Robert Harris’ 1992 novel Fatherland was the rare example of a popular page-turner whose premise was intellectually provocative. Taking off from the idea that Germany won World War II, Harris imagined a past in which Winston Churchill fades into history as a foolish failure, a hearty Joseph Stalin rules a thriving Russia well into his 80s, and — most startling of all — Joseph Kennedy Sr. is elected President of the United States.
This upended universe has been faithfully reproduced in Fatherland, an accomplished small-screen adaptation of Harris’ book. This TV version of Fatherland is as good as any feature-film thriller around these days, which is saying a lot for a movie that stars Rutger Hauer. Hauer — whose career has lately seemed stalled at grade-D movies in which he curls his lip and shoots a lot of guns — here plays Berlin police detective Xavier March, our hero.
At the start of Fatherland, the year is 1964, and the glorious nation of ”Germania” is preparing to celebrate a white-haired Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday, as well as an imminent state visit by President Kennedy. These events would have little impact on Detective March’s life were it not for the fact that the murder he’s just begun investigating leads to the top echelons of the Third Reich. Harris’ notion is a standard adventure-novel one: Let an ordinary guy fall into extraordinary circumstances. This March does, as he joins forces with an American journalist (played by Miranda Richardson) to both solve the murder and unravel a political conspiracy.
Where Hauer has to rein in his natural volatility to play the methodical March, Richardson turns up the simmering moodiness she brought to such movies as Dance With a Stranger and The Crying Game. In Fatherland, she’s Charlie Maguire, a scrappy reporter who enjoys using her image as a vulgar American to bully the petty German bureaucrats who get in her way.
Director Christopher Menaul knows how to create suspense, having done so in England with Prime Suspect and in America with Homicide: Life on the Street. In this imagined Germany of the 1960s, Menaul adds many small, wonderful details to make the atmosphere of Fatherland rich and lived-in. When March walks down a street, for example, the camera lets us see posters advertising a hot new rock & roll act, the Beatles (the Fab Four were apparently a historical inevitability). And many of the police investigation scenes have a dark, brooding texture reminiscent of the work of German-American director Fritz Lang.
The whole movie is well cast. Hauer and Richardson make a fine, doomed film noir couple. Rory Jennings, as March’s wide-eyed, preadolescent son, is a wonderful little actor, and in a cameo role, Upstairs, Downstairs’ Jean Marsh is marvelously appalling as a vicious anti-Semite.
The primary flaw in Fatherland is that, once the tragic scandal behind the murder becomes clear, the tone of the movie turns pious, and almost every subsequent development can be predicted by the viewer. But as a scary tale and a picture of an all-too-easily-imagined alternative history, Fatherland is absorbing stuff. B+