Kurt Vonnegut's strengths as a novelist are his rare, dark humor, which can be as bracing as cognac, and his gift for shifting gears from tragedy to absurdity, tenderness to stark horror. His main weakness is probably a taste for cartoon moralism--a kind of flimsy preachiness, drenched in postmodern ambiguity, that masquerades as profound.
These Vonnegutian qualities--good and bad--are dutifully reproduced in a mostly gloomy, occasionally hilarious film version of Mother Night. For those who have not already absorbed the man's every word, this is one of the lesser works of a writer who inspired a major campus cult in the boiling 1960s and continues today to sell plenty of copies of Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle.
Written in 1961, Mother Night chronicles the life of a Schenectady-born lad named Howard W. Campbell Jr. (here portrayed by an exhausted-looking Nick Nolte) who moves with his family to Germany in the 1930s, becomes a successful playwright and falls in love with the country's leading stage actress, Helga Noth (Twin Peaks's Sheryl Lee). They pledge to forever inhabit "a country of two," free of all politics.
That's impossible, of course. When World War II breaks out, Campbell is enlisted by American intelligence as a spy, but as far as we can tell, he doesn't do any spying. Instead, he rises through the Nazi ranks to become Dr. Goebbels's chief radio propagandist, broadcasting a weekly stream of anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler venom. We're never told what language he's speaking (the entire movie's in English), just that Germans love him and Americans hate him. Apparently, everyone's bilingual. But not even Howard's beloved wife knows that his speeches are laced with coded Allied messages. In fact, only his spymaster and President Roosevelt know Campbell's not a traitor.
There's nothing Kurt Vonnegut likes more than this kind of sledgehammer irony, especially when it's in the service of his lifelong wrangle with Good and Evil--which often turn out to be the same thing. The Big Irony here is that the noble thing Howard Campbell tries to do actually causes epic suffering: His broadcasts inspired ordinary Germans to greater hatred, he learns later, and after the war they continue to inspire fanatical neo-Nazis, even in the grimy basement apartments of New York. Haunted and broken, failed hero Howard Campbell winds up in an Israeli jail cell, waiting to pay for his sins.
This is Vonnegut, so the guy in the cell upstairs is none other than Adolf Eichmann. They chat. And lest we miss the point, the film stock for the prison sequences is black and white.
Here, then, Keith Gordon (also director of the anti-war battle drama A Midnight Clear) and screenwriter Robert B. Weide stick together Vonnegut's usual big issues--Love, Fate and Conscience--with his usual binding agents--Irony and Surreal Humor. There's a swastika-festooned black Hitler from Harlem (Frankie Faison), a bohemian Greenwich Village painter (Alan Arkin) and a Jewish doctor who survived Auschwitz. But almost no one is who he seems to be--certainly not the shell-shocked, irony-ridden Howard Campbell. Not even his beloved Helga, risen from the dead.
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In the end, Vonnegut's famous (and famously annoying) ambiguity rules the night. There is no good, no evil--only the bloody conjunction of the two. There are no facts--only ironies.
Fine, fine. But among the many questions Mother Night so blithely declines to answer, how about these? What were Howard W. Campbell's plays like? Was there something in them that convinced the Germans he was a full-blooded Nazi and thus should have his own radio show? We don't know. Or did Howard's work reveal him as the kind of freedom-loving American patriot the OSS wanted to put straight to work? We don't know that, either, and Kurt isn't talking. Under cover of the great god of ambiguity, there's no need to ever tip your hand.
Mother Night. Screenplay by Robert B. Weide, from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Directed by Keith Gordon. With Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee and Alan Arkin.