Mother Night

Mother Night (1996)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kirstin Dunst
Extras: 2 Commentary Tracks, Interview with Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Nolte, Deleted Scenes, Historical Biographies, Theatrical Trailer

"Mother Night, " Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 parable about guilt, redemption and identity could not have found better mentors for its transition to film than director Keith Gordon and screenwriter/producer Robert Wiede. Translating Vonnegut’s surreal wit to the literal film environment is a daunting task in its own right. Gordon and Wiede’s 1996 celluloid translation of "Mother Night" conscientiously preserves Vonnegut’s dry-like-fire irony and tragic understanding that "we are what we pretend to be," played out against the backdrop of one of this century’s darkest chapters.

Honoring the complexity of the filmmakers’ achievements, New Line Home Video brings "Mother Night" into the DVD realm with a disc loaded with supplements. Two <$commentary,commentary track>s, biographies of historical characters and newsreel footage provide ample opportunities for examining the processes that shaped Gordon and Wiede’s visualization of Vonnegut’s text, but also the historical events that inspired Vonnegut to create his version of what is essentially an old-fashioned spy story.

Preserving the time-shifting, non-linear aspects of the novel, the film opens to the black and white austerity of an Israeli prison. Played against the strains of Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas," an old grizzled man is shuffled into a cell. Asked to document his war crimes, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte) begins to chart the bizarre odyssey that brought him to that moment.

We soon see Howard’s memories in bright color. An American expatriate playwright living in pre-WWII Germany, he and his beautiful actress wife Helga (Sheryl Lee) are content to remain blissfully ignorant of the insanity beginning to encompass the world. They call themselves "a nation of two," believing the strength of their love can and will conquer any evil that looms on the horizon.

As the clouds of war begin to form, Campbell is approached by Frank Wirtanen, a mysterious American operative (John Goodman). Wirtanen asks Campbell to become a spy within the Nazi ranks. Campbell would deliver radio broadcasts, publicly mouthing the administration policy of anti-Semitism and Aryan superiority. Yet these hateful diatribes contain a secret language of coughs, pauses and vocal gestures transmitting coded information vital to the Allied cause. Ironically, should the Allies be victorious, the Government will disavow any knowledge of his actions. No one will know that his actions were in service to a noble cause.

Facing oblivion reserved for mythic heroes and appealing to his dramatic sense of gallantry, Campbell accepts the assignment. Campbell takes to the airwaves as the self-proclaimed "last-free American." Invective upon invective spews forth, every word embedding his soul deeper and deeper into the Nazi cause. Receiving his speech moments before broadcast, annotations explain when he should clear his throat or emphasize a particular word. He does not know what the codes mean. He only knows that his ability to survive this ordeal fades with every speech, every broadcast.

With the defeat of Germany, Campbell becomes a fugitive. Bouncing between capture from American forces to exile as an wanderer in post-war New York City, Campbell picks up the tatters of his life and tries to weave something meaningful again. From that point, he is subjected to a parade of personages inspired from his duplicitous past and whose actions threaten his future. From white supremacists to black supremacists to Russian agents to concentration camp survivors determined to forget their horrors, Campbell becomes another Gulliver, voyaging through an absurd landscape. With every page typed in his cell, as the hours tick closer to his reckoning, Campbell begins to understand his role in this strange universe and how he might just yet achieve some measure of peace.

Director Gordon and screenwriter Wiede have done an exceptional job in adapting Campbell’s chaotic journey of illumination to the linear aspects of film storytelling. The script fleshes out just enough so that we accept the lunacy of Campbell standing immobilized on a Manhattan street because he has nowhere to go or trading quips with Eichmann in a neighboring cell. Even the film’s opening, using "White Christmas" as a musical backdrop to Campbell’s incarceration (by Israelis who don’t celebrate Christmas), is typically "Vonnegutian" (a word Gordon cites freely during his commentary).

Playing Campbell as an amoral young man and an old redemptive, Nolte’s hulking presence always dominates the frame. Nolte imbues Campbell with a sad humanity so that, despite Vonnegut’s treatment of Howard as an allegorical pawn (much like the chess pieces Howard fashions from a broom handle), we empathize with his passage from darkness to light. John Goodman plays Wirtanen as genial and ordinary, yet fully aware of his role of spy dispatcher. Interestingly, the film seems at its most "normal" in the scenes with Goodman and Nolte.

The dialogue, huge chunks of which are lifted verbatim from the novel, sometimes sounds more like coolly expressed theorems rather than natural speech. But then again, that’s Vonnegut to the core. Affecting a deliberate visual style, in both character and setting, the film version of "Night" remains true to Vonnegut’s heady mix of romanticism, horror and humor, down to even preserving the title. Taken from Goethe’s "Faust," "Mother Night" evokes the contradiction of a dark yet nurturing force.

New Line’s record of providing outstanding, high quality video transfers for their DVDs remains intact with "Mother Night." Mastered from a source free of defects, the 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> image is sharp and clean. Even during low-light or night scenes, the video transfer unerringly transmits the stark reds and muted grays dominating the color sequences, while the black and white scenes exhibit good gray scale and accurate contrast levels. Black levels are deep, as evidenced by the depth of detail, whether the starkness of a prison cell or the unreality of Nazi flags draping a New York basement. The picture is free of grain and no digital or compression artifacts are present.

The DVD offers several soundtrack variations. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 track creates a cohesive audio environment, but does not rely on gimmicky sound effects or over-emphasize directionality. The surrounds and LFE are used sparingly, but you never get the feeling that you are being cheated out of a 5.1 soundfield. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track offers a little more surround activity, primarily due to bleed-through of the music score. As the soundtrack is primarily dialogue-driven with occasional sound effects (such as words trailing off, sound effect cue transitioning a past remembrance to the present, etc.), having the option of both audio mixes is admirable, but one does not play better than the other does. A French language Dolby Digital 2.0 track is available as well.

The <$commentary,commentary track>s by director Keith Gordon and screenwriter/producer Robert Wiede and star Nick Nolte offer unique insights, but the style of the commentaries are diametrically different. Gordon and Wiede’s remarks focus specifically on the practical aspects of making the film, from preserving "Vonnegutian" irony in the script to the challenges in conveying Vonnegut’s bending of time and space cinematically. Nolte’s observations, contained on a separate audio track, run the gamut from his take on Campbell to ruminations on everything from the history of violence in mankind, the reconciliation of one’s place in the universe to the nature of chemical addictions. There were times I wondered where some of his ramblings were coming from.

A 13-minute on-set interview with Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Nolte also sheds light on the film, as well as Vonnegut’s inspirations for the novel itself. Nolte and Vonnegut seem to have a good rapport with one another. Trading barbs, but also recognizing that they are two sides of the same cinematic coin, they convey an unequivocal enthusiasm about the characters and their experiences in making the film.

Seven deleted scenes are included, available with commentary by Gordon as well as with the original soundtrack. You can tell he really wrestled with the deletion of these scenes, underscoring how deciding what stays and what goes affects pacing, continuity, length and narrative flow. He even explains how the best scene of the film, in his estimation, ended up on the cutting room floor. The final selection, "Early Trailer," is his original concept for the trailer: an excerpt of Campbell during a broadcast with a few basic cards identifying the film. The actual theatrical trailer is included as well, showing how New Line embraced the idea, but not entirely so.

The DVD provides the practically default (for the format) cast and crew bios of stars Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, as well as Gordon, Wiede and Vonnegut. In the section entitled "Historical Biographies," capsule comments are provided for some of the important figures in Nazi Germany. Hitler, Himmler, Hess, and Goebbels are given brief explanations of their roles in the 20th century’s most notorious regime, as well as their connection to the story. In the section entitled "The Eichmann Trial," a brief newsreel excerpt documents Eichmann’s trial and conviction is Israel, bookended with a closing quote (presumably given at the trial) matched against a close up photo of the young Eichmann. Now I certainly appreciate the efforts of New Line and the filmmakers to provide a larger context for viewers to understand the film and the novel. However, a "Recommending Reading List" might have afforded a stronger backbone to the inclusion of such potentially volatile material.

Too many film adaptations of novels feel like the filmmakers paid a fortune for the title and threw the book away. "Mother Night" loses none of its power in its cinematic incarnation. Having this DVD in your collection pays tribute to the thoughtful and heartfelt efforts of everyone involved in creating this journey into the shadowlands.