The HBO film “Fatherland,” built on a what-if premise that the Germans won World War II, starts promisingly as a stylish thriller but is unable to sustain its tension or even its credibility through the second hour. The film aspires to be Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” but ends up closer to a tasteful, BBC-produced cop show.
The year is 1964. The Nazis, having turned back the Normandy invasion and attained supremacy in Europe, now seek detente with U.S. President Joseph Kennedy. SS units of the army have been converted to police duty; the Gestapo continues to cover up the Final Solution.
The film, helmed by Christopher Menaul, efficiently introduces its two principal characters and sets them in action. Berlin SS detective Xavier March (Rutger Hauer) receives a call early one morning to investigate a corpse found in a nearby lake.
The stiff turns out to have been a high-ranking government official who was an architect of the Jewish “resettlement program” during the war. A young SS officer who had been jogging near the lake tells March he saw the chief of the Gestapo and two henchmen leaving the scene of the crime.
At the same time, American journalist Charlie Maguire (Miranda Richardson) arrives in Berlin to cover the upcoming meeting of President Kennedy and the 75 -year-old Adolf Hitler.
In the crowded station a mysterious man hands Charlie an envelope containing a wartime photo of a group of Nazi officials. Soon after, visiting a German apartment, she finds a man and woman murdered in bed. Charlie is taken to police headquarters, where she is questioned by March. Again, the Gestapo seems to be involved.
After receiving a go-ahead from SS chief Nebe (Peter Vaughan) to investigate links between the two cases, March joins forces with Charlie to get to the bottom of things.
But in the course of unraveling the meaning of the old photo, the film begins to lose its way. (Script is by Stanley Weiser and Ron Hutchinson, based on the novel by Robert Harris.) Too much time is spent on March’s relationship with his young son, not enough on the legwork of the investigation, which reveals nice details of Germania’s repressed social fabric.
As the film comes to its climax, it slides increasingly into formulaic and unbelievable situations. The less said about the last few minutes, the better.
Still, working on location inPrague, the filmmakers have created a credible postwar Berlin in physical terms. Settings, under production designer Veronica Hadfield, and Barbara Lane’s costumes are excellent; Peter Sova’s photography’s effective in a pseudo-documentary, hand-held way.
Gary Chang’s music is suitably tense, but the dialogue’s sound quality is uneven and the heavy dubbing of lines isn’t always quite in sync.
The central performances are likewise uneven. Hauer gives a solid reading of the bourgeois SS detective who’s drawn into a political case he wants no part of. Richardson is more problematic; she drifts in and out of her American accent , and in and out of her signature sullen intensity.
Vaughan, on the other hand — seen recently as Anthony Hopkins’ aging butler father in “The Remains of the Day”– is terrif as Hauer’s calculating SS boss.