, would you join?’, I’d be afraid because I’d be sticking my neck out to say yes. I’d be much more afraid to say no. What would I look like to these friends? It’s a social cowardice, which is strangely stronger than a military cowardice.”
Would he have been courageous enough to initiate the resistance? “That I doubt. You’ve gone straight to the heart of it. I suspect I’d have to wait till somebody else suggested it.” Fry has been a prominent gay rights campaigner over the decades. He says he recently took an audit of his activism, and it proved his point about being a joiner but not a starter.
“As the HIV crisis grew in the 1980s and '90s, I did a lot of shows and was in charge of the fundraising arm of the Terrence Higgins Trust, but would I go to the barricades like Peter Tatchell did? No. I’m not as brave as he is, and indeed a part of me thought, ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that, Peter.’ I now think, ‘I’m so glad you did that, you were right, I was wrong. I was a coward, you were brave. You saw with the clarity I could never have.’” He smiles. “But I’ve always been like that because I’m a liberal; a milksop hand-wringing liberal.”
In November, Fry quit Twitter, where he had 12.5 million followers. Was that an act of resistance? “It had nothing to do with anything but Elon Musk’s takeover,” he says. “Twitter should not be in the hands of an individual. It should be in the hands of a grey board that tries to do the right thing.
"Yes, it may be a furious, screaming crucible of culture war, but those who run it shouldn’t be involved in that. So I simply stepped away and said goodbye and left.”
In the documentary, we see Willem and Frieda become ever more fearless. When they ran out of money to make forged documents, Frieda approached the brewer Henry Heineken to ask if he would help. She had no way of knowing whether he was sympathetic or a Nazi loyalist.
Heineken, a music lover and instrument collector, told her he would like to help, but the Nazis scrutinised his beer company’s accounts and would notice if he withdrew a large amount from his account. Frieda suggested to him that he could buy her cello for a handsome sum. Is it a Stradivarius, Heineken asked her? No, she said, it’s worth hardly anything, but you can pretend it’s valuable. That money was used to keep the presses rolling as Willem and Frieda worked with a master printer on an industrial scale to produce around 70,000 duplicate identity cards.
The story morphed into an espionage thriller when they discovered that their great work was about to be undone because the numbers on their forged identity cards didn’t match the numbers on the registration lists held at the Municipal Office for Population Registration in Amsterdam. There was only one thing for it, they decided – to destroy the registration office. Their plot involved drugging guards, stealing uniforms and ultimately blowing up the office while ensuring nobody got hurt.
The documentary features archive interviews with Frieda from the 1990s. She has cropped white hair, wears a stylish suit, and exudes intellect, mettle and soul. “I tell you what, all my lesbian friends are going to have a new hero,” Fry says. “They’re going to have posters of her.”
In the footage, Frieda describes how she helped mastermind the plot but wasn’t allowed to bomb the building because she was a woman. She wasn’t best pleased. After an accomplice was caught and gave away names, Frieda lived as a man for three months in Holland before escaping to California where she established herself as a conductor. Her disguise was so convincing that she lived on the same road as her mother, and frequently passed her unrecognised. Frieda Belinfante died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1995, aged 90.
As for Willem, he was caught and sentenced to death alongside 13 others. For much of his life Willem, who believed he was a mediocre artist, had been shrouded in self-doubt. But now he had found a purpose. He was happy to go to his death, knowing he had saved lives. He held parties in his cell, mocked his jailers, and made a wonderful defiant speech at his trial, saying: “Tell the world that homosexuals are not cowards, that they are no less courageous than anybody else.” In court, he pleaded guilty and insisted he was to blame for the plot.
Fry says he is in awe of him. “I was thinking it was not enough that he did what he did. When he was caught, he was actually braver than when he was acting in the resistance.” On July 1st 1943, Willem Arondeus was executed, aged 48, alongside 11 conspirators (two of the group received clemency).
Why does Fry think Willem and Frieda are not household names in Holland? “I’m afraid it really was inherent homophobia in Dutch government and establishment circles.” In 1970, a group of gay men wanted to highlight the role homosexuals played in the resistance. When they tried to put a wreath next to the monument celebrating resistance fighters at the annual National Commemoration in Amsterdam, they were arrested and the wreath was destroyed.
Fry says the story of Willem and Frieda has made him more self-aware in surprising ways. Although he is friends with many artists, he is now more convinced than ever that he is not one himself. “I love artists and move with artists as it were, but know I’m not one. Artists don’t give a f**k what people think of them. I give all kinds of f**ks what people think of me. I’m an absolute wuss. I’m a people pleaser, and I’m an entertainer. An artist is more dangerous than that. Artists bite the hands that feed them.”
Making the programme has also made Fry rethink his relationship with Judaism. While still an atheist, he feels more culturally Jewish than ever. In Iron Box, the film he’s grown his hair for, he plays an old Polish Jew who revisits Auschwitz and the horrors of his youth. “The fact I’m doing this film in Poland wasn’t irrelevant to having made this documentary. I’m not going to say I’ve become more Jewish than I was because I still have no sense of Judaic responsibilities to rabbis and synagogues, but you can’t let your identity be decided by your enemies.
“If the Nazis would just take one look at my birth certificate and put me in a death camp, it’s absurd for me to say I’m not Jewish. I’m part of the Jewish race, and it gives me a glow – the Yiddish word is naches – when Jewish people do well. But also, when Jewish people let themselves down or misbehave, I think, ‘Oh God, this is going to give the antisemites such fuel; why does he have to behave like that or why does this country have to behave like that?’”
What would he like us to take from Willem and Frieda’s story? Simple, he says – to recognise their courage and honour it. “I want people to join me in applauding and celebrating these unremembered people, and making sure they’ll never be unremembered again.”
Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda - Defying Nazis airs on Channel 4 on Thursday 2nd March at 9pm.
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