At least three styles of filmmaking clash incongruously in Keith Gordon’s “Mother Night,” an extremely ambitious but not entirely successful adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s ironic satire of an American citizen in Hitler’s Germany whose shifting politics and arbitrary allegiances ultimately cost him his life. A strong central performance by Nick Nolte and a brilliant supporting turn from Alan Arkin help considerably a story that, while always intriguing narratively, seldom finds the right tone in conveying its black humor. Uneven direction of basically cerebral material and lack of conventional payoff will make this idiosyncratic film a hard placement commercially, though Nolte’s star power and novelist’s name should find favor with non-mainstream auds.
In his third outing, actor-director Gordon demonstrates again his attraction to highly complex narratives dealing with the subtle ironies inherent in extreme political situations, from power struggles in a Catholic boys’ school (“The Chocolate War”) to ethical dilemmas of young soldiers in war (“A Midnight Clear”) and, here, matters of political survival and identity in Nazi Germany.
Vonnegut’s modern classic, transferred to the screen by Robert B. Weide, presents a particularly tough challenge because it takes a nonjudgmental, often playful approach to moral issues of the utmost importance: loyalty and trust, national politics and personal identity. Notions that a person’s allegiances are arbitrary, and that good and evil can change with one’s point of view, inform the film’s cynical, postmodernist perspective. The material calls for delicate shifts in mood, easily achieved by Vonnegut in his writing but missing from Gordon’s helming, which irritatingly rambles from one form of stylization to another.
Story begins in 1961, in a black-and-white sequence that shows Howard Campbell (Nolte), a middle-aged American, brought to an Israeli prison, with the soundtrack playing Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” against an image of Israel’s flag. Furnished with an old typewriter, he’s given three weeks to record his memoirs before standing trial as a war criminal. Tale then flashes back to Campbell’s childhood in New York, his family’s move to Berlin in l919, his marriage to a German woman and successful career there as a playwright.
Shifting back and forth in time, first half is mostly set in Germany, where Campbell is seduced into service by the U.S. government on a top secret assignment that calls for him to assume the role of a Nazi sympathizer. Gaining national celebrity through his popular radio show, he soon becomes a prominent spokesman for the Nazis’ anti-Semitic (and anti-American) propaganda.
Pic’s second half switches to 1950s New York, with Campbell living in poverty in Greenwich Village until he’s recognized as the infamous Nazi personality. Tale becomes a wonderfully intriguing black comedy, with Campbell simultaneously persecuted by his Holocaust survivor neighbors, pursued by the American authorities as a traitor and courted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists wishing to revive the “good old days.”
Combining elements of a political thriller, romance and black comedy, intricate, multi-nuanced yarn calls for a subtle, highly modulated direction. But with the exception of a few scenes, Gordon’s helming stumbles, failing to convey the variegated moods of individual scenes and, more important, lacking smooth transitions among the twisting plot’s numerous sequences.
As a good deal of the story is narrated by Nolte, Gordon goes out of his way to decorate the material with various stylistic flourishes to uneven results. For instance, the introduction of Campbell’s loving wife, Helga (Sheryl Lee), in a bath of golden light is jarringly silly, and their sex scenes are preposterously shot. It is telling that the less explicit the presentation, the more effective its impact hence, the exchanges between Campbell and fellow prisoner Adolph Eichmann, who’s heard but never seen, are deliciously wicked.
In top form after a couple of disappointing films, Nolte is superb in conveying the nightmarish (mis)adventures of a man who claims, “I’m an American by birth, Nazi by reputation,” but ultimately comes to believe that he is what he’s pretended to be to the point of willingly surrendering himself as a Nazi criminal.
“Mother Night” would have benefited if the leading lady were as strong as Nolte. But with a thick accent that can most charitably be called distracting, Lee is excessively mannered in a dual part, as Campbell’s wife and as the mature Resi, Campbell’s sister-in-law (Resi as a young girl is played by Kirsten Dunst).
If the women seem less than ideally cast, all the secondary roles come to vivid life, adding immeasurable color to the film’s emotional impact. Eye-catching supporting turns are delivered by Arkin as Campbell’s N.Y. neighbor-painter, John Goodman as the American government agent, Bernard Behrens as the racist Dr. Jones, Frankie Faison as the Black Fuhrer of Harlem and, last but not least, Henry Gibson, who provides Eichmann’s ironically amusing voice.
Tech credits are impressive, though pic’s eclectic visual style reflects the director’s lack of unified vision. Still, Tom Richmond’s alert camera often captures the shifting mood of its central character, as in a strikingly poignant high-angle shot that depicts Campbell standing frozen on the street all day because, as he says, “I absolutely had no reason to move in any direction.”