There have been a number of dramatisations of the infamous meeting of senior government officials of Nazi Germany and the SS held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942. But none have been as compelling as the 2001 TV movie Conspiracy.
This chilling dramatisation of the meeting that sealed the fate of millions of Jews is merely a board meeting with the focus being on the characters of those involved. The film plays as a normal board meeting where one of the most chilling elements is that no-one in the room believes the Jews were normal people, some are horrified by the thought of killing them all on production lines but even then their alternatives never approach humane options.
The Wannsee Conference was not the place and time where Nazi Germany decided to commit the Holocaust. The Holocaust had been going on for quite some time by January 1942, the time of the conference. Dachau had been in business for years. The SS Einsatzgruppen had already marched into Poland and Russia, murdering Jewish men, women, and children by the hundreds of thousands. Even the extermination camps had already been opened. Hermann Göring, at Hitler’s direction, had already given the order to proceed with the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.
Subject matter aside, Conspiracy is all the more devastating, and precious, from its excellent script and incredible ensemble performances. There is no attempt or need to manipulate the viewer, the enormity of the truth is compelling, and appalling enough. The are no cartoon Nazis here, the depiction of Reinhard Heydrich (superbly played by Kenneth Branagh) is fascinating and complex: the man is urbane, witty, impeccably mannered and utterly devoid of morality.
Credit must be given to Kenneth Branagh who propels the entire piece with one of his best screen portrayals. He is utterly convincing in the role of a man who epitomises the classic definition of evil: not just the doing of wrong, but the perversion of the human spirit so that it no longer has any perception of the good.
Where Heydrich is conviction, as the narrative develops, almost exclusively as table-talk, others are less sure. The range of attendees symbolises the various strains of Nazi culture, which developed over the course of the Third Reich. For the idealistic of these, the philosopher/technocrat Wilhelm Kritzinger and the legalistic Wilhelm Stuckart (played by Colin Firth) begin to comprehend there is a dawning realisation of the human catastrophe in which they are complicit.
Technical objections are raised where Stuckhart expounds a ludicrous web of objections on how the plan breaks the vile race laws he himself architected, and will be an “administrative nightmare”. His insistence that Jews must be oppressed only according to the strict letter of the law is insane, absurd, but it is a principle to which he is committed towards.
The politically sharp Heydrich only needs to extract expressions of support in order to bind all the orders of Nazi society into equal guilt. During breaks in the proceedings he discreetly buttonholes the wobblers and silences their doubts: by naked threats.
But the most complex character is Wilhelm Kritzinger, Secretary of the Reich Chancellery, the only person present who sees the evil for what it is. He is not, as some think, the only one present who realises that what they’re doing is wrong; even Heydrich knows that, as can be seen by his careful precautions to keep the crime secret. But while the others all want to get away with what they know is wrong, Kritzinger doesn’t want to do it at all. Still, after being privately browbeaten and threatened by Heydrich, he states his support for the murders. Of all those present, Kritzinger is spiritually the closest to the audience, and naturally invites the question of what we would do in his place ?
Kritzinger’s case is a brutal warning of the malevolent power of groupthink. Even as the killers sit at the table and exchange smiles, one senses a spiteful, hungry vigilance for the first sign of sympathy for the people they are planning to slaughter, waiting to pounce on the dissenter and rip him apart with scorn and threats.
Writing, acting and direction are all superb here, beautifully complementing each other to produce a small masterpiece that holds your attention not just through the film itself, but also well after the credits have rolled.
The tautness of the script and the tension of the directing keep you mesmerised. As a drama, Conspiracy is simply brilliant. As a showcase of performance acting and direction it is superlative and as an experience to make you think long and hard about the world we live in, you won’t find any better. On all of these levels, I can’t recommend it highly enough. See it. The one piece of music chosen to augment the movie, perfectly selected and placed at the end of the film, will haunt you – Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D956 . . . “The Adagio will tear your heart out”.
And the tease for next week’s post . . . Boney.