The Good, the Bad, the Duplicitous

Mother Night, a loving adaption of Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 novel of the same name, should be required viewing as a companion piece to Casablanca. Like that Bogart classic, Mother Night has a powerful World War II love story at its core, and uses that tragic romance to address the tricky issue of how to balance the desires of one person against the well-being of many. But Rick Blaine, Casablanca's cynical nightclub owner, becomes a clear-cut hero when he sheds his neutrality, kisses the love of his life goodbye, and casts his lot with the resistance fighters. When Howard Campbell, Mother Night's protagonist, finally decides to do his part to defeat the Nazis, he achieves far less conclusive results.

Irony and moral ambiguity have always factored heavily into Vonnegut's fiction; Mother Night is no exception. The film raises a vexing question: If you try to do the right thing and evil is the result, does that make you good or bad? Casablanca's Rick had it easy; all he had to do was choose to be a good guy. Howard Campbell risks everything to become a highly placed American spy, only to face the possibility that the duties required of him to maintain his cover caused more harm than the good his spying accomplished.

The film's opening scene quickly and neatly lays bare Mother Night's ironic heart. The warm, comforting strains of Bing Crosby crooning "White Christmas" accompany the grainy black-and-white image of an Israeli flag waving over a stark prison. A title informs us of the place and time: Haifa, 1961. A convoy rolls to a stop inside the prison yard's thick walls and disgorges a weary, hollow-eyed Howard Campbell (Nick Nolte). A heavily armed phalanx of unsmiling Israeli soldiers escort their unresisting charge past rows of vacant cells to the cage where he will reside in solitary confinement until his trial for Nazi war crimes commences. Clearly, he will not be enjoying a white Christmas just like the ones he used to know.

Campbell's captors supply him with a typewriter and paper in hopes that he will, in the three weeks leading up to his trial, write his memoirs. Having nothing better to do (except engage in small talk with the only other detainee in the entire prison -- Adolph Eichmann, who occupies the cell directly above his and who envies the new jailbird's typing skills), Campbell complies. As his fingers strike the machine's keys, Nolte's resigned, fatalistic voice narrates. The scene shifts back to 1938. Campbell's parents, Americans who took their son with them when they settled in Germany a dozen years earlier, have decided to return to the U.S. They see all the signs of impending war, and try to persuade Howard to join them, but he refuses to leave Berlin. He has too good a life in Germany; fluent in both English and German, Howard Campbell has become a successful playwright and has fallen madly in love with and married his leading lady Helga (Sheryl Lee).

In sharp contrast to the movie's prevalent tone of moral ambiguity, Mother Night gets all misty-eyed when it comes to Howard and Helga's too perfect love story. "From this moment forward, our nation of two is the only country I will know," Howard promises his loving mate. (What would old "I'm no good at being noble" Rick think of that? Hasn't Howard seen Casablanca?) A pledge like Howard's offers too big a target for Vonnegut to pass up. One day a mysterious American operative named Frank (John Goodman playing the affable serpent in the garden) approaches the American-German playwright with an intriguing proposition: Since the Germans not only accept Campbell but actually celebrate his writing, would he consider masquerading as a Nazi sympathizer in order to spy for America? Tipped off to Howard's romanticism by his plays, Frank plays on Howard's sense of honor and ensures him that his duplicity will be ultra-top-secret -- so hush-hush, in fact, that should Howard be caught even after the war, the Americans will deny any knowledge of his undercover activities. Campbell, betraying his "nation of two" pact with Helga, offers only token resistance before accepting Frank's deal. "It was every playwright's secret dream -- to create the most challenging role I could imagine and play the part myself," he ruefully recalls in his memoirs.

Howard's assignment is to write and deliver over the radio anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi diatribes containing coded messages to the Allies. Nolte is magnificent as the dramatist who does his job so well that he becomes one of the Third Reich's highest-profile propagandists, revered in Germany and reviled back in the States. It never occurs to the man who signs off each broadcast with the words "This is Howard W. Campbell, Jr. -- the last free American" that his weekly performance inspires Germans to commit genocide. After all, Helga loves him, her young sister Resi (Kirsten Dunst) worships him, and even Helga's father -- Berlin's chief of police and a Nazi officer who always suspected his son-in-law of being a spy -- religiously tunes in to Howard's broadcasts.

But in the waning days of the war, as the Allies approach, Howard's world begins to come apart. Helga leaves Berlin to perform in a play; she never returns. Her father reveals that he has always hated Howard and began listening to his son-in-law's program only in order to gather evidence to prove his treason. Then he drops the real bombshell, concluding that it doesn't matter if Howard was a spy because the "good" he did -- stoking German enthusiasm and bolstering morale -- far outweighed any damage his espionage might have wrought.

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