Mother Night

Rated R –language

Nick Nolte in Mother Night

Mother Night is Kurt Vonnegut's story of an American playwright living in Germany at the beginning of World War Two. The playwright, Howard Campbell, Jr., (Nick Nolte) is recruited by a shadowy American intelligence operative (John Goodman) who urges him to stay in Germany and pose as a Nazi sympathizer while providing intelligence to the United States.

Intrigued by the romantic implications, Campbell agrees to the proposal without telling even his beautiful actress-wife Helga (Sheryl Lee), that he is acting as a double agent. And at a certain level, Campbell himself is unaware of his duplicity, because the information he provides the Allies is all encoded in scripts he reads over Berlin radio every Saturday. Though he knows they pass through an editor who encodes them by adding pauses, coughs, throat clearings, and stammers, he is totally unaware of what information they pass. Outwardly, Campbell's scripts consist of high praise for Hitler and attacks on Jews. They prove to be very popular with German audiences and are considered keys to Nazi ideology abroad.

Campbell and Helga live for each other alone and consider themselves immune to the conflagration raging around them. They describe themselves as "a nation of two" with no strong feelings for either Allied or Axis powers or ideals.

But when Helga is reported killed in action while entertaining German troops on the front, Campbell loses his identity and purpose for living. Captured by advancing Allied troops, U.S. intelligence arranges his escape and provides a new identity to start over in New York's Greenwich Village.

After maintaining a secret life for years, in the 1960's he decides that Howard Campbell has been forgotten and starts using his own name. For some time his confidence seems to be borne out, but eventually neo-Nazi white supremacists discover and publicize their hero's secret life. Representatives of the magazine that "outed" him come to visit, telling him they're bringing a surprise. Howard is amazed to find the surprise is Helga, seemingly returned from the dead. But his "outing" also reveals his secret life to investigators of Jewish war crimes, who want to hang him for promoting genocide.

The American intelligence agency that used him now must decide whether to reveal its secrets to protect Campbell and provide an alibi for his wartime activity. While he is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison, where he becomes acquainted with Nazi operative Adolph Eichmann, Campbell is required to write his memoirs for the court and comes to realize–for the first time–the magnitude of the game he thought he was playing and how much it helped the Nazis.

The film's director, Keith Gordon, says the main question Mother Night raises is, "If you try to do something good, and evil results, are you good or are you bad?" It's a question well worth pondering, and this is a film well worth seeing to drive the question home.

Photo by the film's distributor

1997, Jon Kennedy