WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: With World War II fast approaching, the American government seeks the help of Berlin-based playwright Howard W. Campbell, Jr. to sneak out messages in the form and coughs and pauses in Nazi-friendly broadcasts. When the war turns against the Germans and Campbell hears that his dear wife Helga has died, he flees; but his infamy makes him a wanted man, even when he returns to America and tries to live a peaceful life.
A jail in Haifa, Israel, 1961: playwright Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte) is about to be tried for crimes committed during World War II. He’s given a typewriter with which to give his own account of events, taking him back to a 1930s Berlin where Hitler’s National Socialists are threatening the rest of Europe and – more importantly – Campbell’s intimate relationship with his wife, actress Helga (Sheryl Lee). Campbell is approached by secretive US government agent Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman) to act as a conduit for secret messages, by placing strategic coughs and gaps in outwardly pro-Nazi (and vehemently anti-Semitic) radio broadcasts; which is fine, except when the Allies start to enter Germany Howard’s “Blue Fairy Godmother” is nowhere to be found and he’s reviled as a traitor. Worse, Campbell’s told that Helga has been killed whilst visiting troops, driving the devastated writer into despair.
Campbell travels back to New York under an alias which he gradually lets slip as he rebuilds a semblance of a life, making friends with neighbour George Kraft (Alan Arkin) and also meeting less friendly neighbours in the Epsteins, survivors from Auschwitz. Howard’s past catches up with him in incredible ways when white supremacist preacher Lionel Jones (Bernard Behrens) turns up on his doorstep, armed with supporters in thrall of Campbell’s Jew-bashing rhetoric and a gift in the form of Helga, miraculously returned from the grave. But are people what they seem, and will the Blue Fairy make himself useful when things start getting weird? Well, apparently not, given that Howard’s sharing a prison with Adolf Eichmann…
There are a number of plot details above that you might want to try to forget if coming to Mother Night cold, and there will necessarily be a few more below. With that caveat, the first thing to say is that it’s a problematic movie, largely because of the potentially harmful influence of Campbell’s strongly anti-Semitic “Last Free American” patter. As Helga’s father, Chief of Berlin’s Police, says to Howard, his broadcasts furthered the Nazi cause regardless of whether or not he was acting as a spy, and there’s the danger that people could pick up on the vile sentiments without realising the satirical context of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s work.
However, that’s true of any controversial rhetoric, and both Vonnegut and Gordon are keen to undermine anyone tempted by Campbell’s words by showing the ridiculousness of people like Lionel Jones and his followers, the short-lived August Krapptauer and the frightening/crazy ‘Black Fuhrer’ (Vlasta Vrana and Frankie Faison). The film has other issues too: it’s hard to conceive how complex messages – such as, apparently, Helga’s death – could be passed on through mere coughs and pauses; and though the situation is set up nicely in a brief scene with Kirsten Dunst playing Helga’s younger sister Resi, would Howard really not notice that ‘Helga’ has changed somewhat from the woman with whom he enjoyed a ‘Nation of Two’ (“Das Reich der Zwei”)? Of course, you could argue that Howard desperately wants – or needs – to think his sweetheart is still alive, a theme director Keith Gordon would revisit in his next film, Waking the Dead. Finally, as the story progresses the tale becomes fractured, with too many fades to black and, to be frank, an overload of spies.
But if Mother Night has issues, they have to be seen in the context of a film which is bolder and more substantial than the vast majority of dim-witted comedies or brainless action films churned out by the Hollywood machine. The flashback structure is clever, adding tension to the story – who is responsible for Campbell’s incarceration in Israel? – and the fiction is rarely less than fascinating, whether it’s taking place in Berlin or New York. It helps that Nolte – an actor I’ve rarely enjoyed watching – is at his absolute best in a demanding and complex part, and he’s strongly supported by the likes of Sheryl Lee, Goodman and particularly Alan Arkin in shifting, ambiguous roles. They forcefully bring the drama to the screen whilst Gordon also finds space for Vonnegut’s sly humour, such as the 23 copies of White Christmas Campbell acquires, the allusions to “Franklin D. Rosenfeld” or the occasional chirpings of Eichmann (Henry Gibson), off-screen and high-pitched. Some will undoubtedly find the combination of quirky humour and Nazi-based drama an uncomfortable blend, but it’s entirely consistent with Vonnegut’s work (on the basis of his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, at any rate).
In my review of The Man Who Would Be King, I mentioned Wallace Stevens’ line ‘Let be be finale of seem’, and as Vonnegut himself noted Mother Night carries a similar theme: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The thoughtfulness of this motto typifies the intelligence of the film, and while Mother Night doesn’t stand up to scrutiny if you look at the plot very closely, you could do much worse if you’re looking not for realism but a solid piece of fiction which offers a provocative alternative to mainstream fare, Nolte and others’ strong performances proving a significant and very welcome bonus.