It could be a boardroom at any Fortune 500 company where stockholders bicker over inventory and storage. Instead, the 15 men gathered in this lakeside resort home outside of Berlin are discussing the details of a “Final Solution” to purge all Jews from Europe. In this disturbing original movie, co-produced by HBO and BBC Films, director Frank Pierson recreates the less than two hours it took for high-ranking Third Reich officials to agree to the eradication of an entire race.
Theoretically, one could watch this film on Saturday and then tune in to ABC the next night to watch their horrific plan implemented with the miniseries “Anne Frank.” However, “Conspiracy” stands on its own as a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of a disturbing piece of history.
Known as the Wannsee Conference, the only record of the January 1942 meeting to survive was found in the German Foreign Office files by Americans in 1947. Writer Loring Mandel takes the written transcript of the meeting and adds chilling insight into the men and the topic at hand.
Reinforcing the banality of which these men plan the most evil of deeds, Pierson cleverly evokes the pageantry of the meeting, running the camera over the platters of food, carefully selected wines and crystals and even the handwritten place cards.
This attention to seemingly unimportant details sets an eerie tone echoed by the understated performances of a fine ensemble cast. Kenneth Branagh oozes malevolence as the manipulative and dismissive SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich who at one point proudly announces the success of the T-4 euthanasia program. Although technically outranked by others in the room, Heydrich quickly establishes that this is not really a discussion, but rather a very persuasive demand for absolute cooperation.
As Eichmann, Tucci’s performance is much more subtle than Branagh’s. For most of the movie, he silently carries out Heydrich’s commands with hardly a blink of an eye, but instead of losing visibility, Tucci adds nuances of evil with his timely whispers and sideways glances.
The most passionate performance comes from Colin Firth as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, who for a moment appears to be a Jewish sympathizer, but as it turns out, is angered only at the breach of protocol, not morality.
For the film, Pierson encouraged the actors to use their regular speaking voices as opposed to affecting a German accent. It’s a smart move that keeps the focus off of the delivery and onto the content of what was said. The appalling subject matter is then juxtaposed with political posturing and infighting, arguments over syntax , a bit of career networking and of course, a buffet lunch.
Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt keeps the camera at an intimate level with the actors, never venturing above or below eye level. Throughout the film, the camera rotates around the table, seemingly looking for a spark of moral conscience, although little is found. Production credits are flawless with immaculate set design by Peter Mullins capturing the opulent but sterile surroundings of Wannsee. Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major performed by Ensemble Villa Musica is a nice touch considering at one point in the film Heydrich contends, “Schubert will tear your heart out.” That is, of course, if you have one.