THEY CALL them docudramas -- where truth and fiction are sifted together for something approaching neither. Although meticulously researched, "The Wannsee Conference" -- a reenactment of the infamous Nazi "final solution" session of 1942 -- reveals more about the uncertainties of this hybrid genre than Wannsee.
According to minutes taken of the January 20 meeting and testimony from the Adolf Eichmann trial in the 1960s, SS head Reinhard Heydrich met with 14 officials (including Eichmann) from the Gestapo, SS and Nazi party bureaucracy at an idyllic lakeside estate near Berlin to discuss the Jewish Question. Systematic internment and execution of Jews, gypsies and other captives were well established; the evident purpose of Wannsee was one of administrative consolidation.
Only the participants (now all dead) could know the meeting's true flavor but producer Manfred Korytowski, screenwriter Paul Mommertz and director Heinz Schirk certainly have their ideas. At best, the result is informed guesswork; at worst, cheap drama. "Wannsee," though full of provable facts, often reflects the filmmakers' conjecture -- whether right or wrong -- in choice of actors (primarily from German television), dialogue (before them is "an organizational task unparalleled in history," declares "Heydrich") and dramatic details (a German shepherd can be heard barking throughout the meeting).
It's hard to swallow the interpretations of Heydrich and Eichmann. As played by Dietrich Mattausch, Heydrich is alarmingly dashing, intelligent, sardonic -- a sort of Kirk or Michael Douglas figure. He rushes the meeting along, cajoles the men and flirts with the secretary. Gerd Bo ckmann's Eichmann seems far too gentle a soul to have earned his Gestapo uniform. You keep waiting for him to defect. He confesses to having vomited at a failed carbon-monoxide mass execution and Heydrich reassures him. "It means we Germans are human."
It's morbidly fascinating, nevertheless, to be a fly on this wall. The agenda may be genocide but the mood is something between stag night and Elks convention. While discussing Zyklon-B gas and keeping Latvia Jew-free, they're sipping brandy, trading lewd quips and munching finger food. They wrangle over whether to kill half-Jews and Jews married to prominent Germans. When a speaker makes some anti-Semitic or chauvinistic pronouncement (often the same thing), his colleagues thump the table like approving druids. It's a Nazi good time.
Maybe too good. Of course that's the filmmakers' point -- that such an informal meeting planned the century's most ambitious mass killing. But, given the Third Reich's penchant for order, it's hard to believe. Though instructive for general audiences, "Wannsee" is somewhat unsettling for scholars, journalists and historians. Korytowski et al may have brought you closer to what happened. But they may also have taken you further away. THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE (Unrated) -- At area theaters. In German with subtitles.