In Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's masterful contemplation of the Holocaust, the face of evil has gentle eyes and a runny nose, cherubic cheeks and a quiet voice. And though the movie is at heart a story of unlikely heroism, it is that improbable-looking villain, Nazi commandant Amon Goeth, who follows you home after the credits roll and the audience files silently from the theater. For Goeth could give even Lucifer pause. This was a man who would stand on his balcony, bare-chested and bloated, aiming his rifle at children; a man responsible for the murder of 4,000 Jews his first month as commander of the Plaszow labor camp. Like the Holocaust itself, he is unfathomable. Yet in Schindler's List, Amon Goeth is rendered human by Ralph Fiennes, a heretofore obscure British actor who has emerged from the London fog to become the most talked-about thing in the most talked-about movie of this year's Oscar race. Reviewers have been fraying their thesauruses to praise him, and so far, Fiennes' performance has earned him a prize from the New York Film Critics Circle and an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. ''Spielberg emphasized that he didn't want any obvious Nazi stuff,'' says Fiennes, 31. ''I do not want to excuse Goeth, but ultimately he was human....He was a kid in diapers at one point, and he had all this potential to be something, and he went the wrong way. That, to me, is tragic.'' Says Schindler's Embeth Davidtz, who plays Goeth's battered maid, Helen Hirsch: ''Ralph didn't make (Goeth) a monster. He found this little boy squashed inside this Nazi overcoat.'' Who is the guy behind the bad guy? If you said ''Ralph Fiennes,'' you're wrong. His name (it's Welsh) is pronounced Rafe Fines. The eldest of six children, he was born in Suffolk and grew up in Ireland, where his father, a farmer-turned-photographer, moved the family when Fiennes was 6. Fiennes studied painting at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, switched to acting, and left the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991 to pursue a film career from London, where he lives with his wife, actress Alex Kingston. Before Schindler's List, he had only two big-screen roles, both disappointing-first as Heathcliff, opposite Juliette Binoche's Catherine in 1992's failed reworking of Wuthering Heights, then as the Bishop's son in Peter Greenaway's strange 1993 religious parable, The Baby of Macon. ''(Macon) is odd,'' says Fiennes, in his soft, elegant accent, ''and not everyone-well, in England it got devastatingly bad press.'' Neither movie was ever released in the U.S.
Nonetheless, Spielberg was moved to audition Fiennes for the part of Goeth after watching his performances in Wuthering Heights and the ITV production A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia. ''I think that Steven saw what I was attempting in Wuthering Heights,'' says Fiennes, ''a much more brutal, very unsympathetic portrait of Heathcliff. I think he probably saw in that elements that could work for Amon Goeth.'' Several weeks in Los Angeles promoting Schindler's have baked Fiennes' nose to a bright red, and his fair British skin has turned splotchy. Except for his ice-blue eyes, all those elements of Amon Goeth have melted away-including roughly 25 pounds he gained by way of alcohol, cake, and weight-gain powders. ''That seems to be a thing,'' says Fiennes. ''At some point (every) actor has to put on his weight....I think that having the sense of going to seed, as well as being accurate to Goeth, just felt right. It gave me a whole new sense of how to move. When you carry around a bit of a tummy on you, it just changes you.'' Before and during the shooting in Poland, Fiennes spent months searching ^ for signs of Goeth's humanity. He watched a documentary interview with Goeth's former mistress and read Tom Segev's 1987 study of SS officers, Soldiers of Evil, which included details of Goeth's privileged but neglected childhood. His inhumanity, however, was easier to find; one of the Schindler Jews who had worked as Goeth's secretary at Krakow recalled that Goeth once nonchalantly interrupted his dictation of a get-well note to his father to shoot a prisoner from his window. ''It may sound glib,'' says Fiennes, ''but I think the killing of human beings that capriciously is like the (grown-up) version of the little boy with the air rifle who is blasting at sparrows or smashing wasps with a fly swatter. And obviously, it was something that turned him on.'' It is, in fact, Fiennes' dark and unexpected sensuality that ignites many of his scenes. ''I think he's sexy (in the film),'' says Davidtz, who had to soothe her face with ice after the beatings she took during their brutal scenes together. ''There's something about anyone in conflict that's exciting.'' These days, the contrast between Fiennes' magnetism and his character's viciousness is flustering some who can't figure out exactly what they're excited about; witness out-there actress Sylvia Miles (Crossing Delancey), who presented him with the Best Supporting Actor honor at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and declared-presumably by way of extolling his work- that she'd ''love to be commandeered by this commandant!'' Fiennes himself is being commandeered toward starring roles by Creative Artists Agency, where he signed after leaving Paradigm agent Clifford Stevens recently. He has already completed Robert Redford's Quiz Show, due in September, in which he plays Charles Van Doren, the intellectual exposed as a fraud in the 1950s game-show scandals. For the film, he dropped the weight he put on as Goeth (with help from a trainer supplied by Redford), but he retained his way with villains. ''I think Ralph brought a wonderful remorse to the role,'' says Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure), who costars as investigator Richard Goodwin. ''He's taken the monster side of Van Doren and made him human and accessible, and you feel for him.'' Fiennes' next role may not be another sinner: Producer Robert Evans (Chinatown) has made him an as-yet-unaccepted $1 million offer to play the title role of his upcoming movie resurrection of The Saint. ''He's going to be a great romantic leading man,'' Evans says. Hollywood, however, seems more smitten with Fiennes than he is with it. For now, he'd rather suffer jet lag than give up London for Los Angeles. ''I don't think I'm quite ready,'' says Fiennes, ''basically because I can't afford it.''