At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, senior Nazi officials meet to determine the manner in which the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" can be best implemented.At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, senior Nazi officials meet to determine the manner in which the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" can be best implemented.At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, senior Nazi officials meet to determine the manner in which the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" can be best implemented.
Thus, the purpose of the conference is not to decide on whether to murder the Jews of Europe. That decision already having been made, the conference is called so Reinhard Heydrich, as chief of the SD and second-in-command to Himmler in the SS, can ram the decision down the throat of the rest of the German government. The interesting thing is the other German leaders' reaction. Many applaud, some object to the wastage of Jews whom they consider more valuable as slaves than as corpses, some favor sterilization instead of murder, and some get physically sick. But, enthusiastically or grudgingly, they all accept.
The well-deserved demonization of Adolf Hitler has the regrettable side effect of obscuring the evil of his cronies and subordinates from anyone but historians, like a baleful sun whose light obscures the stars. Below the level of Hitler, the public's view of the German government dissolves into an amorphous mass called `Nazis,' the interchangeable automatons of the Führer. If the movie achieves nothing else, it will put Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann on the map as villains in their own right, not mere extensions of Hitler. Kenneth Branagh's performance as Heydrich, the `Blond Beast,' is unnerving; he is the personification of that ruthless will, impervious to either reason or human feeling, which Hitler admired. This performance would be a star-making turn for a young actor; for Branagh, it is routine, maybe even a bit below average for this amazing performer.
CONSPIRACY individualizes the Nazis at the conference, and shows the different facets of evil. Tellingly, Colin Firth's Wilhelm Stuckart is one of the least repulsive characters present, even though he is the architect of the barbaric Nuremberg Laws which forced Jews out of the professions and decreed death for any Jew who should marry an Aryan. He, at least, is one of the few who has the courage to stand up to Heydrich, if only for a little while, and resist the SS thugs' insistence on mass murder. His insistence that Jews must be oppressed only according to the strict letter of the law is insane, absurd, but it is a principle, which is more than most of these people have. Klopfer, Martin Bormann's lackey, is the most disgusting man present, even if he can't match Heydrich for pure evil; not even the veneer of civilization is left on him, and he shows sadistic pleasure at the thought of murdering the Jews. Other reactions range from zealously uncritical compliance with orders, to cheerful indifference, to a sort of put-upon resentment that the work of extermination is falling on them.
But the most disturbing character is Kritzinger, secretary of the Reich chancellery, the only person present who wants not to be a murderer. He is not, as some think, the only one present who realizes 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. Could you, unarmed and alone, look right into the eyes of the Blond Beast, a man whose hands are dripping with the blood of thousands of dissenters from the Reich, and tell him, `No, I defy you,' knowing that while you are risking your own torture and death, you will probably not even save a single Jew? I wish I could just write that I don't know, but the honest thing to write is that I doubt I could do that.
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.
When it comes to flaw-picking time, I can only say that the ending should have shown some of the consequences of the meeting. There should have been at least some reference to the millions of people who were killed by these men. Instead, we are treated only to the fate of the men themselves, although that is disturbing in itself when we see how many of them escaped justice at Nuremberg.
People look at the pictures from Dachau and Buchenwald, the piles of starved corpses and the lamps made of human skin, and they say, `How could they?' Watch the movie. This is how they did it: over drinks around a table.
Rating: ***½ out of ****.
Recommendation: Everyone mature enough to understand should see this movie.
- Feb 18, 2003