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Mother Night 25 Years Later: Timeless Love and Art, Still Timely Politics

Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte) watches a younger vesion of himself in "Mother Night"

The 1996 film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night (directed by Keith Gordon) is a rather obscure movie. It has just 5.2K ratings on IMDb and 1.4K on Letterboxd, which is not much for a production starring many Hollywood heavyweights that is based on a modern literary classic. Nevertheless, it’s a must-see, especially for Lynchheads, since it gave Sheryl Lee the rare non-Lynch opportunity to shine. But it would be an equally heartbreaking and thought-provoking venture even with another actress as a female lead.

The Great Pretender

Mother Night is a story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte), the son of an American engineer who worked in pre-World War II Germany, as he awaits trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison after the war. Before the war, Campbell was a popular playwright and married his muse—an actress named Helga Noth (Sheryl Lee). Although he had been only writing apolitical plays about love and devotion, he agrees to become an American spy. Campbell understood that due to the secret nature of his task, the true meaning of his actions would never be revealed to the world. He accepted the danger looming over his head because he treated his new role as an “acting challenge.”

Such an approach may seem immature, and it goes without saying that Campbell paid a hefty price for his gamble with fate. It’s easy to notice that his judgment is perpetually clouded because of his borderline obsessive love for Helga. In the movie, the Campbells repeatedly call their relationship “Reich zu zwei” (German for “nation of two”). Such a declaration would be blasphemy to the Nazis. It also indicates that Campbell felt neither completely American nor German. This doesn’t mean that his explanation for his collaboration with the CIA as an “acting challenge” can’t be understood literally. There were times in my life when I was trying to treat my jobs as acting gigs, too. That was my coping mechanism when I had to take up the unsatisfying offers because I had no chance for better ones. In my experience, it never worked as a long-term strategy.

Before and After

Viewers get some indication that Campbell was in fact a capable actor. The CIA had a dual-use for his anti-Semitic radio broadcasts targeted at the American citizens: little did the German Ministry of Propaganda know that his on-air pauses and chuckles were a secret code delivering classified messages. We can only imagine what damage the involvement in these covert operations caused to Campbell’s psyche, especially after Helga’s presumed death in Crimea. Campbell himself barely escaped death at the hands of an angry GI when the war was ending. With the help of his CIA supervisor Colonel Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), he relocated to New York where he tried to get away from his shady past.

Escaping the long shadow of Nazism was not easy, and that’s what the second act of Mother Night is about. Campbell discovers that his dentist neighbor, Abraham Epstein, is an Auschwitz survivor. He bonds with another neighbor—a fellow widower named George Kraft—who eventually reveals the writer’s identity to a bunch of American neo-Nazis led by the publisher of The White Christian Minuteman, failed dentist-turned-pastor Lionel J.D. Jones. They not only start worshipping Campbell but also connect him with a woman who might be his miraculously saved wife…

Seduced by the Darkness

Man holding a woman in air-raid shelter
Nick Nolte and Sheryl Lee in “Mother Night”

Mother Night’s title comes from Mephisto’s monologue in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s pre-romanticism masterpiece Faust. Mephisto is a devil who unsuccessfully tries to stir up primitive desires in scholar Johann Faust in order to take his soul to hell. At one point he says: “I am a part of the part that at first was all, part of the darkness that gave birth to light, that supercilious light which now disputes with Mother Night her ancient rank and space, and yet cannot succeed; no matter how it struggles, it sticks to matter and can’t get free.” It’s not entirely clear why Vonnegut chose that phrase, but we can guess it’s the metaphor for the rigid laws of nature that doomed Campbell to eternal unhappiness.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the “Faust Studio” scene also provided the motto of Mikhail Bulkhakov’s most popular novel, Master and Margarita. When Mephistopheles is asked by Faust who he is, he answers that he is “part of that Power which would the Evil ever do, and ever does the Good.” To me, Master and Margarita was always the model depiction of love against adversity, even before I learned it’s compulsory reading in Polish high schools. Both Bulgakov’s Master and Vonnegut’s Campbell were misunderstood (albeit for different reasons) writers living in totalitarian countries. It can be argued that both were seduced by the (more or less earthly) devils promising them access to the love they craved. The books by both characters were published without their permission which distorted their intended message, although this plot point didn’t make it to film.

Between Love and Politics

There is another important connection between those two books. Both main female characters (Margarita and Helga) were long estranged from their partners and they seemed ghost-like to them when they reunited. Their lovers were understandably delighted by the women’s lasting devotion, but it was only a real reunion in Bulkhakov’s case. Campbell soon learns that the “resurrected” Helga is really her younger cousin Resi. We don’t get to know much about Helga from the movie, only that she was beautiful (there is a bit of on-screen nudity) and madly in love with Howard. Nevertheless, we get the sense from Sheryl Lee’s acting that these women were different. In her interpretation, Helga is fragile while Resi is more assertive, even manipulative in her scramble for Campbell’s love. Lee was up to the task of her double role in this film, and not only because she nailed the German accent.

The tender love scenes are a welcome counterpoint to the political bite of Mother Night. At first glance, the American neo-Nazis presented in this film seem rather harmless. They are men literally on the verge of dying, able to recruit only a few youngsters and forced to preach their racial hatred in hiding. Maybe not enough time had passed since World War II for the White Christian Minutemen to capitalize on the short memories of some bigots. They’re so absurd there’s a Black Fuhrer of Harlem is among them. Naturally, despite the shiny uniform, he is only a servant of his white “comrades.”

The Parade of Talent

two men in 1930s clothes sitting on park benches watching one another across the road
Nick Nolte and John Goodman in “Mother Night”

The whole Mother Night cast is a bonafide who’s who of ’90s Hollywood. Before seeing the film I was afraid Nick Nolte was too old to convincingly play Campbell as a young propagandist. In reality, the make-up department did a great job of ageing him in the third act. More importantly, Nolte expressed the whole range of his character’s emotions—coldness, passion, despair—perfectly. Gordon’s movie is proof that there’s no flick with John Goodman that is completely bad (yes, I include The Flintstones too). Goodman’s role also needed emotional nuance. The CIA man was gravely serious about his work, but he also treated Campbell with quite a lot of warmth. As an international relations student, I learned that such a sincere attitude was rare among the intelligence recruiters. In communist countries like Poland, intelligence officers mostly held the secret agents in contempt because they blackmailed or otherwise forced them to cooperate.

Alan Arkin believably played George Kraft—another person hiding a secret. You can spot big stars even in small scenes. Kirsten Dunst oozed bleakness in her one scene as young Resi. David Strathairn as Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare forced Campbell to watch hanged Nazis at Ohrdruf concentration camp. There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by Zach Grenier (who more recently proved he could be a great villain as Kenton in Devs) as Joseph Goebbels. Cinematographer Tom Richmond and art director François Séguin didn’t get a chance to shine because most of the scenes were played in the cramped interiors; nevertheless, I liked the outdoor scene in the third act showing Campbell’s despair and resignation after he lost everything he cherished in life. Even Kurt Vonnegut himself graced that scene with a cameo.

Not a Classic, But Classy

Quite a few online reviewers complain that the film version of Mother Night is too close to the original novel to have a reason for existence. I beg to differ. As a part-time teacher and former student of English as a foreign language, I think that movies like Volker Schlöndorff’s Death of a Salesman or Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby are not without merit. They help young people to compare their visions of literary characters with the iconography of a particular era they probably wouldn’t get to know otherwise. Not everyone is Baz Luhrmann after all… (For the record, I saw Romeo + Juliet at school, too.)

Also, a “not very original film” is not the same as “a film that is worse than the book”. Screenwriter Robert B. Weide did a good job of cutting less essential parts of Vonnegut’s work, like the subplot with Campbell’s best German friend Heinz Schildknecht. The scene where Helga/Resi is revealed in New York is expanded in the movie and fits the portrayal of Campbell as a hopeless lover. Cutting some sarcastic remarks from the dialog between the writer and Wirtanen in Wiesbaden seemed like dumbing down, however, it didn’t change much because we already knew Campbell was capable of sarcasm. It’s only a pity that the name of the Soviet spy character got jumbled—in the book, it’s Iona Potapov (by the way, you can’t find his native town on the map because the town changed its name from Proskurov to Khmelnytskyi in 1954).

Consider Yourselves Warned

Ultimately, Mother Night is worth remembering because it helps us understand how Charlottesville and January 6th happened. These events showed us that conspiracy theorists didn’t die with Lionel Jones’ generation and they still use the same fallacies. One example is especially close to my heart because of my roots. Pastor Jones was proud of his book Christ Was Not a Jew, which argued that Jesus wasn’t a Semite because many artists paint him as a white man. This thesis reminds me of Polish fringe historical theory “The Great Lechia”.

Its followers argue that a Slavic empire existed in ancient times because the portraits of its kings are on display in a monastery. In reality, the artist of those paintings was inspired by medieval legends. Those stories originated as a way to boost the egos of the then-current rulers of Poland, but some uneducated people treat them as fact nowadays. In the same way, the authors of “Aryan” portraits of Christ were influenced by the artistic standards of their respective eras.

It’s easy to draw more parallels. Anti-Semitic pastors are sadly still a thing. There may be no Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution right now, but Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are more than enough. According to the surveys, two-thirds of young Americans don’t know what the Holocaust is. In such a day and age, every tool to combat this ignorance is welcome, and what could be a better tool than a movie showing Nazism in all of its ugliness and grotesqueness?

Written by Kordian Kuczma

Kordian Kuczma is a writer, tour guide and teacher from northern Poland. One of his biggest dreams is to write the comprehensive biography of Pet Shop Boys. Being a good European boy, he chose to live his life in the company of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Kordian's path is a strange and difficult one.

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