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.
The war ends. American troops capture Howard, beat him up, and force him to confront the grisly evidence of Nazi atrocities. Frank's reluctant intervention secures Howard's release (and probably saves his life). Hitler's Rush Limbaugh flees to New York where, with counterfeit documents supplied by Frank, Campbell loses himself among the masses. Fifteen years go by. But "the last free American" cannot escape the demons of his past.
The filmmakers get carried away with demonstrating the depths of Howard's melancholy by having him maintain a shrine to Helga's memory and periodically give maudlin little candlelight-and-wine toasts to her photograph. Exacerbating his heartache is Howard's guilt for betraying their covenant. That guilt is further compounded by Howard's gnawing fear that Helga's father-in-law may have been right, that Howard's deception may have done more to aide the Nazi cause than to hurt it. Howard becomes, in the words of a neighbor and newfound confidant named Kraft (Alan Arkin), a member of the brotherhood of the walking wounded. "You get your membership card when you lose the one thing in life that ever had any meaning for you," Kraft explains.
Howard's funk deepens. His concern for his own safety lapses. He starts using his real name again. No one seems to care. But Vonnegut's fondness for absurdist humor asserts itself with the appearance of a comically pathetic band of white supremacists -- the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution -- who "out" Howard in their newsletter and shortly thereafter show up on his doorstep to hero-worship in person. Lovesick, guilt-ridden Howard becomes the object of an intense manhunt. Israeli, Russian, and American agents follow his trail, while the band of hapless neo-Nazis attempts to shield Howard. Bad guys unwittingly do a good deed.
Only one man -- Frank -- has the power to set the record straight and exonerate Howard in the eyes of his adversaries. But can even Frank rescue Howard Campbell from his own troubled conscience?
Despite Kurt Vonnegut's enormous popularity with baby boomers (he achieved cult status in the Sixties and is still widely read), few filmmakers have attempted to adapt the author's stories to the big screen. The very characteristics that make Vonnegut's novels such a delightful read -- the elliptical interior monologues, the deliberate subversion of narrative conventions, the anarchic spirit and irrepressible imagination, the fudging of the line between sanity and insanity, the portrayal of all human endeavors as part of some vast cosmic joke -- make his work an ill fit for the linear storytelling structure expected of motion pictures. So even if Mother Night had reeked, producer-director Keith Gordon (director of the first-rate but overlooked A Midnight Clear) and producer-screenwriter Robert Weide would deserve points just for having the cojones to tackle the author's work.
The film doesn't stink, of course. It succeeds handsomely on several levels. Mother Night is by turns a love story, a thriller, a mystery, a black comedy (although it could have used more gallows humor and less melodrama), and thought-provoking entertainment. Like 1972's Slaughterhouse Five -- the only previous Vonnegut film adaption that matters -- Mother Night's many contrasting elements bring one another into sharper relief. Campbell's involvement with the delusional and cartoonishly funny neo-Nazis sets up a chilling moment when they screen a piece of old newsreel footage of Campbell at his foaming, racist worst. The former secret agent can scarcely believe his own viciousness. The shock of recognition penetrates Campbell's defenses, overwhelms his rationalizations, and emphatically underscores his father-in-law's damning assertion of Howard's complicity in the Third Reich's crimes against humanity. It's a brief but riveting sequence, at once crystallized and made almost surreal by the buffoonery that precedes it.
And so it goes. You laugh, you cry. One minute Mother Night embraces romanticism, the next minute it turns cynical. Good intentions yield disastrous results. The hero becomes the villain; the friend turns out to be the enemy; the attempt at heroism destroys the would-be hero's life. It's a wacky, tragic, perplexing conundrum that would drive even a hard-bitten Casablanca nightclub owner -- to say nothing of a sensitive playwright like Howard Campbell -- nuts with shaky truths, shifting moral ground, and backfiring ideals. It is, in other words, quintessential Vonnegut.
Written by Robert B. Weide; directed by Keith Gordon; with Nick Nolte, John Goodman, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, and Kirsten Dunst.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.