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Bird of Purgatory

Nick Nolte & Sheryl Lee
Atilla Dory

Propaganda War: Reunited after the war, Nicky Nolte and Sheryl Lee contemplate the past in Keith Gordon's too-serious adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night."

The film version of 'Mother Night' flattens novelist Kurt Vonnegut's comic conceit

By Richard von Busack

HOW DO YOU bear the unbearable? With fantasy. In his best novels, Kurt Vonnegut overcame the worst of what he saw as a POW during the Allied bombing of Dresden in WWII. His shellshocked style, pop nihilism and science-fiction hopes for a universe where someplace, something, made sense were enormously popular with the dreamers of the 1960s.

The main character in the screen adaptation of Vonnegut's Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell Jr., is a playwright turned Nazi propagandist. Looking back at the work he did before the war, Campbell notes his plays were "as political as chocolate eclairs"--a judgment that could sum up not only the politics but the substance of Vonnegut's own work.

As Campbell, Nick Nolte rants about Jews and pronounces the moral of the story: "Be careful who you pretend to be, because you'll end up who you're pretending to be." Born American, Campbell achieves success in Nazi Germany--as a purveyor of mediocre plays, the book explains, though the movie doesn't underscore this point.

An OSS agent (John Goodman) recruits Campbell as a double-agent propagandist, and he delivers radio hate speeches with strategic coughs and pauses as secret messages to tip off the Allies. He goes undiscovered, and the film preserves the novel's most ironic moment: Campbell's father-in-law, the police chief of Berlin, praises him for being more inspirational than Hitler.

After the war, Campbell goes to New York, where he holes up for more than 10 years of self-described "purgatory"; eventually, he's discovered by a band of wheezing old Nazi sympathizers and his wife, Helga (Sheryl Lee--Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks), who had been presumed dead. Following them come vengeful army veterans and secret agents from the U.S.S.R. and Israel, all vying to claim him as a war criminal.

Nolte, ineptly dyed to look young in the prewar scenes, shuffles through the movie in various shades of despair. The gloom lifts temporarily when Helga returns from the ashes. Lee, a severely underrated actress (although she could have used a dialect coach to get her through a rocky German accent), makes a most convincing madwoman.

Keith Gordon, the reliable director who made The Chocolate War and A Midnight Clear, had the taste to tackle this project without changing the ending. In patches, the movie evinces some sharpness, particularly in its playful use of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and some well-observed street scenes of Manhattan around 1960.

Still, by casting Nolte, an actor of deep Celtic gravity, Gordon misses the buffoonery of Campbell. In the book, walking down the street in New York, Campbell sees a hotel doorman wearing a uniform just like the one he used to wear when he was broadcasting to the Allies. If you've ever heard recordings of "Lord Haw-Haw," the British fascist who made broadcasts for the Reich, you'll know that these propagandists were perky, flippant fellows, blithe in the knowledge that soon Hitler would be Chancellor of the World.

Nolte, however, hissing like a serpent, is meant to personify the evil of fascism, as are all the other male Germans in the movie. Vonnegut's Campbell was Goebbels' occasional opponent at ping-pong. How could a director resist the chance to de-ice the Nazis, instead of presenting them in a wax-museum tableaux, togged out in uncomfortable evening clothes, congratulating Campbell at a reception?

The film is didactic to a fault, pushing a lesson about the importance of shunning Nazism, which most of the audience is not going to need. Vonnegut himself appears, looking like the saddest man in the world and infusing the film with middle-aged sorrow. Taking Vonnegut's depression at face value, Gordon has made the not-uncommon mistake of turning a witty book into a tragedy.

Mother Night the novel was a study fit for a post-Holocaust Lubitsch, an acid comedy about a moral relativist's comeuppance; Mother Night the movie is designed to please Elie Wiesel. The director's moral purpose flattens the author's eclair. As Vonnegut wrote, "This is a hard world to be ludicrous in." And it is twice as hard to capture the precise ludicrousness of life and history in a film. Gordon seems to have misjudged Vonnegut's tone, here doing what the author sanely avoided: taking the weight of the Holocaust onto his shoulders.


Mother Night (R; 113 min.), directed by Keith Gordon, written by Robert B. Weide, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, photographed by Tom Richmond and starring Nicky Nolte and Sheryl Lee.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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