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08 December 2005

Conspiracy (2001)

Kenneth Branagh (Heydrich), Stanley Tucci (Eichmann), Colin Firth (Dr. Stuckart)

Directed by Frank Pierson (Dirty Pictures)

From IMDB: "The historical recre- ation of the 1942 Wannsee Confer- ence, in which Nazi and SS leaders gathered in a Berlin suburb to discuss the 'Final Solution to the Jewish Question.' Led by SS-General Reinhard Heydrich, this group of high-ranking German officials came to the historic and far-reaching decision that the Jews of Europe were to be exterminated in what would come to be known as the Holocaust."

Oh, but this film is a creepy piece of work. So successful, so ordinary, so chilling. These dozen men, roughly, sitting around drinking wine and jockeying for power, stepped on each other's administrative and political toes. They offended each and swallowed their pride. They had personal aspirations, complaints about their superiors, and fears about job security. Every one of them had family waiting for them at home. In almost every respect, from their fine attire to their education credentials and leadership expe- rience, these men could have been corporate board or Congressional committee members. But for how banal and familiar they appeared, these characters were portrayals of actual men who, in 1942, sat on the outskirts of Berlin one afternoon and decided the most efficient ways to eliminate every Jew from the planet.

Kenneth Branagh, as Heydrich, is a masterwork of charm and charisma. Heydrich called the meeting not - as he suggested - to solicit opinions, but to convince fifteen carefully chosen men from all areas of the National Socialist party and German government (there is a techinical differnce, which is articulated in the film) to offer their approval to a total Jewish evacuation, extermination camps, gas chambers and incineration ovens. The plan had already been made. The gas had already been successfully tested. Auschwitz was already under construction. But Heydrich had to smoothly and patiently maneuver his way through various challenges before presenting the plan to his guests.

What were those challenges? There were problems of hierarchy, of manpower and supplies, of priorities. Some believed that the "problem" had already been decided and solved, and they felt that their authority would be overrun by Heydrich's new agenda. Others were concerned about troop morale if their men had to continue shooting hundreds of Jews at a time, and still others argued that a mass Jewish evacuation would create a shortage a suitable wartime (forced) labor. Dr. Josef Bühler, in particular, was upset that more had not already been done to relieve, once and for all, the overcrowding of Jewish ghettos in Poland, his jurisdiction.

But throughout their debates, the question of need - that the Jews needed to be eliminated - was not an issue.

Here, Colin Firth is a masterful addition to this film's cast. How often does Firth play a bad guy? Not ever, that I can recall. He most often appears intelligent, soft-spoken, passionate, and gentlemanly. And his portrayal of Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, one of the two men who framed the Nuremberg Laws, is a key element of sickening surprise. Firth's sweet, charming mouth speaks against Heydrich's plan. What about German spouses of Jews? What happens to that part of their children that is German, not Jewish? Some of these Jews do not practice. They are German. They fought for Germany. These Jews are to be evacuated too? And what about the legal complications of divorce and inheritance once the Jews are gone? His arguments are passionate and, it seems, a brief flicker of sense and compassion. But no; Stuckart's vicious racism is couched in legal issues. The revelation of his motives, the reason why he is so adamantly anti-Semitic, is a shocking and gut- churning scene.

And then there was Stanley Tucci as Eichmann, the coldest cold fish ever put on film. His meticulous, eerie, nasty predilection for all things starched and efficient nearly crosses the line into stereotype - except that Eichmann really existed. Tucci makes you want to take a shower and scrub off any possible, lingering association with such a person.

That the majority of this chilling script was taken directly from the actual Wannsee Conference transcript makes it all the more effective. These men were not the creation of some fiction writer with a flare for hyperbole, and the director knew it. His directoral success is in recreating a scene that was at once so ordinary and so monumental. He balanced that contradiction, allowing this historic meeting to speak for itself - plainly, without exaggeration - in order to give us a glimpse of how the evil of the Holocaust was meticulously, intentionally planned.

Blogger Diva Kitty's Mom said...

This one sucked me in like a car wreck. I wanted to stop watching. I wanted it to be trite and xenophobic. However, performances by Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth and the entire cast made this a remarkable study of character, persuasion, and power. I especially applaud the director on adding the preparation for the meeting and the clean-up after. The attention to detail added greatly to the film. It felt like I was watching an excellent play, which is the highest compliment I can give a film.

5 stars from me

11:37  
Blogger carrie_lofty said...

That's the first time someone has given an opinion on a work before I've had a chance to review it! Go ahead and take my talking points, why don't you? ;) Serves me for putting up a shingle before writing my critique!

16:15  
Blogger Eureka Dejavu said...

You might be interested in an interview with Stanley Tucci and Loring Mandel, posted on the Ruminations on America Project (www.ruminationsonamerica.blogspot.com) about Conspiracy.

09:06  
Blogger Diva Kitty's Mom said...

Whoops

16:48  

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