Keith Gordon (Waking the Dead (2000)) proves that it is possible to adapt a Kurt Vonnegut novel for the screen and guess what? Interestingly enough, given the story in question, the secret is all about remaining faithful to your sources.
I enjoyed this recently as part of a friend’s film night – Lee, who is one of the team behind the excellent leisure magazine and website UP Front, had been whining on at me for some time about how much he thought I would enjoy Mother Night, so I called his bluff and cut the deal that I would watch it with him if he would do me the favour of finally sitting down in front of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
That was our second film of the evening, and it goes without saying that Lee loved it. Thankfully, my reaction to his choice was pretty much the same.
Howard W. Campbell Jr.: Do you believe you’re guilty of murdering six million Jews?
Eichmann: Absolutely not.
Howard W. Campbell Jr.: [laughing] Oh, you were simply a soldier, were you, huh? Taking orders from the higher-ups, is that right, Eichmann? Like any good soldier.
Eichmann: [after pause] Campbell?
Howard W. Campbell Jr.: Yes?
Eichmann: About those six million …
Howard W. Campbell Jr.: Yes?
Eichmann: I don’t take credit for all of them. I’m sure I could spare you a few.
A brief explanation here – this conversation takes places when the Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte) in question is nearly at the end of his rope, both figuratively and literally. A successful American playwright of Aryan heritage, Campbell Jr. lived in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, concerned only with his plays and his beautiful, beloved wife Helga (Sheryl Noth). Everything changes, however, when he is approached by Major Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), who explains Uncle Sam’s desire for Campbell Jr. to become a spy for America during the war that is fast approaching. And not just any spy – a radio propagandist for the Nazi party, the ‘Last Free American’, whose anti-Jewish vitriol will in fact contain undercover information for the Allies. Initially reluctant, Campbell Jr. is nevertheless unable to resist the opportunity of living the role as the central character in one of his plays, and signs up. There’s just one problem, as Wirtanen explains:
‘Your role will remain classified, and Uncle Sam’s official position is you’re the scum of the earth.’
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be…
Nolte has long been an excellent standby in US cinema, and he does not disappoint here, delivering a performance that ranges from poetry to sheer pathos, with more than a little blackly wry humour in between. As already indicated, director Keith Gordon makes this work thanks to the courage of his convictions that Vonnegut’s work deserves fidelity, an excellent, literate script from Robert B. Weide (Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth (2008)), and startling performances across the board. Given that this is a cinematic experience, it is obviously difficult to recreate the ‘metafiction’ aspects of the novel, but this does not detract one iota from a film that has audacity, punch, and power. A winner.