Does anybody remember this movie? The answer to that, for most people, will be a resounding “No!”, because there is precious little info about it online, and I’ve never met anyone who has actually seen it. Well, let me be the first to let you in on this little lost piece of Vonnegut adaptation. You see, most of the time, when directors try to adapt a Kurt Vonnegut book, people turn away and start ignoring them, because Vonnegut is usually given the distinction of being “unfilmable”. Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and the hideous Slapstick are all adaptations of Vonnegut’s work, and all have been looked down upon with the type of disdain that I usually associate with Michael Bay films. But Mother Night, I feel, is probably the most unfortunate movie out of all these to happen to, because I thought it was a captivating and well-rounded film made with love and care that deserved a little better than the obscurity it now garners.
The story is classic labyrinthine Vonnegut, if you like him in the slightest, and it again has to do with the war, but not in the way its normally portrayed. We are taken to an Israeli prison, where we meet Howard Campbell, a famous Nazi propagandist. He is writing memoirs and trying to sort out his life to seemingly no avail. Through a series of flashbacks and narration, we can see the convoluted and shady history of this individual who is not all that he seems. You see, Howard Campbell was a notorious propagandist, but he was put up to the job by the US government, who wanted to use his broadcasts for coded messages to the Allied Front!!! Campbell was a successful German playwright before the war who joined the Nazi party only as a public front. One day, in a park, an American named Frank Wirtanen sits next to him and offers him a chance to help the Allies. After deliberating a while, he agrees, and postures himself closer to a high-ranking position in Goebbels’ organization, where he eventually becomes the voice of the Nazis’ English-speaking broadcasts aimed at American citizens. What the Nazis didn’t know was that Campbell was using a coded series of pauses and speech patterns to send coded messages to the Allies. Ho-ho! But everything begins to crumble when his beloved wife Helga is killed in an Allied raid and he himself is captured by the Americans after Berlin falls, who are completely unaware that he is a good guy. But Wirtanen uses his influence to get him out of danger, and he is discreetly relocated in New York, where he is to live out the rest of his life quietly, unable to love again after his beautiful wife or even tell his story, which is strictly classified by the government (for obvious reasons). But even years after the war, when Campbell is a beaten-down old man with no life left to live, people are still after him, all wanting him for different reasons. What will become of this very curious WWII figure? Can the truth ever come out about his heroism? Can he ever forgive himself for the things he said and did during the war?
It’s a slightly confusing plot, admittedly, but I found it to be a rewarding one to follow. It’s well written for an adaptation, and it definitely does justice to the source material. Considering where this comes from, even making a semi-faithful script would have been too much to hope fora writer who is partly famous for his dense plotting. Mixing an espionage thriller with an intense drama makes a lot of sense, as a lot of wartime spy movies end up with overly happy endings, despite the time they take place in. This one is as mournful as the subject matter, mirroring a regret that surely lies in the hearts of many who lived through that harrowing war.
Not to say that there isn’t any humor. We get a few laughs from Alan Arkin, who plays painter/Soviet spy George Kraft. He’s naturally and off-handedly funny in anything; it’s his “I don’t give a fuck” delivery that catches you off guard. And anybody who sees this movie will fall in love with the all-too-brief character “The Black Fuhrer of Harlem”! You gotta see him to believe him; classic Vonnegut humor!
Nick Nolte blows away all expectations set out for him as Howard Campbell. Honestly, just last night, I was making fun of Nick Nolte’s razor blade-gargling voice and his slightly befuddled on-screen persona a la 48 Hours. But here, as Campbell, he pulls a complete 180, totally shaming me and my albeit-hilarious impression of him. He is a victim of circumstance and the utensil of his own undoing, a war hero and a vicious anti-Semite, a man totally and completely in love, and a lethargic lovebird unmoored without his mate. He takes a lot of turns here, and he meets all of the demands that this exceedingly confusing character tasks him with. Sheryl Lee of Twin Peaks fame plays wife Helga, and I’m kind of on the fence with her. She has some pretty good scenes opposite Nolte where she really gets into the character, but for the most part didn’t really dazzle me, when she really, really had the opportunity to. This character is electrifying, but the sparks just weren’t there for me. But John Goodman, yet again, somehow turns in another good role as the mysterious Frank Wirtanen. He has by far the least amount of lines out of any of the main characters, and yet I’m STILL drawn to him and his impressive chops. I love this man!
If you can find this movie, I definitely recommend it. You can’t go wrong with a Vonnegut adaptation about Nazi double-agents, the sorrow of lost love, and The Black Fuhrer of Harlem! Nolte dazzles in a way I’ve never seen before, the soundtrack is solid period gold, and director Keith Gordon’s artistic direction is sensitive and mature (I like how not everyone here is spry and stylish; the 30s and 40s just didn’t have the youth-obsessed culture we have today). A good film all around, and worth searching out sometime online if you have the time. I give Mother Night 8 razor blade-gargling leading men out of 10. Not so “unfilmable”, huh?
Tomorrow I’m checking out The Color of Night! Until then!