Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t the first novelist to have fun with World War II (so did Joseph Heller), but he was the first to turn the very darkness of the Holocaust into a hook, a kind of cosmic conceit for readers. No wonder the counterculture kids loved him: He made the defining event of their parents’ generation — and the moral seriousness that accompanied it — seem hip.
In Mother Night, Keith Gordon’s adaptation of the 1961 novel that some Vonnegut cultists consider his best, Howard W. Campbell (Nick Nolte), an American writer living in Germany during the 1930s, is recruited as a spy for U.S. intelligence, which orders him to carry out an assignment of singular perversity. Posing as a Nazi sympathizer, he delivers a weekly radio address brimming with anti-Semitic bile; his spy reports are encoded in the broadcasts. The ”irony” is that even as Campbell is aiding the U.S. cause, he becomes a hero of the Third Reich, a reverent voice of Nazi propaganda who signs off each broadcast as ”the last free American.” After the war, U.S. officials refuse to acknowledge his patriotic role (it would tip their hand on future espionage strategies), and Campbell, having lost his beautiful German wife (Sheryl Lee), stumbles from one slapstick tragedy to the next, finally ending up an anonymous wretch in New York City, his bizarre role in history all but forgotten. That is, until he carelessly begins to use his real name, thus revealing his identity to the Auschwitz survivors downstairs and to a zany crew of white supremacists.
Twirling its hero through the time machine of history, Mother Night, like Vonnegut’s later Slaughterhouse Five, creates a picaresque narrative that could almost be the prototype for Forrest Gump (the line ”Life is like a box of chocolates … ” sounds like a vintage Vonnegut aphorism). Gordon, the young actor-turned-filmmaker, does a dogged job of reproducing the author’s absurdist odyssey, and Nolte, eyes glittering with rue, brings off the not inconsiderable feat of making Campbell weary with regret yet never letting him become a hangdog pain. As Campbell confronts his activities during the war, he arrives at the paralyzing revelation that he’s guilty after all; though he spied for the Good Guys, his radio rants spewed evil. In the ’60s, this may have seemed a moral twist of total heaviosity. No longer. In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut ties himself — and history — in knots to demonstrate that if you behave like a Nazi, you really are a Nazi. The movie leaves you wondering why anyone would need to work this hard to arrive at that conclusion. B-