Mother Night
directed by Keith Gordon
Full Line Features, 1996

In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Mother Night, a very funny novel about some of the unfunniest things in the world: Nazism, anti-semitism and super patriotism. Thirty-five years later it was made into a very unfunny movie about the same unfunny things.

Just where producer-director Keith Gordon went wrong in his film version of Mother Night is hard to say, but it probably began with the casting of Nick Nolte to play Vonnegut's protagonist, Howard W. Campbell Jr.

Campbell, as described by Vonnegut, is a walking piece of irony. An American playwright living in Berlin at the start of World War II, he's contacted by Army Intelligence and asked to work for the allies, broadcasting vital information out of Germany during his weekly 15-minute radio show. But there's a catch: the radio show itself is a piece of Nazi propaganda, during which Campbell delivers anti-semitic diatribes against just about every Jew in the world, right up to their leader, Franklin Delano Rosenfeld.

After the defeat of Germany, Campbell, who is supposed to be tried as a war criminal, disappears, with the aid of Army Intelligence, only to be rediscovered 15 years later in New York by a band of neo-Nazis, the White Christian Minutemen, who are led by a deranged dentist -- the Rev. Dr. Lionel Jones, D.D.S., D.D. -- and his chauffeur, Robert Sterling Wilson, "The Black Fuhrer of Harlem." To Jones and his followers, Campbell is the ultimate hero, but only for what they've seen him do, not for what he's really done. It's the kind of irony Vonnegut relishes, but Nolte can't seem to get inside it.

Nolte is good at playing the suffering Campbell, who must live with his public persona and all the harm that persona has done. But he's too intense to capture the other Howard W. Campbell Jr., the apolitical playwright who goes along with his strange fate because he can see no other way out of it, at least not until the final scene.

Only Alan Arkin as Howard Kraft, a communist agent who wants to kidnap Campbell for his own propaganda purposes, and Bernard Behrens as the neo-Nazi dentist, manage to capture any of the flavor of Vonnegut's work. That's a shame, because Mother Night the film has quite a few merits: Dusky photography artfully blended with a low-key string score, an effective cameo by John Goodman as Campbell's contact, the "Blue Fairy Godmother," and striking images, like a Nazi staff car being towed by an ox.

Moreover, the script follows Vonnegut's story so closely that you can hold the book on your lap and follow entire passages, dialogue and all, the way some people follow the score at the symphony. Unfortunately, without Vonnegut's absurd view of the universe, too many of his words are simply wasted.

It takes nearly two hours to watch Mother Night. You can read it in about three. It's an hour well spent elsewhere.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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