© 1997 University of Northern Iowa; The North American Review, Sep-Oct 1997 282.5:44-48
by Jerome Klinkowitz
A commonplace of Vonnegut criticism that this novelist's work has not been well served by film. Relatively few of his widely read books have been translated to the screen, and for those adapted the success rate is low. Kurt Vonnegut himself wrote the screenplay for Happy Birthday, Wanda June, learning in the process that what works on stage is not necessarily effective in cinema. Slapstick, an unlikely candidate for film in the first place, suffered from the self-indulgence of Jerry Lewis as producer, director, and star. Even director George Roy Hill's masterpiece rendition of Slaughterhouse-Five successful on its own terms as a film, is unable to incorporate one of the novel's most important elements: Kurt Vonnegut himself, who is present as the writer struggling to tell his basically untellable story. There is, in short, no one to say "so it goes" when somebody or something dies. As Vonnegut readily admits, the film is one character short: himself.
Thus writer-producer Robert B. Weide faced a challenge in making Vonnegut's Mother Night into a major motion picture. As the author's third novel, it is an early work; though popular as an item in Vonnegut's canon, it was written in obscurity, published in the vacuum of paperback originals, and has attracted less critical attention than his other works. It is, moreover, structured in the manner peculiar to Vonnegut's initial novels, adopting a familiar subgeneric form as its excuse for being. As Player Piano had used the message of dystopia, The Sirens of Titan employed common devices of space opera, and Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater would rely on the formats of apocalyptic narrative and the prince-pauper story, so too was Mother Night present in a reader-friendly shape. Its packaging as a 1961 Fawcett paperback original made it look like a spy thriller, and Vonnegut sustained the illusion by introducing it by means of an "Editor's Note" signed by himself. Only later would the author use his own person to faciliate the storytelling. The first evidence of this technique in fact appears as the 1966 Introduction written for a later edition. From Slaughterhouse-Five on, it becomes an integral part of Vonnegut's method, and conforms to his new role of public spokesman. In Mother Night, however, it is the protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who does the speaking, while Kurt Vonnegut as author keeps himself decidedly out of the narrative.
Robert Weide's strategy in recasting Mother Night as a film is to make it come across more like a work of Kurt Vonnegut's maturity. This involves identifying Howard Campbell more closely with the author and making his "confessions" less a routine of soul-searching and more an act of spokesmanship.
If the film Mother Night is more outspoken than the novel, it is not just Weide's doing, but is because Vonnegut himself has become more outspoken over the years. Indeed, one of the film's major acts of cinematography is to identify Nick Nolte's portrayal of Howard Campbell in terms of Kurt Vonnegut's own physical characteristics. Even as a novel, Mother Night could be said to read differently today, given all that its author subsequently contributed to the world. Thus Weide's reading reflects how this 1961 novel is received by Vonnegut's public in 1996.
Specific challenges arc met with this orientation in mind. A cinematic advantage of Mother Night over Slaughterhouse-Five is how the act of writing is made part of the plot. It is not Kurt Vonnegut struggling to find what to say about a massacre, but Howard Campbell sitting in a prison cell stripped of virtually everything except a typewriter and a ream of paper. The film uses an obvious device to indicate the present-tense of writing: prison scenes are filmed in black and white, while what Campbell writes about is done in full color. Just as in the novel, the focus shifts back and forth. Yet Weide's film enjoys an obvious advantage, for the crosscutting can be used for great emotional effect. Black and white is perfect for suggesting the prison's sterile, starkly confining atmosphere, and color is ideal for the richness of Campbell's memory. But it becomes an especially heartbreaking contrast when viewers see Campbell receiving the news that his wife has died entertaining troops on the Eastern front. As pitifully as Nick Nolte can portray grief at hearing the news, it is even more moving as the film cuts to the black and white scene of Campbell at his jail-cell typewriter, overcome by the immensity of having just written the scene that has been shown.
Hence viewers can appreciate the doubled effect of Howard Campbell's story: not just that he experienced these events, but that he is forced to relive them in writing his memoir. Here again Weide's cinematic choices enhance Vonnegut's theme, for the crosscutting allows not just Campbell's past but his ongoing life to be influenced by the nature of his textual production. Much of the past being recalled from the 1930s and 1940s involves the protagonist's occupation as a writer, first of dreamy romances for the stage, then of virulent propaganda for the Nazi government. Each type of writing involves a code, and each incorporates a factor in the author's beliefs. His dramas are predicated on the power of love to conquer all, or at the very least to provide a refuge from the world's evils; this is the "nation of two" that he creates, in drama and in life, for himself and his actress wife, Helga. So too does his propaganda have a secret, private message, as it is used to convey information out of Germany to Allied intelligence forces. Because there is a good person behind this facade, Campbell believes his phony broadcasts are just that: a sham, nothing that relates to the real person he is.
It is the nature of these writerly beliefs that the plot of Mother Night throws into question. In his novel, Kurt Vonnegut uses the apparatus of his "Editor's Note" to state the moral, something traditional fiction disallows a conventional author from doing. Even within this scheme Vonnegut as "editor" is careful to note that although Campbell himself wrote the statement, he excised it from the final manuscript. Thus Vonnegut has to cite it outside the text. Here Campbell sees his crime as having served evil too openly and good too secretly, having done despicable things while taking pride that a better self was hidden inside.
For his 1966 Introduction Vonnegut restates the moral himself: that a person should he careful about pre-tenses because they so often turn out to be real. By then, the author was at the point of incorporating himself as author into the body of his narrative fiction. This is just the technique George Roy Hill was unable to portray in his film of Slaughterhouse-Five. For Mother Night Robert Weide strengthens the writerly nature of Howard Campbell to make such struggle a large part of the movie's action. Campbell struggles, more apparently than he does in the novel version. And in that struggle he comes to reexamine the nature and beliefs of his writer s art. itself a property of Kurt Vonnegut's later work. In doing so, Howard Campbell in the film of Mother Night takes on the spokesman's role Kurt Vonnegut has played in the years since the onset of his fame.
Weide achieved this aim not so much by changing Campbell as by strengthening the visual elements in the characterization of Resi Noth. When introduced early in the film as Helga's little sister, Resi is portrayed as a stark, stern nihilist. It is April, 1945; her home is about to be overrun by the Russian Army, and before she and her mother leave for Cologne (and the more amenable Western front) her pet dog, which cannot be taken along, must he shot. The duty falls to Howard Campbell, but Resi makes it "easy" for him by proclaiming her absolute disbelief in anything other than the finality of death. She even goes so far as to explain the source for this nihilism: that the only life livable to her was the role Campbell had crafted for his wife Helga in their nation of two. As she could not be Helga, what was left for her was something unwritten, something therefore utterly nihilistic.
In this scene the only thing childlike about Resi is her size. Everything else is uncomfortably adult. Her manner is brusque, even harsh. Her posture is stiff and unyielding. And her eyes, which draw much of the camera's attention, stare fixedly with the rigidity of steel. This is no child, the film tells us. This is not a person at all, but rather a character for whom no one has written a role. In a film rich with exceptionally good casting and acting, it is the most effective portrayal of all.
Then, in the film's greatest piece of dramaturgical success, this same characterization is reprised sixteen years later when Resi reappears pretending to be Helga. Howard Campbell accepts her as so, and the plot proceeds this way for twenty-four hours. But viewers, at the very least subliminally, will distrust Helga's presence, and not just for the way it miraculously contradicts history. This unease is triggered by alterations of actress Sheryl Lee's makeup and costuming and in the scene's use of color and lighting. In Campbell's memories from the late 1930s, Helga was all brightness and light; indeed, the view presented of Resi was so contrastive as to shock. Now, as Resi appears in the role of Helga, she is old enough and pretty enough to play the part. But her look bears nothing in common with the happy young woman of Campbell's memoir. Instead, her complexion is wan, her dress drab, tinged only with the same blue cast that chilled the depiction of little Resi. Most of all, it is her eyes--not the sparkling visage of Helga, but the icy stare of the nihilistic child of 1945.
Virtually all aspects of film-making conspire to form this identity, from writing, directing, and photography to lighting, makeup, wardrobe, and acting. The purpose these efforts serve underscore Weide's interpretation not just of Resi, but of Resi as a factor in Campbell's art. In her confession of true identify the next day, Resi describes how as a refugee from East Germany she had the choice of remaining the nonperson she was or becoming the fabulously attractive Helga--so attractive because there had been a role written for her. At this point Campbell is able to reembrace his writer's credo from the 1930s, that a nation of two was in fact scriptable as a wholesome way of life--that pretense, in other words, could be quite beneficial. He accepts Resi as Helga, knowing full well that she isn't, and even accedes to her wish that he resume writing and craft a play for her. For the first time since before the war, viewers see Howard Campbell writing for art's sake, not history's.
And what a fraud it is. This is what Robert Weide's treatment of Campbell reveals. It is not just that he learns how his presumed friend George Kraft and even Resi herself are Russian spies working to kidnap him to imprisonment in Moscow. Nor is it that he must face this reality as revealed by his continual nemesis, the Office of Strategic Service agent who has consistently pulled the rug out from under all his fabricated identities. The fraud of his own writing must be faced when Resi wilts for lack of characterization, for the lack of a role she has wished Campbell to write for her. Not the play he would compose in Mexico--no, rather the motivation to "die for love" as the competing governments' forces close in to make their capture. Too late, he refuses to, so she dies by her own hand, for absolutely nothing.
This scene, filmed faithfully from the novel, has been made especially effective by the cinematic identification between Resi the adult, so happily hopeful in her role as Helga, and Resi the child, nihilistic to the point of having no personhood at all. The heart of Howard Campbell's writerly credo has been that pretense is a variable form of refuge from the world. Much of Mother Night's action, both as novel and as film, has been to disabuse him of the notion that pretend-propaganda did no harm; a striking point in both mediums is when his arch-Nazi father-in-law tells him that even as a spy he could never have served the Allies as well as he served Germany, that it was Campbell's speeches that kept the Nazi ideal motivated after all other reasons to continue had failed. But even through the anonymity of his bleak postwar life, Campbell had clung to this beliefs artistic correlation: that the romance of a nation of two was still workably worthwhile. It is Resi who counters that belief, and her behavior in the Greenwich Village of 1961 is all the more effective when so closely related to her more easily accepted nihilism of Berlin in 1945.
What Resi's behavior implies, Howard Campbell's spokesmanship expounds. Robert Weide need not rewrite any of the lines Kurt Vonnegut has provided for Campbell. The only major statement he makes not in the novel is the epigraph Vonnegut chooses for the much later work, Galapagos: Anne Frank's ironic conclusion that "In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart." As bitter as these words seem within Frank's Diary, they are even more sardonic as a sentiment in Galapagos, where in order to escape its habitual inclination for doing evil things, humankind must de-evolve into a more simple animal state. As the cinematic Campbell speaks this same line to Resi and Kraft after learning of their perfidy, which is the story's ultimate betrayal, it serves as Weide's salute to Vonnegut's moral spokesmanship--that he knows just how bad people can be and also has some sound advice on how to improve things.
Through his work, the author has been skeptical of an overly win-some trust in the arts. He himself was directed to a career in science instead, and after studying the actions of biochemistry pursued a graduate career in the human science of anthropology. Beginning in Breakfast of Champions and continuing through Timequake, he preferred to celebrate not human imagination (in terms of contriving things-beware human contrivance, almost all his fiction warns) but rather simple human awareness, the self-conscious style of knowledge that among all animal life only humankind enjoys. In Mother Night his Howard Campbell is a more conventionally aesthetic artist; in fact, it is Campbell's motivation as an aesthete that corrupts his drama and his fascination with playing the ultimately tragic role of hero that damns the world with his propaganda. Thus when Campbell learns to question the nature of his art, it is Kurt Vonnegut's position that is being announced.
Except for his reference to Vonnegut's citation of Anne Frank, then, Weide need not write new lines for Campbell. What he does do in defining the role for actor Nick Nolte is to enhance Campbell's physical identity with Vonnegut, especially the Kurt Vonnegut known to millions as a public figure.
From the moment Campbell steps from the Israeli prison van in the scene that runs behind the film's opening credits, it is the image of today's Kurt Vonnegut that he conveys. Stooped forward, mouth hanging a bit open, hair mussed up and clothing rumpled, walking slowly with a shambling gate, it is the most familiar picture of Kurt Vonnegut publicized for the past thirty years. In many scenes Campbell even wears the author's trademark raincoat (on sunny days without a hint of rain). It is the classic look reviewer Robert Scholes described in his April 6, 1969 front-page coverage of Slaughterhouse-Five for The New York Times Book Review, a look that Scholes compared to the visage of Lot's wife. At Dresden, the reviewer suggests, Vonnegut looked into the abyss, and his sense of shock from that terrifying view has imprinted itself on his writer's personality ever since.
In his Bennington College lecture from Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons Vonnegut ascribes his shift from optimism to pessimism to what he saw at Dresden but also to the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well. Today as a widely received speaker it is the image Kurt Vonnegut conveys: careless about his haircut, unmindful of whether or not his clothes are freshly pressed, and humorously apologetic about his inattention to the finer points of public speaking--all because the shock of the message he needs to convey outweighs these mundane particulars.
For Howard Campbell this transition from optimism to pessimism is underscored by Nick Nolte's appearance. Before the war, he is neatly trimmed and sharply tailored; even as a Nazi broadcaster his look is masterful and imposing, the essence of authority. It is in his postwar life that he assumes the guise of Kurt Vonnegut's public spokesmanship, and the film's constant crosscutting between present and past emphasizes the physical cost this knowledge entails. In his prison cell, as he revisits the scene of his worldly education to the nature of mankind, the toll becomes even greater. By the film's end, he is quite literally a man at the end of his rope.
A final Weide gesture toward making Howard Campbell a writer-spokesman is having him hang not by a rope hut with a braid made from his used-up typewriter ribbons. The Israelis have provided these as a prelimary to his trial, so that he can draft a memoir of his actions for use by the court. But there will be no judicial session, for in writing his story Campbell has tried himself and found himself guilty. In the novel, it is not for crimes against humanity but crimes against himself. In his film Robert Weide stops short of such self-judgment, preferring to let the watching prison guard make sufficient comment with a simple exhale of smoke, a reminder of his earlier comment of how strapping the legs of the executed Rudolf Hess felt exactly the same as strapping shut his suitcase. In comprehending the error of his art, Campbell has stepped beyond such distinctions.
Weide's emphasis on Howard Campbell's act of writing corresponds to Vonnegut's textual emphasis in the novel. For Mother Night, almost all information comes in written, even published form, and the film takes advantage of these plot devices for its exposition. After all, Campbell is being assisted by the entire research staff of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals. Yet there is a higher authority beyond textuality, as indicated by Frank Wirtanen's supposedly liberating letter. Meant to free Campbell, it is the final text that moves him to suicide, the final move of himself as a pawn that ends the chess game of his life.
Other cinematic touches not only credit Weide's faithfulness to the essence of Vonnegut's story but show how so much of that story derives from the popular culture of American life. John Goodman, in a role described as a cameo (he is not listed in the opening credits), melds his own public image with that of the character Kurt Vonnegut created in 1961 (when Goodman himself was a child); both Goodman and Wirtanen are familiar types, their speech and physical manner important for conveying the idea of how Howard Campbell's idyllic German life can be so genially interrupted by just what he doesn't want to hear from home. Wirtanen make four appearances, the last in the person of his letter to Campbell in jail, and each time his news disrupts the existence Campbell has so carefully fabricated. Alan Arkin's portrayal of George Kraft is equally adept, worldweariness as a broken widower matching up perfectly with the amorality of betraying a spy. Sheryl Lee's portrayal of both Helga and Resi suggests two entirely different characters, even as one pretends to be the other; her ability to calculate the difference and dissemble it qualifies her as a natural source for Russian espionage, the final issue of Howard Campbell's art.
Weide's neo-Nazis -- Dr. Jones, Rev. Keeley, Bundleader Krapptauer, Black Fuhrer Wilson -- are ridiculously comic, just as Vonnegut describes them in Mother Night (where their ludicrous schizophrenia serves as a model for the totalitarian mind). In one understandable difference from the novel, Weide's real Nazis aren't very funny--there is none of the banality of evil such as ping pony tournaments with Hess and Goebbels and Adolf Hitler rapturing over The Gettysburg Address. In this novel and in Slaughterhouse-Five the author has sometimes been criticized for trivializing the Holocaust, and even though the techniques of both novels pierce more directly to the heart of evil (by showing Nazis not as cartoon monsters but as the human beings they were) it is doubtful that today's Hollywood industry could permit a major motion picture to be made that handled the Third Reich's leadership in anything but consistently condemning tones. A hint of Vonnegut's more comprehensive attitude comes in the portrayal of fellow-prisoner Adolf Eichmann: a disembodied voice (spoken by comedian Henry Gibson) whose cautious suggestions to Campbell reveal an utter ignorance of his own culpability.
In all these aspects Robert Weide's Mother Night benefits from Kurt Vonnegut's presence. From John Goodman smalltalking on a park bench to Henry Gibson's advice, so preposterous that Nick Nolte is given the motivation for the single hearty laugh in the script, almost every nuance is that of the author who restructured the nature of fiction with such novels as Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. Weide had already immersed himself in Vonnegut's work, spending ten years researching, drafting, and doing the initial filming for a documentary on the subject, and this expertise shows in every frame. Had Kurt Vonnegut himself been trained as a filmmaker, Mother Night would not show much differently.
Central to Weide's understanding is how what was implicit in the author's 1961 novel has become a tenet of his public spokesmanship since the onset of fame. To everyone who has seen the physical characteristics of this image, Nick Nolte's portrayal conforms in closely sympathetic replication. Yet even if the viewer hasn't made the connection, Kurt Vonnegut himself cooperates in forging it near the film's end. After listening to Howard Campbell work his way through to a comprehension of Vonnegut's aesthetic and watching him comport himself with so much of the author's physical manner, the film audience sees this characterization brought to fruition as Nick Nolte, sprung from his last entrapment by the intervention of government intelligence, stands completely immobile on a city sidewalk, lacking the simplest reason to move in any direction at all. He stands here from noon into nighttime, passers-by drifting in and out of telephotoed focus as he remains motionless as a statue. The perspective, timed in very subtle slow-motion, is Howard Campbell's own. And into it, as one of the last pedestrians encountered, comes Kurt Vonnegut himself: shambling, stooped, somewhat rumpled and mouth slightly agape, rather suspiciously but concernedly regarding the person he has created. As their eyes meet, he and Howard Campbell are one, and the film is ready to conclude.