Film Reviews

Coded Messages

Given his commercial success as a novelist, Kurt Vonnegut hasn't seen many of his works translated to the big screen. And, given the results with the few that have been filmed, he may wish he hadn't seen them, either. Counterbalancing George Roy Hill's interesting and spiritually faithful version of Slaughterhouse Five are Mark Robson's flat Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Steven Paul's unwatchable Slapstick.

Part of the problem is that Vonnegut (and when did he drop the "Jr." from his name, anyway?) writes highly digressive narratives that rarely follow a conventional time line. (It's ironic that Slaughterhouse Five, the first of his novels to be filmed, was the most blatantly nonchronological, being told from the point of view of a narrator "unstuck in time.") A secondary problem is the heavily ironic tone of Vonnegut's prose, whether in the voice of the author or of a narrator. Such commentary is difficult to translate into visual terms.

Actor turned director Keith Gordon, in his new adaptation of Mother Night (co-written with producer Robert B. Weide), takes the easy way out: He has the "hero" narrate the story in voice-over. In this instance, it's not only the easy way out, it's also the right way. At the film's start, Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte) is in an Israeli jail cell, awaiting trial as a Nazi war criminal. As in the book, the body of the film comprises Campbell's memoirs, which he is writing at the behest of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals.

Campbell, an American, explains how he came to live in Germany in his childhood, eventually becoming a successful German playwright, marrying Helga (Sheryl Lee), a leading actress and the daughter of Berlin's chief of police, and hobnobbing with the creme of Berlin society. A romantic with no politics, Campbell is devoted only to his Nation of Two--that is, he and Helga.

One day in 1938, he is approached by Frank (John Goodman), an American intelligence agent, who recruits him as a deep-cover spy for the upcoming war. Frank encourages him to rise in the Nazi propaganda ministry; eventually, Campbell becomes an influential spokesperson for the Third Reich. His main audience has no way of knowing that his addresses, filled with venomous anti-Semitic gibberish, are also filled with coded messages for the benefit of the Allies.

Near the end of the war, Campbell's life collapses--not because of Germany's fate, but because Helga is killed while entertaining the troops. After the surrender, Frank protects him from prosecution, gives him a new identity and dumps him in New York, where he lives a barely conscious existence for 16 years. Since no one seems to be looking for him, he even takes back his real name. When he is inevitably discovered, he finds himself in a comically uncomfortable position: The good guys, including the Israelis, are searching for him, so he is forced to accept aid from a ragtag group of moronic American Nazis--the only people who will have anything to do with him.

Of all of Vonnegut's books, Mother Night has the least complicated moral--"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be"--which is one reason it's obvious film material. If ever there were a story with a clear-cut thematic through line, this is it. (The project has been bouncing around for years; Hal Ashby was supposed to direct at one point.)

Even more than in his directorial debut, The Chocolate War, Gordon has cleaved faithfully to both the letter and spirit of the book. He and Weide have simplified the time sequence--the novel may be relatively straightforward for Vonnegut, but it still hops around some--and done some unavoidable trimming, but every major incident in the book is present. In one instance, they have made a change that arguably would have benefited the book as well, establishing one crucial character earlier in the narrative.

The one dubious choice is having Campbell announce the above moral less than a third of the way through the film. It's a line that wisely didn't even exist in the original edition; Vonnegut used it in the preface to a 1966 reissue. While viewers can easily perceive early on just what the movie's about, it still seems curiously self-defeating to announce the thematic "ending" so prematurely. The remainder of the movie brings us clearly to the same conclusion anyway; now it seems almost anticlimactic.

I say "almost" because Mother Night is so well-made and effective that the above cavil may be no more than nit-picking. Nolte isn't exactly the right age--he seems too old in the World War II scenes--but he's still right for the role. He is equally at home as derelict or upstanding citizen, as cynical bureaucrat or all-American boy. Alan Arkin, Lee and Goodman also hit all the right notes, with Arkin (as Campbell's eccentric neighbor) getting the best material to work with. And cinematographer Tom Richmond, whose work was one of the few redeeming features of Killing Zoe, gives the film exactly the right burnished, bleak look.

Mother Night
Directed by Keith Gordon.