Mother Night (1996; directed by Keith Gordon)

"Mother Night" is my favorite of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, so I approached this movie with some trepidation, especially since I had trouble seeing Nick Nolte as the wreck Howard W. Campbell Jr. is during most of story. But I needn't have worried, he's perfect.

Campbell is an American playwright who lives in Germany as the Nazis come to power. He avoids thinking about politics by focusing on his art, and on his love for his wife (Helga, played by Sheryl Lee). She's an actress, and she stars in his plays. So, things are going fine for him when he's approached by an American agent (played by John Goodman) who makes him a proposition. He's in a rare position, an American totally accepted by the Nazis (they like the themes of his plays). Would he be willing to work his way further into their good graces and become a broadcaster of Nazi propaganda? One who would really be working for the Allies, transmitting coded information along with the propaganda?

He agrees, not because he's taking sides in the war but because the idea of playing such a role in real life is irresistible. So, he goes on the air as the "Last Free American," trashing Jews, Blacks and pretty much everybody else who isn't Aryan.

After the war, his beloved wife dead, he's spirited out of Germany by the Allies and, with no particular goal or purpose, he settles in Greenwich Village. His life is totally empty but uneventful, until he's discovered, by people who want to try him for what he did but also by people who think he's a hero because he told the truth about the Jews, the Blacks and so on. So, the question he wrestles with is, can the good his coded transmissions did possibly outweigh the evil his broadcasts contained, evil which has lasted long after the end of the war?

It's a great story, with a great moral ("we are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be"). Nolte is great, and so is Alan Arkin as his best friend. Sheryl Lee does her best with the role of Helga, but the character has no personality (in the book or in the screenplay), so there's only so much she can do. Helga is just there to be adored by Campbell (when she's alive and after she's dead), and that's pretty thin stuff.

Special mention must go to Kirstin Dunst (perhaps the best thing about "Interview with a Vampire," by the way), who is amazing in her one scene as Resi, Helga's little sister. Kurt Vonnegut has a cameo appearance.

Also Recommended:

With Nick Nolte: Affliction, The Thin Red Line

With Alan Arkin: Grosse Point Blank


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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