Mother Night (1996, Keith Gordon)


Keith Gordon’s first two films, The Chocolate War and A Midnight Clear, were such staggering works of both cinematic intelligence and clever, economical literary adaptation that it must have seemed only natural for him to turn next to a titan like Kurt Vonnegut for source material — but I must say that while the film is great fun, it’s nearly absent of the emotional complexity of Gordon’s earlier films, and some of this must arise from a perverse reverence to source material awash in a kind of cynicism that didn’t really permeate the Robert Cormier and William Wharton books he plundered before, maybe because the former was a children’s novel and the latter was clearly based on fact. But there’s also the fact that Vonnegut has cultists, and cultists must be pleased. In this case, they were; strong advocates of Vonnegut’s work tend frequently to look upon Mother Night as perhaps the finest adaptation of their hero’s work to date. As a movie, however, it’s the kind of De Palma or Cronenberg-esque exercise you nod knowingly at, try to get ingratiated in, and toward which you finally have no reason to feel any warmth.

After two claustrophobic and character-driven films, Gordon has a field day appropriating cinematic parlor tricks here, fusing Vonnegut’s troubling central ideas and complicated tale into a film that suggests everything from Obsession (the complete doubling of a life, incestuously) to Paris, Texas (the mutually insular “nation of two” in a love affair that lays the groundwork for a mutual, gradual destruction) to, of all things, Raiders of the Lost Ark (in the amusingly one-dimensional portrayal of white supremacists and Nazis, however accurately, as comically ruthless and one-dimensional villains, thus both magnifying and reducing the actual danger in their philosophies). Of course, a lot of this is Vonnegut’s sardonic humor, and Gordon does detect some of the emotional undercurrent as well, but he seems to be operating on a central assumption that Mother Night is more than anything a fun and deceptive suspenser, one reason its meditative finale rings hollow in this context.

The voice you hear most of all here is Hitchcock, whose work was probably an influence on the novel as well; the number of allusions seems far too coincidental. There’s of course the replicating of one blonde as another as in Vertigo, the central conflict of sacrificing one’s very identity for the greater good as in Notorious, and the entire bungled-up notion of being an inadvertent secret agent whose existence is completely denied by one’s superiors (North by Northwest). But very simply, Gordon’s film lacks the wit and sophistication of those masterpieces; it’s too devoted to its satirical causes, which get muddied up anyway, to really absorb us in the plight of its lead character, American writer and spy Howard Campbell (a businesslike but believably depressed Nick Nolte, likely the best I’ve ever seen him), whose role is to pass along secret messages in outwardly hostile Nazi propaganda radio shows. The moral quandaries raised by the film, however, are fascinating.

Mother Night asks two central questions. First is the classic wondering of how much our intentions or true selves really matter in the face of our actions, even if those actions have different meaning to others than to us. Campbell is never permitted to disclose the reality of his feelings about Jews and Germany in the war, for it would be a threat to national security; thus, to every outward purpose and perception, he literally becomes the thing he hates: a Nazi. It matters very little that he in the end helps America win the war, when in fact he also ends up playing such an enormous role in mobilizing the far-right base in Germany to the advantage of the Third Reich. His conflict is impossible to reconcile with his own moral life, which is one reason that his only final redemption is to submit to being tried for his crimes — because whatever their additional layers may have been, they remain crimes, and his final act is to gain consciousness of that.

The other and perhaps more troubling and relevant matter is in Nolte’s character’s total separation from politics in his personal life — he and his wife, whom he adores, do not discuss their affiliation or lack thereof to the German cause. Her politics remain unknown to us but her family consists of devoted National Socialists; when she is killed, Campbell is left with nothing. This is all illustrative of how Hitler’s rise happened to begin with: apathy — the apathy that sets one’s own personal comfort ahead of all outside forces, even as the world may collapse. Howard is so completely in love that it doesn’t matter to him if his wife wants the Jews to be systematically slaughtered. The danger of this, too, only comes to him in his later years, as he finds himself protected only by those whose ideas he finds contemptible, besieged and threatened by the forces of Good. He allowed his own fate, by virtue of his total ignorance of and distance from what was happening around him.

As context it’s useful to read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, one of the greatest works of art this decade has yet to produce, an absorbing and terrifying book about Germany just before the war, awash in all of the rumbling that preceded and caused the Holocaust, climaxing with the Night of Long Knives. Mother Night captures some of the pregnant Germany I read about in that book, but its treatment of the country in those days is also a bit cartoonish, which is dangerous because the particular insanity of Hitler’s cause is a function of its mundane origins — how easy it was to gradually be led into the menace and evil of the Reich. Vonnegut and Gordon’s Third Reich is true to this in fits and starts, yet its comic book recasting of heroes and villains coalesces poorly with what ought to be considerable ambiguity and humanity in characters aside from Nolte’s Howard, who’s really the only person we know. We think we know others — an outstanding cast that includes Alan Arkin as a deceptive neighbor, Sheryl Lee in dual roles, Anna Berger as an unforgettable Auschwitz survivor, Bernard Behrens as a villainous Klannish overlord, and John Goodman in the Leo G. Carroll role — but nearly everyone has a secret, isn’t what they seem. That’s all very cute and clever, but it’s mostly a distraction to the serious conflicts that need to drive a piece like this. Again, some of this is a function of Vonnegut’s own perverse sense of fun, which now becomes Gordon’s, but the elements of the film that are truly challenging, heartfelt, and thought-provoking are so accomplished it’s a bit hard to fully lose yourself and enjoy the cloak-and-dagger stuff. But Gordon remains a highly intriguing director and I still look forward to catching his two subsequent films.

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