This big-screen adaptation of the novel by Kurt Vonnegut tells the intriguing (fictional) tale of how successful German-American playwright Howard Campbell (Nick Nolte) becomes embroiled in a US intelligence plot that sees him infiltrate the German propaganda machine during WWII.
The catch is that nobody will ever know about Campbell’s real role as an American agent except for Major Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman) and President Roosevelt himself – and if he is ever uncovered, he’ll be refused recognition by the Americans.
Campbell delivers anti-semitic Nazi propaganda broadcasts featuring certain carefully placed coughs, sneezes and pauses in the text to convey vital war information to the Allies.
His vicious broadcasts are wildly popular in Germany and his adored actress wife, Helga (Sheryl Lee) knows nothing of what’s going on, nor does she care.
After the fall of Germany, Campbell is captured by American troops who are bitter because of his betrayal and beat him and leave him in the mud.
He’s rescued by Wirtanen who sends him to an anonymous and lonely existence in a Greenwich Village apartment in New York (which he affectionately calls “purgatory”), sending him a little cash now and then. His wife is presumed dead.
But after a chance meeting with his neighbour, George Kraft (Alan Arkin), his identity somehow leaks out and a complex web of spies and neo-Nazis eventually draws him back into the life he once led.
By 1967, captured by the Israelis, Campbell types his memoirs in a prison before his trial for crimes against humanity. Adolf Eichmann (the voice of Henry Gibson) is in the cell next door.
The film does not end happily.
This was a difficult and emotionally uncomfortable film to make (and to watch, at times) but director Keith Gordon’s storytelling flows well and Mother Night is engrossing from beginning to end.
The author himself cameos as “Sad Old Man on the Street”.
Guard Bernard Liebman
Young Howard Campbell
Major Frank Wirtanen
Old Jewish Man
Young Resi Noth
Bernard B. O’Hare
Dr Abraham Epstein
Adolf Eichmann (voice)
Dr Lionel Jones
The Black Fuehrer