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'Mother Night'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1996

An unrecognized World War II hero discovers that he is not at all the man he thought he was, but the man he pretended to be in this absorbing and faithful version of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel.

An amalgam of moods and styles, the film tracks the changing fortunes of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American writer and espionage agent who winds up as Adolph Eichmann’s neighbor in an Israeli jail. Nick Nolte, in fine fettle freed from the fancy britches and powdered wigs of "Jefferson in Paris," readily conveys the inner conflict of the traumatized prisoner, who is given a typewriter and told to record his memoirs while awaiting his trial as a war criminal.

Though frequently interrupted by Eichmann (amusingly voiced by Henry Gibson), Howard taps away at his autobiography, which takes him from rural New York to pre-World War II Berlin, where he becomes a success writing plays for his wife, Helga (Sheryl Lee), a popular German actress and the daughter of Berlin’s pro-Nazi police chief.

Howard, who now has ready access to the uber goobers of the Nazi Party, agrees to become a secret agent for the U.S. government. Only President Roosevelt and his contact (John Goodman) know that Campbell is not the Nazi sympathizer he pretends to be as the anti-semitic, anti-American host of a popular German radio show.

While mocking the Allies and promoting Aryan supremacy, Howard is also passing along coded messages to the American Command. Fifteen years after the war, he is forced to reconsider his role. Was his must-hear radio show, in fact, partly responsible for the death of millions of Jews?

While much of the film involves such cerebral navel-probing, the drama truly hinges on Howard’s life-long love for Helga. Sadly, Lee’s blah performance bleeds the relationship of passion. Nolte, however, makes up for her lapses with his genuinely bewildered and anguish-filled portrayal.

Contains vulgar language, violence and nudity.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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