“15 Angry Men”
Modern audiences have a conceptual problem with the Holocaust: it is such an accepted part of history that we are unable to properly comprehend its pieces; it is remote to us because we literally can’t imagine the circumstances that brought it about. Frank Pierson’s Conspiracy (2001), made for HBO (and showered with nominations and awards), pulls off an interesting stunt by taking a specific historical moment and extracting elements that are universal. In so doing, what was remote becomes immediate and we are made aware of how easily evil can flourish in the most ordinary circumstances.
Loring Mandel imagined Conspiracy from the single transcript available from the Wannsee Conference, held January 20, 1942 in Berlin. Reading the transcript, it is easy to see what struck Mandel: the meeting might have been any corporate board discussing an inventory problem. It is this connection to our world that Mandel exploits, and by having his board members speak the outrageous substance of the historical transcript he forces the audience to consider the universality of evil – we can easily place ourselves at the conference table and wonder if our own response would have been any different than that of the participants. Afterward, when Adolph Eichmann was asked “Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their death?” Eichmann replied, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.” (Minutes of the Wannsee Conference) Conspiracy illuminates that statement by showing exactly how easy it probably was.
Mandel’s script (which won an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award) keeps the action mostly confined to the mansion where fifteen government and military officials had been summoned to discuss the “final solution of the Jewish question.” This narrow focus, along with Pierson’s mostly unobtrusive direction, creates a familiar dramatic setting – a group of characters are placed in a room to discuss an issue. Ultimately, the issue isn’t as important as how the characters react to each other and the circumstances at hand. Holocaust dramas typically focus on the terrible specifics of historical points – we see historical re-enactments but don’t have a connecting thread that allows us to comprehend what we’re seeing. By placing the historical context in the background (there is no evidence of an ongoing war as servants prepare lunch and snow falls gently outside the windows) Conspiracy is free to examine how ordinary people might decide to murder millions of people. The fact that millions were murdered isn’t relevant until we understand how it might happen – unless we can understand that we ourselves might make the same choices, we can’t truly appreciate the horror of what did happen.
Pierson directs the action like a courtroom drama – instead of “12 Angry Men” we have fifteen. Again, the fact that this is a stock form serves to highlight, rather than diminish, the dramatic impact. The actors, speaking in their own natural accents, don’t try to be Nazi impersonators; rather, they are recognizable individuals. This is the key to Conspiracy’s cumulative power. Kenneth Branagh (who also won an Emmy) presides over the meeting as General Reinhard Heydrich. It is obvious that the “solution” is already clear to him – the purpose of the meeting is to ensure nobody in the room will hinder what has already begun. Brannagh plays Heydrich with intense charisma – the men in the room are no match for his will, and they all gradually succumb to acquiescence. Mandel gives each character a slightly different position on things, which is an interesting prism: the Nazis are no longer a faceless, amorphous collection of hatred, but rather a collection of individuals with differing opinions about what the issues are and what to do about them. (The acting is mostly understated and excellent – Stanley Tucci, as Eichmann, won a Golden Globe for his performance.)
Pierson’s touch is sure right up until the end, when Heydrich asks for a final accounting – at this point, a directorial choice intrudes jarringly. The historical transcript reads: “The meeting was closed with the request of the Chief of the Security Police and the SD to the participants that they afford him appropriate support during the carrying out of the tasks involved in the solution.” (Minutes of the Wannsee Conference) Pierson casts the moment as a vote, which is fine, except that he has the camera track around the table, with each actor shifting slightly to address the camera (and the audience) rather than those at the meeting. It’s a jarring didactic intrusion on the drama, and it diminishes what it was undoubtedly meant to enhance. One suspects that in the end Pierson didn’t believe the audience would follow his point, and we needed a final shove to remind us that these men had all just agreed to mass murder. (There is also a postscript that connects each character with what became of his historical counterpart – while interesting, this is also unnecessary given what Pierson and Mandel have already achieved. The device belongs in a lesser movie.)
One final note on the look Pierson and cinematographer Stephen Gladblatt have given Conspiracy. It is historically fortuitous that the Wannsee meeting actually took place in January – we don’t know if it was really snowing but it probably was, given the elegiac feel all of that gently falling powder lends to the proceedings. Out of every window we see the snow, over the shoulders of the characters around the table. The interior lighting is a gorgeous cold blue, which takes its inspiration from the snow, not from the sepia tones usually employed in period movies. The mood is at once wistful but also cold – the men at the table are doomed even as they plot the doom of others. This is a small, great film.