Friday November 1, 1996
Late in Keith Gordon's faithful, if occasionally awkward, adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 novel "Mother Night," Vonnegut himself appears, as an extra in a scene in post-World War II Greenwich Village. It's a wordless cameo, lasting maybe two seconds, but Gordon uses the moment in a way that does the author proud.
Vonnegut is just one of many people seen walking around the story's hero, Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte), an infamous onetime Nazi radio propagandist, who is standing frozen in the middle of a sidewalk. Campbell's off-camera voice explains that he's stopped because he can think of no reason to go on, and Vonnegut, in close-up, looks at him with a combination of sadness and contempt, as if he were commenting directly on what we, the audience, have seen up to that point.
It's been a favorite trick of Vonnegut to interact, as the author, with the characters he creates, and viewers who don't recognize him or that literary mannerism will be puzzled by the scene. But to the Vonnegut faithful, it's a terrific touch.
And it is much more than homage. Vonnegut's look freezes Campbell in another way. Here's a man who, as a young American playwright living in Nazi Germany in the late '30s, is recruited as a spy. He becomes the Tokyo Rose of the Third Reich, the voice of a passionate anti-Semite mocking the Allies while reaffirming Aryan supremacy, all the time passing along coded messages edited into his copy to the American Command.
Fifteen years after the war, he's living in a run-down Greenwich Village apartment, an icon of American White Supremacists, being pursued for different reasons by both Israeli and Soviet agents, and unable to prove his true role in the war because, as he was forewarned, the U.S. government will never acknowledge it.
"We are what we pretend to be," Vonnegut writes in the first paragraph of his novel, "so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
As Campbell stands stiff as a stone in Greenwich Village, Vonnegut's look suggests that the moral has become fact. The apolitical Campbell, who had accepted the spy role more as an acting challenge than a call to patriotism, is stunned all these years later by the insight that he may have done far more harm than good.
"Mother Night" is a dark and disturbing tale, unrelieved by any off-hand humor from Vonnegut's prose, and Gordon ("Midnight Clear"), with a script by the television veteran Robert Weide, has made no compromises.
The young director has, however, made some mistakes--among them the casting of Sheryl Lee, "Twin Peaks' " Laura Palmer, as Campbell's German wife, Helga Noth. Lee's accent sounds like a schoolgirl's impression, and she never quite fits the charismatic description Campbell gives of her. And in sticking to the book's flashback structure, with Campbell narrating his memoirs from an Israeli prison where he is awaiting his war crimes trial, Gordon draws too direct a line between himself, as storyteller, and Vonnegut. Different media, different problems, different talents.
This is a case where the film may be too faithful to the source. Novels stimulate the imagination in ways a film has to demonstrate, and the detailed account of Campbell's early life in Germany has a distracting dress-up quality to it. It's also too much time to spend with Nolte, looking every wrinkle and sag of his 56 years, playing a man in his early 30s.
The Greenwich Village sections are far more involving, and Nolte perfectly conveys the sense of a man lugging the world around on his shoulders, haunted both by the memories of his great love and his lost identity.
A couple of strong supporting performances come from John Goodman, as the American intelligence agent whom Campbell refers to as his Blue Fairy Godmother, and Alan Arkin, playing Campbell's Greenwich Village friend and neighbor George Kraft, who has a dark past of his own.
"Mother Night" is only the third Vonnegut novel adapted for the screen, and the only good one since George Roy Hill's 1972 "Slaughterhouse Five." A disastrous effort was made to adapt "Slapstick (Of Another Kind)" in 1984, which features Jerry Lewis' last starring role. It was that bad.
Mother Night, 1996. R, for a scene of sexuality. A Whyaduck production, distributed by Fine Line Features. Producers Keith Gordon, Robert B. Weide. Director Gordon. Script Weide, adapted from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Cinematography Tom Richmond. Editor Jay Rabinowitz. Music Michael Convertino. Production designer Francois Seguin. Costumes Renee April. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Nick Nolte as Howard W. Campbell Jr.. Sheryl Lee as Helga Noth. Alan Arkin as George Kraft. John Goodman as Frank Wirtanen. Kirsten Dunst as Resi Noth.