HBO takes hard line with ‘Conspiracy’

GOOD MORNING: “They have the biggest balls in the business.” That’s Stanley Tucci talking about HBO. Tucci plays Adolf Eichmann in HBO Film’s “Conspiracy,” the story of the 90-minute meeting Jan. 20, 1942, of 15 members of the German High Command at Wannsee, outside Berlin, to decide the annihilation of over four million Jews — by industrialized murder. It is a journey into the heart of evil. In a cold, blood curdlingly-matter-of-fact discussion, the exact method of murder is agreed upon. There is no physical and/or visual depiction of what they discuss or of what is to come, namely the holocaust and its victims. The film is riveting and I defy anyone to turn away from the screen when any of the principals, led by Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Tucci as Eichmann, are on camera. Frank Pierson directed and never once does he have cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt shoot above or below eye level. You are there in the company of these 15 men during this awesome, nay gruesome, page in history. And this HBO film is ONLY the beginning. Screenwriter Loring Mandel is now writing the sequel to “Conspiracy,” which is called “Complicity.” It’s the story of a similar meeting, this time between leaders of the U.S. and Great Britain, a year later in Bermuda. By that time, 80% of the four million Jews had already been eliminated according to the detailed blueprint set forth at Wannsee.

THE HISTORIC MEETING which “Complicity” dramatizes — which HBO has already OK’d to follow “Conspiracy” — was, per Mandel, held to discuss what action the U.S. and/or Britain should take “to mollify public opinion which had grown (against the Nazi murder machine)” but, Mandel says, “the secret purpose was to put on a show while agreeing to do nothing.” Mandel says it was Breckinridge Long of the U.S. State Dept. who was the mastermind of the meeting and the one responsible for the policy of not admitting Jewish refugees. He kept the news from getting to the State Department. Long, per Mandel, didn’t feel “Eastern European Jews were the kind of people the U.S. should bring into our country.” “When I listened to Patrick Buchanan’s campaign speeches, I could hear Breckinridge Long talking in the background,” Mandel says.

Characters who will be portrayed in “Complicity” include: FDR, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Sumner Welles, Henry Morgenthau Jr., George Backer, publisher of the N.Y.Post, Sen. Scott Lucas, Rep Sol Bloom, Josiah Dubois and Randolph Paul of the Treasury Dept., Rabbi Sephen Wise, Ben Hecht and Chaim Weizmann… “Conspiracy” preemed April 30 at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. The Museum’s historian, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, was a major contributor to the film’s factual background. Monday night the film screened in Chicago at Northwestern U. and tonight it screens at the Skirball Center in L.A., and on Thursday in N.Y. at the Council on Foreign Affairs. Tucci will attend the N.Y. screening. He told me, “I really want people to watch this movie. These are some of the best actors I have ever worked with. And one of the most interesting parts I have ever played — to play someone that awful, in such a murderous way but like in a business meeting!”

“Conspiracy” was eight years in the making, director Frank Pierson admitted to me. He credits HBO Films prexy Colin Callender for giving the greenlight to the pic after Pierson tried to raise the $ to make it as in indie feature. He credits Mandel for “one of the best scripts I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading and the privilege of directing. He was there during two weeks of rehearsals and on the set all the time.”

THE SCRIPT IS AN EXACT REPRODUCTION of the tape of that fateful meeting. Editor Peter Zinner, Pierson’s longtime friend and coworker, who escaped from Vienna, July 4, 1938, had seen the Austrian-German film “Die Wannseekonferenz” and originally brought it to Pierson’s attention. “When I saw it I was stunned,” Zinner told me. “I said to Frank, it had to be made (by us). And I insisted on editing it.” Pierson reacted similarly after viewing the Austrian-German pic. “I was mesmerized. I’ve got to do it,” he said. “I’ve got to get it more exposure.” Zinner helped Pierson produce the HBO’er with Frank Doelger. The Wannsee site is now a Holocaust Museum. The HBO film crew shot there for five days, during which tours going through the museum were shocked at the sight of Nazi uniforms on some of the actors … Pierson hopes there is some way to get this HBO pic into movie theaters, though the multiple showings on HBO itself may bring it an even bigger audience.