Mother Night

(Keith Gordon, USA, 1996)


When I was fourteen, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut (especially Slaughterhouse-Five) seemed the epitome of Great Literature. Perhaps it was the typical Vonnegut mixture of tasteless, jejune humour with grand moral themes and user-friendly experimental writing devices that made his books so appealing to me then – and so thoroughly unappealing to me now.

Vonnegut's work, I dare say, has not dated well in a wider cultural sense, too. So it is a brave young director, Keith Gordon, who takes on the task of offering Vonnegut's Mother Night to a '90s audience. It is a blackly comic, somewhat surreal tale of an American wartime agent stationed in Germany, Howard J. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte), who poses as a rabid Nazi on radio and in public life in order to convey secret information back to America.

It is a relentlessly, grindingly sombre film – all dark lighting, hushed silences and steely, gloomy glances. Gordon tries valiantly to smuggle in galvanising memories of the Coens' Barton Fink (1991) – even down to the inclusion of John Goodman in a small but pivotal role – but he cannot hide the now old-fashioned, lumpy Vonnegut brew of nuttiness, earnestness and folk wisdom.

The essential theme or lesson of Mother Night is this: in a world of duplicitous appearances and betrayals at every turn, you are who you pretend to be, so watch who you pretend to be. This jazzy formulation anticipates the knotty moral dilemmas of many postmodern narratives in film and fiction but – at least in this rendition – it comes across as a rather adolescent rumination, more Demidenko/Darville (The Hand That Signed the Paper) than Primo Levi.

Nonetheless, for all its ham-handed seriousness and clumsy comedy, there are felicities in Mother Night. It offers a refreshingly oblique reflection upon the horrors of the Holocaust. Its round of plot reversals and revelations introduces – perhaps a little late in the piece – a modicum of complexity and surprise. And Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks), playing aVertigo-like double role, brings a haunted, Dreyer-like luminosity to the film's moments of sweet, doomed romance.

Gordon adapts another hopelessly outdated writer: The Singing Detective

MORE Gordon: Wild Palms

© Adrian Martin May 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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