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Lunch, Cigars, and The Final Solution

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Picture a film with 15 men sitting around a large dining table in a country home. Many of them wear sharply tailored business suits. They are served fine wines, roast duck, and expensive cigars. They discuss administrative issues, and equipment and personnel shortages.

Sound like the board of General Motors on a country retreat? No, these 15 men are planning to murder every Jew in Europe.

Conspiracy is a made for HBO movie released in early 2001 and starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci. It’s about the Wannsee Conference–the infamous meeting of high level Nazis to organize and systematize the Final Solution, replacing the heretofore diverse and haphazard methods that were then being used by the Germans to kill Jews in Europe and Russia with enormous concentration camps equipped with gas chambers and crematoria (like a clever American assembly line, Branagh’s Reinhard Heydrich wryly notes.)

Assembly Line Abattoirs

The Wannsee Conference takes its name from the beautiful early 20th century country villa it took place in, that was built for a German industrialist, but by the start of WWII, owned by the SS and used as a guesthouse and meeting facility.

The film’s structure is built around two long scenes filmed in a recreation of the Wannsee house’s conference room, broken up by a buffet lunch filled with all sorts of rich gourmet food. It was only watching the film a second time that the symbolism became obvious to me: here are well-fed Nazis who were already starving the Jews of Europe-and will shortly send them off to assembly line abattoirs designed to slaughter human beings instead of cows and chickens.

There are no obvious special effects, and the events occur in real time, and they’re gripping. What’s astonishing is that the actors have to give life to men who are evil incarnate–yet they are not Snidely Whiplash characters who twist their mustaches and flash evil grins. Kenneth Branagh deliberately underplays Heidrich, showing only flashes of a ruthless will beneath studied charm and culture. Loring Mandel’s script (based on the actual minutes of the conference, but with dramatic details fleshed out) has a handful of the participants suffering varying degrees of unease and queasiness by the idea of the gas chambers. Yet, all eventually fall in line behind Heydrich, because they’d risk forfeiting their own necks otherwise. They personify, as Victorino Matus of The Weekly Standard notes, quoting Hannah Arendnt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil”:

Portraits of mass murderers are so indelibly etched in our brains as something out of the Legion of Doom – a collection of the most gruesome looking and intimidating figures one can conjure up (or as Tucci phrased it in an interview, “mustache-twirling” bad guys). And imagining the look of fifteen men who helped engineer the deaths of six million Jews is mind-boggling. But in fact, the collection of men who planned to solve the “Jewish storage problem” was just that: men. This is something director Frank Pierson is determined to drive home. At no time in the meeting room is the camera above or below eye level, creating the sense that you are there too, complicit in some unspoken way.

As Eichmann, Tucci performs convincingly, despite his dark Italian looks – perhaps because his character is the one with whom we are most familiar from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and from recently released transcripts of his interrogation by Israeli police. The lieutenant colonel was a bureaucrat to the extreme, willing to follow orders though fully cognizant of the consequences, and carrying out his duties with the soulless efficiency of the HAL 9000. Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, had less to work with. The Academy Award nominee for Hamlet plays Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office, second only to Himmler. History knows him only as “The Hangman” and “of diabolical cast.” Branagh confesses it was enormously difficult to portray such a man, without any sense of guilt, conscience, or humanity. (Branagh also mentions he’ll be more than happy never to don the SS uniform again.) Still, the actor delivers a truly terrifying performance, his friendly smile betrayed by his cold blue eyes.

DVD Contains One Obvious Flaw

HBO’s DVD of Conspiracy is technically well done, capturing the film’s desaturated winter colors quite well. Unlike its original broadcast on HBO, it’s presented in anamorphic widescreen, allowing for both a sharper image, and many more scenes with two or more actors reacting to each other, rather than a single close-up face.

The DVD does contain one glaring, and unfortunate omission. Its packaging clearly promises an interview with the director, Frank Pierson. Yet it’s not included, which is regrettable, as in many ways, films that take place in a confined location (such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, both obvious models for Pierson’s directorial techniques here) require more skill to pull off successfully than zillion dollar special effects blockbusters. And it would be fascinating to learn how Pierson balanced historical fact with dramatic license.

While Pierson’s direction is certainly skillful, it’s Mandel’s script that makes the film so powerful. It ends on two virtuoso notes, each wonderfully underplayed by the actors. First, as everyone shuffles out, Ian McNeice as Dr. Gerhard Klopfer, who works for Borman but looks as fat as Hermann Goering, gives Eichmann, a knowing, snarky “Shalom!”, which subtly anticipates Eichmann’s eventual 1960 capture in Argentina by Israeli commandos, and his trial and hanging in Israel two years later.

And in a tacid nod to the Soviet Union, whose famines, gulags and show trials killed millions prior to World War II, Mandel’s script has Friedrich Kritzinger (played by David Threlfall) of the Reich chancellory softly telling a colleague, while waiting for his car to depart Wannsee, “It is night in Moscow already. Soon it will be dark here. Do you think that we will ever see the dawn in our lifetime?”

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