Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
|We are what we pretend to be.|
So of what is it that I speak so knowingly? Vonnegut, in what is a Cervantes-esque editorial comment right at the start, claims this to be the testimony of one Howard W. Campbell Junior, only slightly edited to make it less objectionable to the reading public and then only to cut out some of the more overtly erotic scenes from one particular chapter, from his time incarcerated in a Jerusalem prison awaiting trial for war crimes, for the benefit of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals. Campbell is a war criminal, and possibly the greatest secret agent of the Second World War. An American by birth but raised in Germany for the most part, Campbell does what he needs to survive during the tumultuous years of Nazi rule, which mainly consists of doing nothing to stop them and also broadcasting the racial doctrines of the Führer's twisted dogmatism. However, unbeknownst to his Nazi Übermensches, through a cleverly disguised system of coughs and pauses, he is also broadcasting secrets of the Reich to agents of American Intelligence*. Married to a German actress of some beauty, his only loyalty, so he repeats to himself and to her, is to what he terms, and is one of the most enduring ideas of the book, Das Reich von zwei - the nation (or more accurately, kingdom) of two, paying no heed to the laws or requirements of any other nation but their own.
|All legal correspondence can be addressed|
care-of Jesus to the Pentagon...
Thankfully I'd read the book before watching the film for the first time, so my own mental images of the characters are burnished rather than dictated by the excellent on-screen portrayals by John Goodman and Alan Arkin of Campbell's Blue Fairy Godmother (the American agent who recruits him in the first place) and George Kraft (his New York Judas). But the film is quite faithful to the novel, convincingly done given the difficult nature of the timeline, and despite the director or screenwriter incarcerating Eichmann in the cell above that of Campbell rather than the very fleeting meeting of the two that occurs in the book. If you've not read or watched either, do the book first, as always. You'll find a rare moral satire of depth and complexity, written by one of the keenest minds in recent American literature. You'll find more great lines** than at which you'd be comfortable shaking a stick. And you'll find yourself feeling more for a notorious Nazi than years of cultural backlash could have prepared you so to do. It's one of my favourite Vonnegut novels, one of my favourite 'war' movies with one of my favourite male leads - the holy triptych - and incredibly relevant for our intolerant, ignorant society and its false, hollow politicians, pretending to be what they are.
* I choose to ignore the oxymoron.
** Some of which you can read here.