Kurt Vonnegut toiled for years in obscurity, exploded into fame in 1969 with "Slaughterhouse-Five," then tumbled back into obscurity. Quick, what was the name of his last book?
So it goes with a literary career: You're underrated, then you're overrated, then you're unrated, all in the space of a single decade. But it's very nice to have Vonnegut's best book well-adapted to the screen, in "Mother Night," with Nick Nolte.
The novel, adapted by Robert Weide and directed by Keith Gordon, manages to capture what was so brilliant about Vonnegut at his best: his blackness of temperament as demonstrated through his sharpness of wit. For a depressed guy, he was very funny. (I use the past tense, though it's only his literary career that appears dead; he's still very much alive and even appears in "Mother Night.")
"Mother Night" is a mock autobiography penned by Howard W. Campbell Jr., the well-known traitor. It was published in the early '60s, after the sensational snatch, trial and execution of Adolph Eichmann, who puts in a cameo appearance in the book and the movie (Eichmann, from the book, to Howard: "Do you have the name of a good agent?"). Vonnegut, however, had a more complex story to tell than the simple banality of evil, even if the story was conceived as a memoir written by a Nazi war criminal in an Israeli jail cell; his was of the complexity of evil, its interpenetration with good.
Possibly Vonnegut learned this hardest of lessons as an infantryman in World War II and then as a survivor of the Dresden bombing as a P.O.W. In any event, the cleverness of "Mother Night" is the way it deftly turns all our assumptions inside out. No one is who he seems, not even Campbell (Nolte), presented initially as a braying mixture of Lord Haw Haw and Father Coughlin. An American turncoat risen high in the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, he broadcasts anti-Semitic filth to a global audience over the shortwave every week and then goes to cocktail parties with the Nazi aristocracy, his beautiful wife at his side. Only three others besides Howard know that he's an American spy, and his broadcasts conceal coded information essential to the winning of the war.
Living in bitter and anonymous widowerhood after the war, his heroism unrevealed, his grief pungent, he befriends a gentle painter next door who himself is also the exact opposite of what he appears; yet at the same time, George Kraft (played dryly by Alan Arkin) is a great painter. That's one of the geniuses of Vonnegut: He insists that human beings can be phenomena of polarity, can embrace multitudes.
Arkin's Kraft is such a creature: A gentle, kind man, a compassionate friend, he's also got a professional agenda, which he has no trouble reconciling to his emotions. In fact, such polarity is the central organizing principle of the book and the movie: All enemies turn out to be friends, all friends turn out to be enemies, all heroes cowards and all cowards heroes. So it goes.
Kraft sets in motion a complex plot that cruelly turns on revealing Howard's identity to the world and restoring his seemingly dead wife to him; and he's gotten Howard enmeshed in the world of spies and intelligence operatives, with Howard once again the pawn.
As a piece of filmmaking, "Mother Night" is a clear case of making more out of less. It's a slight production that seems gigantic, a small cast, a few setups that somehow manage to suggest Nazi Berlin at the height of conquest, Greenwich Village, Dachau, and so forth. The uniform excellence of the acting and complete professionalism of the production disguise its threadbare realities. Nolte is particularly good; less a growly grump than he usually is, he manages to catch Howard's many sides, from effete artist to Nazi hotshot to shattered man to restored lover. But for sheer brilliance, there's a four-minute appearance by child actress Kirsten Dunst that is staggering.
Some of Vonnegut's tics are retained, one annoying one in particular: a fondness for specious aphorisms that he thinks are charming and whimsical. Thus it's annoyingly typical of Vonnegut that he sums up the lessons of this work in such an exercise: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Utter drivel. Actually, we are how we behave, so we must be careful about how we behave.
Starring Nick Nolte, Alan Arkin
Directed by Keith Gordon
Released by New Line
Rated R (sexual overtones, violence)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 11/08/96