Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy

Conspiracy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

20 January

 

 

The Wannsee Conference, 1942

On this day in 1942 a short meeting was held at 56-58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the suburbs of Berlin. It was called by Reinhard Heydrich, boss of the SS, and gathered together the heads of various government departments to facilitate the removal of Jews from Germany and occupied territories, their deportation to Poland and their extermination. It lasted only about 90 minutes and was arranged to put in place the practical measures to ensure that the process ran smoothly, and to make sure that the various government departments cooperated. A secondary concern was to hammer out, once and for all, who was to be considered Jewish and who among the Jews was to be spared (those who simply could not be replaced, was the answer). It was in effect a power-grab by Heydrich, who arrived at the meeting with a sheet of paper on which were written the numbers of Jews estimated to be living in the various countries of Europe. The estimated number was “over 11 million”. The idea was to ship all of them out to Siberia, where they would all work till they died, and those who didn’t die would be killed, on account of their tough constitutions being too valuable to pass on to future generations. Though the entire meeting was couched in euphemism – Jews were to be “evacuated”, survivors of severe work details were to be treated “accordingly” – everyone present knew what was actually being discussed, as testimony from Adolph Eichmann at his trial in Israel in 1962, attests.

 

 

 

Conspiracy (2001, dir: Frank Pierson)

Conspiracy tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, and it tells it largely from a record of the meeting found in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry after the war had ended, which also provided the raw material for the German-Austrian film Die Wannseekonferenz. Kenneth Branagh heads the largely British ensemble cast, playing Reinhard Heydrich, while Stanley Tucci plays Adolf Eichmann, the high-level penpusher who facilitated the transportation of Jews across Europe, made sure t’s were crossed, i’s were dotted and trains ran on time – the “desk murderer” as the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal later called him. Heydrich is pivotal, the cool sinister presence nudging, cajoling, urging the other factotums present into endorsing what they have been summoned to that room to endorse. Disagreements are few, and tend to be of a pedantic or legalistic nature – on the exact definition of what a Jew is, according to 1935s Nuremberg Laws, for instance, which Colin Firth’s Dr Wilhelm Stuckart gets hung up on – rather than the moral awfulness of what they were planning. Heydrich was in effect asking the room to drop the legal pretext for killing Jews and just get on with it. In Branagh’s Heydrich we have not a portrait of evil but of cold efficiency, “the man with the iron heart” as Hitler called him – Branagh later talked about wondering whether Heydrich, if asked to eliminate 11 million tennis players, might not have done it with similar ruthlessness. Beware the civil servants, the managers, in other words. Director Frank Pierson (who had written another largely single-room drama, Dog Day Afternoon, years before) keeps the camera at head level. We’re at the table with Heydrich as he moves the agenda from one item to the next, moving from the less controversial (“immigration”) to the more (“evacuation”) and focusing his frightening intensity on any backsliders he finds as each item is dealt with. We are at the table. It is mass extermination as high-level board meeting, murder as business.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An informative if chilling history lesson
  • The great cast includes David Threlfall and Ian McNeice
  • Fifteen men in a meeting has rarely been less boring
  • The Second World War from an entirely revelatory angle

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Conspiracy”

  1. This movie sets several things straight. The Wannsee conference is not the place and time where Nazi Germany decided to commit the Holocaust. The Holocaust had been going on for quite some time by January 1942, the time of the conference. Dachau had been in business for years. The SS Einsatzkommandos had already marched into Poland and Russia, gunning down Jewish men, women, and children by the hundreds of thousands. Even the extermination camps had already opened for business. Hermann Göring, at Hitler’s direction, had already given the order to proceed with the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.

    Thus, the purpose of the conference is not to decide on whether to murder the Jews of Europe. That decision already having been made, the conference is called so Reinhard Heydrich, as chief of the SD and second-in-command to Himmler in the SS, can ram the decision down the throat of the rest of the German government. The interesting thing is the other German leaders’ reaction. Many applaud, some object to the wastage of Jews whom they consider more valuable as slaves than as corpses, some favor sterilization instead of murder, and some get physically sick. But, enthusiastically or grudgingly, they all accept.

    The well-deserved demonization of Adolf Hitler has the regrettable side effect of obscuring the evil of his cronies and subordinates from anyone but historians, like a baleful sun whose light obscures the stars. Below the level of Hitler, the public’s view of the German government dissolves into an amorphous mass called `Nazis,’ the interchangeable automatons of the Führer. If the movie achieves nothing else, it will put Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann on the map as villains in their own right, not mere extensions of Hitler. Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Heydrich, the `Blond Beast,’ is unnerving; he is the personification of that ruthless will, impervious to either reason or human feeling, which Hitler admired. This performance would be a star-making turn for a young actor; for Branagh, it is routine, maybe even a bit below average for this amazing performer.

    CONSPIRACY individualizes the Nazis at the conference, and shows the different facets of evil. Tellingly, Colin Firth’s Wilhelm Stuckart is one of the least repulsive characters present, even though he is the architect of the barbaric Nuremberg Laws which forced Jews out of the professions and decreed death for any Jew who should marry an Aryan. He, at least, is one of the few who has the courage to stand up to Heydrich, if only for a little while, and resist the SS thugs’ insistence on mass murder. His insistence that Jews must be oppressed only according to the strict letter of the law is insane, absurd, but it is a principle, which is more than most of these people have. Klopfer, Martin Bormann’s lackey, is the most disgusting man present, even if he can’t match Heydrich for pure evil; not even the veneer of civilization is left on him, and he shows sadistic pleasure at the thought of murdering the Jews. Other reactions range from zealously uncritical compliance with orders, to cheerful indifference, to a sort of put-upon resentment that the work of extermination is falling on them.

    But the most disturbing character is Kritzinger, secretary of the Reich chancellery, the only person present who wants not to be a murderer. He is not, as some think, the only one present who realizes that what they’re doing is wrong; even Heydrich knows that, as can be seen by his careful precautions to keep the crime secret. But while the others all want to get away with what they know is wrong, Kritzinger doesn’t want to do it at all. Still, after being privately browbeaten and threatened by Heydrich, he states his support for the murders. Of all those present, Kritzinger is spiritually the closest to the audience, and naturally invites the question of what we would do in his place. Could you, unarmed and alone, look right into the eyes of the Blond Beast, a man whose hands are dripping with the blood of thousands of dissenters from the Reich, and tell him, `No, I defy you,’ knowing that while you are risking your own torture and death, you will probably not even save a single Jew? I wish I could just write that I don’t know, but the honest thing to write is that I doubt I could do that.

    Kritzinger’s case is a brutal warning of the malevolent power of groupthink. Even as the killers sit at the table and exchange smiles, one senses a spiteful, hungry vigilance for the first sign of sympathy for the people they are planning to slaughter, waiting to pounce on the dissenter and rip him apart with scorn and threats.

    When it comes to flaw-picking time, I can only say that the ending should have shown some of the consequences of the meeting. There should have been at least some reference to the millions of people who were killed by these men. Instead, we are treated only to the fate of the men themselves, although that is disturbing in itself when we see how many of them escaped justice at Nuremberg.

    People look at the pictures from Dachau and Buchenwald, the piles of starved corpses and the lamps made of human skin, and they say, `How could they?’ Watch the movie. This is how they did it: over drinks around a table.

    Rating: ***½ out of ****.

    Recommendation: Everyone mature enough to understand should see this movie.

  2. Our perception of the Holocaust is shaped by the harrowing images of the gas chambers and crematoria of Auswitz; watch Conspiracy and be jarred out of the complacency that comes from familiarity and be a fly-on-the-wall at the genesis of genocide.

    The film documents a meeting held during WW2, when SS second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, assembles a group of Nazi bureaucrats and functionaries to ‘discuss the final solution of the Jewish question’. In the sublime surroundings of a German country house, the assembled mingle for drinks, enjoy a first class buffet lunch and debate whether execution or sterilisation is the most efficient option of eliminating an entire race of people.

    Subject matter aside, Conspiracy is all the more devastating, and precious, from its excellent script and incredible ensemble performances. There is no attempt or need to manipulate the viewer – the enormity of the truth is compelling, and appalling enough. The are no cartoon Nazis here, the depiction of Heydrich is fascinating and complex: the man is urbane, witty, impeccably mannered and utterly devoid of morality.

    Credit must be given to Kenneth Branagh who propels the entire piece with one of the best portrayals on screen in memory. He is utterly convincing in the role of a man who epitomises the classic definition of evil: not just the doing of wrong, but the perversion of the human spirit so that it no longer has any perception of the good.

    Where Heydrich is conviction, as the narrative develops, almost exclusively as table-talk, others are less sure. The range of attendees symbolises the various strains of Nazi culture, which developed over the course of the third reich. For the idealistic of these – the philosopher/technocrat Kritzinger; the legalistic Wilhelm Stuckart and the young soldier Major Lange, there is the dawning realisation of the human catastrophe in which they are complicit.

    Technical objections are raised – Stuckhart expounds a ludicrous web of of objections on how the plan breaks the vile race laws he himself architected, and will be an ‘administrative nightmare’, but they soon realise this is a done deal – most of the mechanisms are already in place. The politically sharp Heydrich only needs to extract expressions of support in order to bind all the orders of Nazi society into equal guilt. During breaks in the proceedings he discreetly buttonholes the wobblers and silences their doubts: by naked threats, or in the case of Lange by invoking the fantasy that what they do is all part of a plan for a better tomorrow. Succumbing to Heydrich’s magnetism and realising the dream is pretty much all that is left, Lange allows himself to be persuaded.

    The eloquent script captures the delusional, the grotesque and the desparate qualities of the German position at that moment in the war: the calculation that defeat is inevitable, but unthinkable – despite the repeated whimsy of Heydrich that he will return here for a quiet country life once the war is over. He knows that he, and all others present, is headed only into the dark. And it’s a one-way journey.

  3. As a 4th generation American of German heritage, I have a deep interest in attempting to understand how a presumably cultured, educated, Christian society could become the Nazi nightmare of WWII.

    This film, as so eloquently stated by previous posters, is quite simply a cautionary tale for all of humanity. I have seen the film several times on HBO, and whenever it comes on, I feel compelled to drop what I’m doing and watch, again transfixed — at the ability of our human brains to rationalize and deny even in the face of undebatable truths.

    Any honest person watching the film must ask himself — How would I respond if I were at that table? How would I respond if I were a German citizen in the Third Reich? Americans, I believe, right now in 2005 — should look at this film as a warning. No — we are not fascist Nazis — not yet. But the groundwork is there. The propaganda, the denial of the facts and the demonization of our enemies. The blind nationalism. We are at a turning point in our country — and we would be wise to look to history as a reminder of what can happen when we as human beings let fear, ego, and the lust for power dominate over all else.

    I will buy this DVD and share it with my family and friends.

    As long as people believe in absurdities then they will continue to commit atrocities.

    — Bertrand Russell

  4. The other reviewer her could not be more wrong, and shows a lack of historical knowledge. Heydrich WAS rushing to get through the meeting — that was why it only lasted 90 minutes! The meeting was not held to plot the Holocost, but rather was a staged production organized by the SS (who already had started planning the final solution and embarked on mass murder at smaller scales 7 months earlier)to obtain administrative and cooperative buy-in from the other facets of the German government, and their recognition of the SS’s total authority over carrying it out. And Heydrich was alternatively charming and then abrupt and short: he was head of the Gestapo, after all. Although Branagh is much smaller and better looking than Heydrich was, he does what an actor does — capture the essence of a presence, the gist of the personality. Likewise, Tucci embodies the "banality of evil" — a schedule obsessed numbers & detail man, an accountant concerned only with pleasing his superiors and making mass murder efficient, while dissociating himself from the meaning and consequences of his actions.

    Although not as well-acted, the German language Wansee Conference is actually a bit better in imparting the agenda-driven business meeting quality of the event. Anyone who has ever been to a business planning meeting (in any business, but especially in government or regulated utility during budget planning time) cannot help but feel sick at the ordinary familiarity of it all. Replace killing people with making and marketing widgets, and you got it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *