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Salt Lake City Weekly Moral Ambiguity

Mother Night is a thought-provoking exploration of morality, loyalty and despair.

By Mary Dickson

July 21, 1997:  In wartime, everyone is suspect. Loyalties shift, betrayal is always a possibility. People become capable of desperate and sometimes monstrous acts. Howard W. Campbell, a minor German playwright was, in his own words "an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation and a nationless person by inclination." He was a spy, a traitor, an unrecognized war hero and ultimately a victim of war and its wily progenitor, nationalism.

Campbell's bizarre history unfolds in Mother Night, Keith Gordon's haunting film based on Kurt Vonnegut Jr's tragicomic novel. As Campbell, Nick Nolte carries the film, offering a stunning portrait of "a man who served evil all too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times." It's easily Nolte's best performance. Aging has only improved his craft, making him more subdued and introspective.

Gordon's exceptionally literate film, which unfortunately never opened locally, is now available on video. If you're hungering for intelligent, provocative fare, check it out. It hooks you from the moment it opens with a shackled Campbell led down the corridors of an Israeli prison to strains of Bing Crosby crooning "White Christmas." It's 1961 and Campbell is being brought to trial for his war crimes. He is handed a typewriter and given three weeks to write his memoirs for the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals before his trial begins.

The film then adopts a back-and-forth chronology, moving between Campbell's memories of the war and his postwar life, which are in color, and the black and white scenes in his prison cell, which lend the film a surreal tone.

A faithful adaptation of Vonnegut's book, Robert B. Weide's screenplay uses much of Vonnegut's language in literary voice-over, a device that serves the film well, giving important voice to the moral ambiguity of Campbell's predicament and his existential angst. He poses the question: "If you try to do something good, and evil results, are you good or are you bad?"

Campbell's story begins with his family moving from America to Berlin. He grows up to become a playwright and marries the beautiful actress, Helga, as the Nazis are coming to power. Howard and Helga pledge their allegiance to the only nation that makes sense to them, "Das Reich das Zwei" — the nation of two.

Three months before the Americans enter the war, Howard's "Blue Fairy Godmother," an anonymous representative of the U.S. War Department (John Goodman) approaches him to spy for the Americans. Campbell is to pretend to be a Nazi, broadcasting coded information during anti-semitic propaganda on his weekly radio show. The American government, he is warned, will never acknowledge his role. "You must be careful what you pretend to be," he writes in his memoirs later. "Because in the end, you are what you pretend to be."

After being captured by the Americans (David Strathairn plays the G.I. who captures this Nazi propaganda machine), Campbell is again visited by his fairy godmother who quietly arranges his release and relocation to a life of anonymity in a Greenwich Village apartment. His beloved Helga dead, and the Americans disavowing him as the scum of the earth, Campbell lives as a recluse without an identity. "All my belongings, like myself, were war surplus," he writes. His only friend is a widowed painter in the apartment downstairs, in whom he eventually confides. The always solid Arkin is excellent as the accepting neighbor.

Gordon's film is filled with a sad sense of resignation that is reflected nowhere more sharply than in a wartime scene with Campbell's young sister-in-law, played by Kristin Dunston, who again shows incredible depth for an actress so young. "Shoot my dog," she tells Campbell in utter defeat. "It doesn't matter; we're all going to die." After the war, Campbell himself is so emotionally dried up he becomes paralyzed. In the film's most striking scene he stands literally frozen in the middle of a New York street because he has "absolutely no reason to move in any direction."

While the film is weighted with existential dread, Vonnegut's comic analgesia comes in the form of a bizarre trio of bumbling White Christian Minutemen, who make Campbell their hero. In a brilliantly executed scene, Campbell stands unnoticed in the back of one of their meetings, horrified to see footage of his wartime diatribes projected on a huge screen. The image on the screen is reflected on his face, the mouth of the great propaganda master spewing venom over his own. Campbell has seen his enemy and he is it.

Gordon's expertly constructed film is a thought-provoking exploration of identity, morality, loyalty and despair. "This is not who I am," apologizes one character as his betrayal is discovered. "This is the way things are." The sullen narrative and the music, which includes Beethoven's Andante Con Variatzion and the works of Benjamin Britten, accentuate the mood of the film. The title, by the way, comes appropriately enough from a speech by Mephistopheles in Goethe's "Faust." Mother Night is a variation on the same theme. As the fairy godmother says to Campbell, "Usually a bad man's got some good in him — almost as much good as evil. But you — you're the pure thing. For all the good there is in you, you might as well be the devil."


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