This immensely powerful dramatization of the Wannsee conference of Nazi apparatchiks to agree on the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question’ is not new, but the film gains fresh power and context in what is not quite yet the post-Trump era.
Neither scriptwriter Loring Mandel nor director Frank Pierson could have anticipated how this made-for-television film would be interpreted 20 years after it was released. But that doesn’t alter the fact that it now becomes less about ‘never forget’, and more about we did forget and we didn’t learn the lessons of bitter history.
A powerful script and an exceptional cast of performers, led by Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, elevates this modest production above most other dramatizations of Nazi terrors, even if, or maybe precisely because, there is no ‘action’, nor special effects. The focus is entirely on the actors and penetrating dialogue.
We must accept that Conspiracy is necessarily a dramatization. Mandel may well have consulted the surviving copy of the sanitized minutes of the meeting, as well as testimony from two delegates to the conference, Friedrich Kritzinger and Adolf Eichmann, but this fragmentary evidence could not have carried a cohesive, satisfying narrative. Nor could it have explained a wider human tableau, with insights only good story-telling can offer.
Mandel’s genius was to imagine, from an informed position, what might have transpired, to offer us a credible portrait of the psychology of those who were present, and without the crude, tiresome clichés about Nazis as preternaturally ‘evil’. Avoiding such tropes makes Mandel’s portrait infinitely more confronting and shocking. Even years ago, it asked us to consider whether we could recognize in the Wannsee group’s individual characters the personalities of people we know in the contemporary world. That question emerges more powerfully for audiences 20 years on, with some Western governments openly courting right wing extremist votes.
Before looking at contemporary perspectives, however, it’s worth examining how the story is told.
A voiceover with intertitles explains Frank Pierson’s opening scenes, showing a mansion in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee being readied for the formal occasion by a small army of maids, servants, butlers, and junior officers on 20 January 1942, in the winter snow that was a constant reminder of the unravelling Eastern Front, barely six months after Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa began.
It is a recreation of old-world opulence entirely at odds with the historical circumstances: war-time shortages in Germany were beginning to bite, with almost everything being rationed for ordinary Germans. Here we see hors d’œuvre and other fine foods being prepared, and throughout we see top shelf alcohol and cigars being consumed in an almost obscene conspicuous consumption by the conference delegates.
The film credits tell us the film was shot a Shepperton Studios in London, but also on location at the real Wannsee house.
As the Nazi functionaries of state begin to arrive, we get to form an impression of arrogance and fear, with important men, newly aware of a war slipping away from them, rubbing each other the wrong way, exposing rivalries and massive egos.
Standing out immediately in the dramatization was Stanley Tucci as the stone cold, meticulous organizer of the conference, SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Adolf Eichmann. If ever there was a detestable psychopath, it was him. Tucci should have received an Oscar for his stunning performance, but, because it was merely television, had to make do with a Golden Globe Award, and a nomination for a Primetime Emmy Award.
Tucci possibly outperformed even the sublime Kenneth Branagh, so absolutely credible as the charming, completely amoral, and overpoweringly threatening SS Obergruppenführer (General) Reinhard Heydrich.
Heydrich, not yet 38, chaired and commanded the meeting, steering it relentlessly towards his foregone conclusion–that all organs of the Nazi state would support the SS-led genocide of up to 11 million Jews in Europe and conquered territories in the East. Branagh shows us brilliantly how he did it: with cajoling, bullying, and open threats.
We are treated to the deepest black irony in Eichmann’s comment that the mansion used for the conference was owned by a Jew, and Heydrich’s comments that he would live there after the war, barely six months away from his own death as the consequence of wounds sustained in an ambush by British-trained Czech and Slovak commandos.
Initial dialogue shows us the tensions between the assembled functionaries, but it also reminds us that these men were second-tier Nazis. Not present were Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Borman, or Albert Speer. So, the Wannsee Conference was comprised of senior managers, but not executives or board members. Put another way, they were department heads rather than the responsible ministers or secretaries.
When Branagh’s Heydrich arrives, late, as if to establish that only he was senior enough to do so, he immediately dominates all the others, very sure of his ability to do so.
With chit chat out of the way, we get to the heart of the matter. Heydrich tells the delegates Germany has a Jew ‘storage problem’, and new conquests mean even more Jewish subjects.
Heydrich: … we pursued a vigorous policy of emigration, but who would take more of them?
Who would want them was the policy’s ultimate limitation.
Every border in Europe rejects them or charges outrageously to accept them.
Interjection from Eichmann: America.
Heydrich: Even America, thank you, where Jews constantly whisper in Roosevelt’s ear, still turns them away.
Heydrich shuts down any interjections at this stage and goes on to describe the mandate for the meeting:
Heydrich: … last July … Reichsmarschall Göring prepared a directive … .
The operative words, if you’ll permit me to read: ‘I hereby charge you with making all preparations in regard to organizational and financial matters for bringing about a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.’
Now, for that, I read the cleansing of the entire continent of Europe.
Kritzinger: You see, the word ‘cleansing’ …
Heydrich: An accurate word, I think. If I may go on. In the second paragraph: ‘Wherever other governmental agencies are involved these are to cooperate with you … I hope. So on, so on … as necessary for the accomplishment of the desired solution of the Jewish question.’
This is our mandate, all of us.
Historically, Göring was instructed by Hitler to write to Heydrich, Himmler’s number two, creating tensions in the hierarchy for bypassing Himmler. Those tensions aside, the mandate Branagh’s Heydrich was talking about was his, and that of the SS more broadly, but the dialogue makes it clear he expects it to create a new and wider power-base for himself.
The engine of the drama is the unfolding capitulation to Heydrich of all who question his final solution, of extermination camps. While some at the conference table do have serious reservations, they all end up giving Heydrich what he wants, driven sometimes by indifference, and sometimes by the fear of Heydrich’s biggest weapon: to make anyone an unperson, the way it is proposed for Jews.
We witness some tensions, including especially objections by Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, Deputy Chief of the Reich Chancellery, played with convincing bureaucratic self-importance by David Threlfall.
Through Threlfall’s Kritzinger, Mandel makes sure we all know that the delegates all knew exactly what was being proposed. The narrative includes the following exchange between Kritzinger and Heydrich:
Kritzinger: Purge the Jews, yes. But to annihilate them …
That we have undertaken to systematically annihilate all the Jews of Europe?
No. That possibility has personally been denied to me by the Führer.
Heydrich: And it will continue to be.
The message now becomes clearer: Hitler wants it done, but he also wants no blood on his own hands. This deniability was a hallmark of his use of the SA and SS, stretching back to the 1930s, when he refused to accept responsibility for the brutal violence committed by the SA despite instigating it.
We see Colin Firth’s Wilhelm Stuckart, co-author of the Nuremberg Race Laws, representing the Interior Ministry, becoming increasingly uneasy with the extra-legal arbitrariness of murdering millions of people.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum gives us some background not explained in the film:
At the annual party rally held in Nuremberg in 1935, the Nazis announced new laws which institutionalized many of the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideology. The laws excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or related blood.” Ancillary ordinances to the laws disenfranchised Jews and deprived them of most political rights.
The Nuremberg Laws, as they became known, did not define a “Jew” as someone with particular religious beliefs. Instead, anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents was defined as a Jew, regardless of whether that individual identified himself or herself as a Jew or belonged to the Jewish religious community. Many Germans who had not practiced Judaism for years found themselves caught in the grip of Nazi terror. Even people with Jewish grandparents who had converted to Christianity were defined as Jews.
A complicated system of exemptions applied. What we did see in the film was that for Heydrich, the exemptions from even such monstrous perversions of justice were already too generous. Branagh’s Heydrich justifies harsher approaches as the bureaucratic overhead of having to decide on exemptions through courts and departments of state. Let that sink in: he proposes widening the death list as an efficiency measure.
In the film, Heydrich breaks down Stuckart’s objections with none too subtle threats, albeit they are made as a private aside, not in front of the entire group:
Heydrich: We will accomplish this. I will not allow administrative technicalities to slow it down. Every agency will jump to follow my order, or arses will sting.
And there are no shortages of meat hooks on which to hang enemies of the state.
This will be an SS operation.
And as the war goes on, the SS will more and more command the agenda and put marks against the names of the less than cooperative.
You have a choice to make.
Stuckart: You understand that I respect the …
Heydrich: Please. You will still have to make your choice.
Do not let a strutting, imbecilic, porcine prick like Klopfer make it for you.
I’d rather not see the bullies — I admit we have more than our share of them in the SS — take too much of an interest in you.
Of all the people attending, SS-Gruppenführer (Major General) Otto Hofmann, Chief of the Race and Settlement Main Office, played by the avuncular Nicholas Woodeson, is the only one to display physical discomfort as the extent and scale of the final solution is revealed. He becomes physically nauseated, blaming first alcohol and then cigar smoke for his distress, but raises no objections.
Others at the Wannsee table are less troubled by the final solution being pursued. What a marvellous job Ian McNeice did playing Martin Bormann’s assistant, Gerhard Klopfer, as a truly vulgar Nazi swine. Bryan Pettifer was almost as repulsive as the unctuous Dr Alfred Meyer, deputy secretary of the ministry for occupied Eastern territories, counting out for us how many Jews could be murdered in mobile gas chambers per day, and therefore per year, as if it meant only mathematics and ‘efficiency’.
Heydrich then explains that Jews would be rounded up from inside the Reich and ‘evacuated’ to staging points before their final destinations in Eastern extermination facilities. It is here that SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Dr Rudolf Lange (Barnaby Kay) dispels the phoney gentility of the euphemisms being used:
I have the real feeling I evacuated 30,000 Jews already, by shooting them at Riga.
Is what I did? Evacuation? When they fell, were they evacuated?
There are another 20,000, at least, waiting for similar evacuation.
I just think it is helpful to know what words mean.
Eichmann, in a momentary shake of the head, signalling to the stenographer to not record that comment or what follows, attempts to head off the question, but Heydrich is happy to answer: ‘Yes. In my personal opinion, they are evacuated.’
There is much more dialogue illuminating the individual bureaucratic priorities of the Wannsee delegates, but we have the gist of the story in the exchanges examined. Eventually Heydrich forces agreement from all delegates in a conference that ran to about 90 minutes, roughly the same length as the film.
A critical framework
We can choose, now, to interpret the film very literally, which would explain little more than has already been re-hashed a thousand times in historiography and commentary.
What we look at here is a context offered primarily through the work of philosopher and author Hannah Arendt, chosen specifically because she was a German Jew who fled the Nazis twice: once from Germany to France, and again from France to the USA. Moreover, she was the pupil and lover of philosopher Martin Heidegger, sometimes dubbed the ‘Nazi philosopher’.
Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem illuminate a process whereby an ideology’s objectives, executed by a technocratic bureaucracy, lie at the heart of the atrocities we are contemplating. Any ideology. Any technocratic bureaucracy.
For example, Arendt observed that concentration camps …
… can very aptly be divided into three types corresponding to three basic Western conceptions of a life after death: Hades, Purgatory, and Hell. To Hades correspond those relatively mild forms, once popular even in nontotalitarian countries, for getting undesirable elements of all sorts–refugees, stateless persons, the asocial and the unemployed–out of the way.
She went on to describe Soviet labour camps as purgatory, and Nazi extermination camps as hell.
All three types have one thing in common: the human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of any interest to anybody, as if they were already dead … .
This is the state of unpersonhood already referred to.
Arendt gave us a pointer to the rôle of a technocrat bureaucracy in all of this:
Scientificality of mass propaganda has indeed been so universally employed in modern politics that it has been interpreted as a more general sign of that obsession with science which has characterized the Western world since the rise of mathematics and physics in the sixteenth century; thus totalitarianism appears to be only the last stage in a process during which “science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.”
Substitute ‘scientificality’ with the mathematical and engineering-based techno-scientific rationalities evident in contemporary management and technical training, and you have contemporary politicians, department heads, business executives, and technicians across the full range of human endeavours, all excusing themselves from ethics and human decency by deferring to formulaic methods and models. Just like the people we saw around the Wannsee conference table.
It means that the mindset is not Nazi, or Soviet, nor North Korean, or Chinese. It is human! And it still exists all around us, kept in check to some degree by a humanism informed by the arts and humanities. But not ever to be underestimated as an ever-present threat, as we learnt from the Trump presidency and its fawning admirers in Australian and British governments.
Arendt caused a storm of indignation with her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) by describing him as ‘banal’ rather than evil, and as ‘unthinking’ rather than malevolent.
… when I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann … never realized what he was doing. In principle he knew quite well what it was all about … . He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness–something by no means identical with stupidity–that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. … That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together … .
Many people at the time wanted Eichmann to be shown as consciously, malevolently evil, and thus also as a symbol of a circumscribed heinousness, to be condemened without question. A position rather similar to that ascribed to the Nazis themselves. Arendt, in the passage quoted, never denied the possibility that he was evil too, just that the quality of a deliberately malevolent evil was not apparent at the trial.
Perhaps she did so because the word ‘evil’, like the words ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘love’, and ‘hate’ are so debased, with so many possible contexts, that they are rather meaningless. An example of this is the preposterous 2020 Wag TV ‘documentary’ series True Evil: The Making of a Nazi, which used the word evil so often, without ever giving us a meaningful definition, that it became plain the whole premiss was to titillate audiences with a kind of ‘Nazi porn’, not to inform or enlighten.
If we settle on ‘evil’ as this ill-defined thing that has been used for centuries to massacre infidels, burn witches, and titillate naïve audiences, we reveal ourselves as puerile and shallow.
American philosopher Judith Butler offered a re-definition of Arendt’s intent that may be more relevant in contemporary circumstances:
… if a crime against humanity had become in some sense “banal” it was precisely because it was committed in a daily way, systematically, without being adequately named and opposed. In a sense, by calling a crime against humanity “banal”, she was trying to point to the way in which the crime had become for the criminals accepted, routinised, and implemented without moral revulsion and political indignation and resistance.
Implicit here is also the escalation of dehumanization, victimization, and crimes when there is not sufficient opposition in the first place, which speaks of an increasing desensitization in a much wider group than just the sociopaths who push those boundaries.
So, were the Nazis evil? If you like, but so what? The devil, demons, Dracula, and other monsters are too. It is a useless concept that explains nothing about the psychology of the Nazis, or any others who have walked similar paths. Were they criminally insane sociopaths? Quite possibly, for many of them. But most of them likely played along with an escalating situation for personal advantage, and the fear of being marginalized, or worse, becoming the kind of enemies of the state to be hung from butchers’ hooks Heydrich talked about in the film.
That is the most horrifying possible conclusion to be drawn from the film, and what it means in contemporary contexts: quite ordinary, banal people are capable of the most monstrous actions without assuming any demonic aspects. It means we all might act, under some circumstances, with murderous intent and indifference to our victims.
If we are all potential monsters, how is it we have refrained from acting on that human nature–for the most part? Maybe the answer comes from Arendt’s observation about techno-scientific rationalities: these need to be balanced by the humanities, including especially ethics and the empathy and human kinship created in the meanings we can find only in the arts, never in the sciences.
Conspiracy is horrifying enough in its own specific contexts, but its power is much extended by the close correlation between Heydrich’s cabal and the contemporary social and organizational behaviours we can observe all around us.
How could we have so easily forgotten the lessons so many of our forebears fought against?
One answer is greed. The greed of the ever-shrinking numbers of ever more wealthy individuals, using their corporations, to seek to eliminate any politics that might limit their capacity to grow even more wealthy.
To achieve that aim, some fund ‘think tanks’ to propagate and publicize ideas hostile to progressive governments, and to democracy itself. Others, like the social media billionaires and Rupert Murdoch, use their platforms to propagate extreme right wing ideas, conspiracy theories, and disinformation to increase support for ever more extreme right wing politicians.
Their aims might be only to avoid taxation and other social responsibilities, but they seem quite willing to dismantle democracy and empower extremists to get what they want.
Could the disastrous Trump presidency, and the attempted coup in Washington, have been possible without them?
It is a formula still pursued by Fox News in the USA, Sky News in Britain, and Sky News Australia, News Corp ‘newspapers’, Facebook, Twitter, and some other social media platforms. Belated public relations efforts to say they have addressed the most radical kinds of messages hardly makes a dent in the continuing impact on the normalization of ideas and behaviours that would have horrified and nauseated the generation who fought the Nazis.
Flowing on from that, how many politicians, executives, and professionals, in the public and private sectors, will go home tonight to kiss their spouses and kids with genuine affection, but with hardly a thought about the consequences of decisions they made today, which might well include encouraging extremism, exposing minorities to mob violence, throwing families out of their homes, bankrupting people, putting them in gaol or concentration camps, preventing them from receiving medical care, or even denying them basic human rights?
The number is probably uncomfortably high, and rising commensurately with the degree to which technocratic efficiency is elevated above any principled, ethical evaluation of the purposes of our societies.
Watching Conspiracy, we have some solemn satisfaction that those men were defeated and, mostly, brought to justice, even if they made far too grisly a progress towards the Wannsee targets. Watching what goes on around us today is far less comforting, because it is as yet unfinished business.
BBC Films/HBO Films, Conspiracy (2001), 96 minutes.
Directed by Frank Pierson. Produced by Frank Doelger, Nick Gillott, C Cory M McCrum-Abdo, Frank Pierson, Rudi Teichmann, David M Thompson, Peter Zinner. Written by Loring Mandel. Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt. Editing by Peter Zinner.
With Kenneth Branagh as SS Obergruppenführer (Gen) Reinhard Heydrich, Stanley Tucci as SS Obersturmbannführer (Lt Col) Adolf Eichmann, Colin Firth as Dr Wilhelm Stuckart, Ian McNeice as SS Oberführer (Col) Dr Gerhard Klopfer, Kevin McNally as Martin Luther, David Threlfall as Ministerialdirektor Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, Ewan Stewart as Dr Georg Leibbrandt, Brian Pettifer as Gauleiter Dr Alfred Meyer, Nicholas Woodeson as SS Gruppenführer (Maj Gen) Otto Hofmann, Jonathan Coy as SS Sturmbannführer (Maj) Erich Neumann, Brendan Coyle as SS Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, Ben Daniels as Dr Josef Bühler, Barnaby Kay as SS Sturmbannführer Dr Rudolf Lange, Owen Teale as Dr Roland Freisler, Pete Sullivan as SS Oberführer Dr Karl Eberhard Schöngarth, Tom Hiddleston as telephone operator.