Mother Night is an outstanding novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., arguably his best work outside the holy trinity of his titles that get the most attention: Slaughter House Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. Mother Night is surprisingly just as great (if not better) than any of those books, but what makes it even more surprising is that was remarkably adaptable for film. In addition to hitting my costume drama sweet spot (a low bar to clear, for sure) 1996’s Mother Night was also the best Vonnegut adaptation I’ve ever seen (another low bar, since I’ve only seen the not-very-good Breakfast of Champions). It obviously doesn’t touch anything near the greatness of Vonnegut’s novel (how could it?), but it was effective as a summary of the film’s best touchstones with some inspired casting choices helping bring his words to life.
Playing a role that would likely be filled by Bruce Dern if it were released in 2015 and not 1996, Nick Nolte is damn good in the film’s central role as Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American playwright turned Nazi propagandist during World War II. In some ways Vonnegut does for the Nazi scumbag what Nabokov did for a pedophile in Lolita: he makes Campbell a complicated, richly human character that is at times sympathetic and at other times beyond contemptible, even to himself. Especially to himself. Campbell is a Nazi propagandist who says gut-wrenchingly evil things about Jews as a people in his radio broadcasts, but he’s also an American spy who transmits sensitive information about the war in those very same broadcasts. Nolte carries the gruff, broken spirit of Campbell well, selling the alternating self-hatred and self-aggrandizing of his inner conflict exactly as I imagined it while reading the novel.
Vonnegut’s plot allows a lot of room for consideration in the ways morality during war is a lot more questionable than the typical good vs. evil narrative that’s usually depicted. For Campbell that means that the coded spy language that’s infused into his hateful Nazi broadcasts makes his sin & his virtue inseparable. As his German father-in-law puts it, it does not matter whether he is a spy or not, because the hate in his propaganda is so effective that there is no way he could have served the enemy (America) as well as he served his adopted country (Germany). Campbell tries to remain impartial to the Nazi/American divide, saying that he only feels allegiance to his marriage (“a nation of two”) but the impossibility of that lie is a lesson he learns too late. It’s a moral he summarizes as “You must be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end you are what you pretend to be.”
Mother Night is not only commendable in its competence at capturing Vonnegut’s tricky sense of humor on film; it’s especially praiseworthy because the task in this particular case is made even trickier by the story’s habit of culling amusement out of the horrors of Nazism. It’s partly successful because of its willingness to let the hateful things Campbell says ruminate, like in a scene where a filmed version of one of his broadcasts is projected onto his horrified face as he truly listens to his own words for the first time. Although Campbell is occasionally sympathetic, the movie rarely lets him (or the audience) forget that he is a monster. Besides Nolte’s excellent turn as the central propagandist, there are plenty of other performances to praise here: Alan Arkin’s role as his best friend; Sheryl “Laura Palmer” Lee as his German wife; a perfectly cast John Goodman as the American agent that recruits him as a spy; and Kirsten Dunst as an adorable, pint-sized Nazi moppet, among others. There are some really dark touches to the film’s humor, like when Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” plays over images of a concentration camp or when Campbell makes sensual love to his wife while one of Hitler’s impassioned speeches blares on the bedside radio. These touches all feel oddly subversive, as the whole film has a decidedly old-fashioned feel to it, like black comedy version of The Rocketeer. As a film, it’s more than just a rushed, abridged version of a great novel; it’s also a handsome, well-acted historical drama that finds a peculiar line of humor in narcissism, self-hatred, and genocide.