January 20, 1942, 15 men gathered in a villa on the outskirts of Berlin
for a clandestine meeting that would ultimately seal the fate of the European
Jewish population. Ninety minutes later, the blueprint for Hitler’s Final
Solution was in place.
Eichmann prepared 30 top-secret copies of the meeting’s minutes. By the
fall of the Reich, all had disappeared or been destroyed—except
one. The Wannsee Protocol, found in the files of the Reich’s Foreign Office,
is the only document where the details of Hitler’s maniacal plan were actually
codified, and serves as the basis for Conspiracy.
Wilhelm Stuckart, Secretary of State, Ministry of the Interior
Heydrich (SS-Obergruppenführer) and chief of the Protectorate of Bohemia
Eichmann (SS-Obersturmbannführer), head of Jewish Affairs office
Friedrich Kritzinger, State Secretary of the Reich Chancellery
Josef Bühler (Ben Daniels),
State Secretary-General Government of Occupied Poland; Dr. Roland Freisler
Teale), State Secretary-Justice Ministry;
SS-Gruppenführer Otto Hofmann (Nicolas
Woodeson), Race and Settlement Main Office;
SS-Oberführer Dr. Gerhard Klopfer
McNeice), State Secretary-Party Chancellery;
SS-Sturmbannführer Dr Rudolph Lange (Barnaby
Kay), Commander-Security Police in Latvia;
Dr. Georg Leibrandt (Ewan Stewart),
Chief of the political division for the Occupied Eastern Territories (Ostland);
Dr. Martin Luther (Kevin McNally),
Under State Secretary-Foreign Office; Dr Alfred Meyer (Brian
Pettifer), District leader (Gauleiter) in
the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories (Ostland); SS-Gruppenführer
Chief of the Gestapo; Dr. Erich Neumann
Coy), State Secretary-Office of the Four-Year
Plan; SS-Oberführer Dr Karl Eberhard Schöngarth (Peter
Sullivan), Commander-Security Police and Security
Service in the General Government of Occupied Poland.
Frank Pierson's goal was not to create a traditional dramatization of history
but to present a close approximation of actually being there, as if it
were a live event.
camera was never above or below eye level," Pierson explains. "The film
required the presence of all 15 actors for the entire length of production.
All of our actors were experienced in rehearsing, which is a technique
in itself and is very seldom done in movies—at
least not in the sense of having extended rehearsals where we get into
long, sometimes 10-minute takes. The actors had an opportunity to truly
act as an ensemble rather than how movies are traditionally made, which
is breaking everything up into a few lines at a time and later assembling
the performances in the editing room. It has been an absolute glory to
work in this way with this cast, and a glory for the actors because they
got to really, truly sculpt and work out a performance."
Firth believes the subject matter of Conspiracy is a timely topic, serving
as a reminder that something so evil once occurred, as well as a mirror
for current events. "I am reading a book about Rwanda at the moment, and
it is remarkable to me how many parallels there are," he says. "The Balkans
might be a more fitting comparison, but nevertheless the attacks by machete
in Rwanda were not performed by frenzied mobs and not necessarily by tribesmen.
The people who were committing these murders were doctors, parish priests,
research scientists and all sorts of other professional people."
seems more removed to us; it doesn't feel like the industrialized society
of Germany in the '30s, but it is much closer than you might think. They
weren't doing it in the spirit of passion, but because they felt it was
necessary and that their lives would not be better until they got rid of
an entire race of people. The same sort of normalization of what is absolutely
unthinkable is still happening today."
Kenneth Branagh, playing Reinhard Heydrich was not only a challenge, but
one of the most disturbing experiences of his nearly 20-year acting career.
"Even amongst a group of men who committed the most extraordinary crimes,
Heydrich was unique for the ferocity and the cruelty of what he did, and
the ruthless efficiency with which he did it," Branagh notes. "In my preparation
I thoroughly researched Heydrich, but I found that when it came down to
playing him, the 'inner' man seemed invisble."
scriptwriter, Loring Mandel, tried to do a psychological profile of Heydrich,
looking for elements of behavior that may not appeal but perhaps lend to
understanding his character, whether it be hatred of parents, a childhood
trauma, some physical or mental disability, something that might illuminate
his motives. Nothing seemed to make conventional psychological sense.
His utter lack of compassion, lack of pity, revealed a man who has a buried
conscience and as a result, seems to be soulless."
such a character, I didn't want to say the lines, I didn't want to be connected
to this moral vacuum that seems to be the man himself. He was an absolutely
extraordinary mind, a fantastic manager, but also an absolutely ghastly
human being. There is something purely evil about him that is absolutely
repellent and I'll be very happy not to wear his uniform or play him ever
again. Despite this, the ultimate message of this movie and the necessity
for doing it seem to me to be immensely positive and important."
Tucci had an equally tough time playing Eichmann, famously described by
Hannah Arendt as epitomizing the "banality of evil." Tucci explains, "Even
at the end of the war, when Himmler said to him, 'Let's just stop this,
let's put an end to the concentration camsp,' and so on, Eichmann kept
it going. His personal technique with people was to be more silkily persuasive,
and he often played the card of self-deprecation and modesty. He was different
in that way from Heydrich." He adds that "there were a lot of Germans at
the time who did what Eichmann did, but either they didn't get caught or
were killed before they were brought to trail. [Nuremberg] was the first
Nazi trial to be televised, so I think that had a huge impact on people
and is why Eichmann is such a well-known player."
Threlfall, who plays Freidrich Kritzinger agrees. "This movie takes 90
minutes to watch, and it took just a little longer for the actual meeting
at Wannsee to take place. Think about that. It took just a little longer
to make a decision over a few drinks and some food to set about completely
eradicating a whole race of people. There are people alive who still believe
that can be achieved."
by Frank Pierson, Conspiracy is an HBO Films presentation and a co-production
with BBC Films. The executive producers are Pierson, Frank Doelger and
Peter Zinner; the producer is Nick Gillot; and the script is by Loring
Ray Richmond (May 17, 2001)
It isn't every day that
you watch a film featuring not a single speaking role for a woman. Such
is the case with "Conspiracy," a quietly haunting intellectual docudrama
that imagines what it might have been like to be a fly on the wall in the
war room while high-ranking members of Adolf Hitler's SS dispassionately
plotted the extermination of Europe's Jewish population. It is decidedly
not the feel-good movie of 2001 or a great Saturday night date movie to
snuggle up with over microwave popcorn and a nice merlot. It does, however,
pack the requisite wallop at a time when hate crimes remain an international
There is a palpable "12
Angry Men" aspect to "Conspiracy." Here, however, we have "15 Evil Men,"
and the setting isn't a jury room but an ornate mansion on the outskirts
of Berlin on Jan. 20, 1942....
While "Conspiracy" is
at times unbearably talky and overly descriptive, its spare style and unfettered,
bare-bones direction by co-executive producer Frank Pierson serves to breathe
vivid life into the unspeakable malevolence that was as much the Nazi emblem
as was the swastika. The very routineness with which the players discuss
the eradication of an entire race of people over food, booze and cigars
is perhaps its most gut-wrenching aspect. It points out the stunning ease
with which the seeds of mass evil can germinate and thrive...
Laura Fries (May 16, 2001)
could be a boardroom at any Fortune 500 company where stockholders bicker
over inventory and storage.
the 15 men gathered in this lakeside resort home outside of Berlin are
discussing the details of a "Final Solution" to purge all Jews from Europe.
In this disturbing original movie, co-produced by HBO and BBC Films, director
Frank Pierson recreates the less than two hours it took for high-ranking
Third Reich officials to agree to the eradication of an entire race.
one could watch this film on Saturday and then tune in to ABC the next
night to watch their horrific plan implemented with the miniseries "Anne
Frank." However, "Conspiracy" tands on its own as a fly-on-the-wall glimpse
of a disturbing piece of history.
as the Wannsee Conference, the only record of the January 1942 meeting
to survive was found in the German Foreign Office files by Americans in
1947. Writer Loring Mandel takes the written transcript of the meeting
and adds chilling insight into the men and the topic at hand.
the banality of which these men plan the most evil of deeds, Pierson cleverly
evokes the pageantry of the meeting, running the camera over the platters
of food, carefully selected wines and crystals and even the handwritten
attention to seemingly unimportant details sets an eerie tone echoed by
the understated performances of a fine ensemble cast. Kenneth Branagh oozes
malevolence as the manipulative and dismissive SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich
who at one point proudly announces the success of the T-4 euthanasia program.
Although technically outranked by others in the room, Heydrich quickly
establishes that this is not really a discussion, but rather a very persuasive
demand for absolute cooperation.
Eichmann, Tucci's performance is much more subtle than Branagh's. For most
of the movie, he silently carries out Heydrich's commands with hardly a
blink of an eye, but instead of losing visibility, Tucci adds nuances of
evil with his timely whispers and sideways glances.
most passionate performance comes from Colin Firth as Dr. Wilhelm
Stuckart, who for a moment appears to be a Jewish sympathizer, but as it
turns out, is angered only at the breach of protocol, not morality.
the film, Pierson encouraged the actors to use their regular speaking voices
as opposed to affecting a German accent. It's a smart move that keeps the
focus off the delivery and onto the content of what was said. The appalling
subject matter is then juxtaposed with political posturing and infighting,
arguments over syntax, a bit of career networking and of course, a buffet
of photography Stephen Goldblatt keeps the camera at an intimate level
with the actors, never venturing above or below eye level. Throughout the
film, the camera rotates around the table, seemingly looking for a spark
of moral conscience, although little is found. Production credits are flawless
with immaculate set design by Peter Mullins capturing the opulent but sterile
surroundings of Wannsee. Franz Schubert's String Quintet in C Major performed
by Ensemble Villa Musica is a nice touch considering at one point in the
film Heydrich contends, "Schubert will tear your heart out." That is, of
course, if you have one.
Terry Kelleher (May 21, 2001)
ABC's Anne Frank...looks
at the Holocaust from the victims' point of view. This HBO-BBC coproduction—very
different but equally meritorious—is
a dispassionate but devastating dramatization of a 1942 meeting at which
15 high-ranking Nazis approved a plan to exterminate the Jewish population
of all territories under Germany's control.
Like The Wannsee Conference,
a 1984 German-language film on the same subject, Conspiracy relies on actual
minutes of the meeting and runs only about as long as the event itself.
Incredibly, it took the participants less than two hours to debate this
scheme of unspeakable horror.
Keeping the discussion
on track is SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, played to perfection by Kenneth
Branagh. Smooth but sinister, Heydrich is the ultimate bureaucratic infighter,
feigning respect for dissenters, then cutting them off at the knees. Adolf
Eichmann (Stanley Tucci) sits at his right hand, cooling reciting statistics
on gas-chamber efficiency as if he were reading from a financial statement.
Colin Firth is superb as Wilhelm Stuckart, a legal authority who
declares his hatred of Jews but tries to draw the line at annihilating
Bottom Line: This meeting's
Tom Conroy (May 21, 2001)
This movie dramatizes
the 1942 meeting at which Adolf Eichmann and 14 other Nazi officials plotted
the extermination of Europe's Jews. Although Eichmann inspired Hannah Arendt's
theory of the banality of evil, Conspiracy is both fascinating and perversely
entertaining. The participants eat, drink, joke, and jockey for position
while condemning millions of people to death. Though Stanley Tucci's Eichmann
is too close to the slimy types he has played before, Kenneth Branagh is
brilliant as Eichmann's superior, Reinhard Heydrich, portraying him as
a lethal combination of amorality and charm. ***1/2* A bloodless horror
Semantics that set
evil in motion
Euny-Hong-Koral (May 5, 2001)
devastating than Claude Lanzmann's Shoah or Elie Wiesel's Night, or any
Holocaust survivor's testimony, is the architecture and legal language
of Hitler's Final Solution itself...
men sit around the boardroom table, calligraphic name placards and water
pitchers before them, with a silent stenographer in the background. They
proceed in a laconic, no-nonsense fashion, as though they are management
consultants trying to determine how to lay off employees in the face of
an imminent corporate merger...
performers convey their inner state through the subtlest of gestures. The
astonishingly versatile Colin Firth plays Dr Wilhelm Stuckart,
the jurist who co-wrote the Nuremberg laws. As the SS representatives mangle
the letter of the law he wrote, he simmers steadily, attempting vainly
to interrupt, until at last he explodes.
ostensible topic is the Jewish question, but it becomes clear that Heydrich
has pulled off a sleight of hand. Any semblance of a democratic exchange
of ideas has been a farce. This is a power struggle, in which the SS subversively
takes control through word play and intrigue - not by screaming and banging
their shoes on the table.
are not the caricatured, comically stentorian Nazis of a Steven Spielberg
film. On the contrary, as the actors interpret it, this meeting is a game
of steel nerves.
more reviews and background articles
Brandy and cigars
and the Final Solution
Stuart Wavell (Jan 20, 2002)
years ago today, a group of Nazi bureaucrats assembled at a villa on the
outskirts of Berlin to dine sumptuously and discuss a pressing matter.
After 90 minutes they had broadly settled the logistical difficulties of
the Final Solution. It became known as the Wannsee conference, one of the
most infamous meetings in history.
in on this urbane gathering, thanks to a remarkable new television reconstruction,
we catch the jokes and watch the cheese being passed as the agenda is pushed
through briskly by SS General Reinhard Heydrich, played with chilling conviviality
by Kenneth Branagh. At his elbow as a servile prompt is Adolf Eichmann
one of those present voices passionate opposition: is this a lone voice
of conscience? The answer is much more bizarre, says Colin Firth, who plays
Dr Wilhelm Stuckart, an interior ministry lawyer.
a moment when you think this one guy is going to champion humanity, and
then you realise that is not what it’s all about. He wanted a much more
subtle and thorough-going way of eliminating a race of people—sterilisation.”
last seen parodying his doppelgänger Mr Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary,
immersed himself in Holocaust literature for the part and found himself
haunted by the experience. Yet the first month of filming was marked by
fits of the giggles.
could be quite hard for people to understand, and possibly offensive. When
you put 15 boys together and introduce something that makes them all a
bit nervous, it’s a recipe for slightly hilarious ribaldry, although we
weren’t joking about the subject matter.”
fact, this flippancy served the mood they were required to create, he believes.
“Those men were not sitting there discussing tragedy. They were simply
dealing with the administrative difficulties of mass murder. That is what
is so mind-blowing about it.”
the initial read-through, the actors found themselves laughing at a scripted
joke and instinctively covered their mouths in remorse, he says. “It was
when they were discussing how to sterilise people without them knowing.
Someone said you could have an x-ray machine hidden under a desk. At which,
another character says, ‘I’m not coming into your office.’ ”
the levity was knocked out of them, however, when they went to Berlin for
the last week of shooting Conspiracy—The
Meeting at Wannsee, which begins on BBC2 on Friday. The venue was the actual
villa where the conference was convened by Heydrich in the suburb of Wannsee,
preserved as a Holocaust museum.
was born in 1960, and for those of us not directly affected, the Holocaust
had seemed like ancient history. It had been difficult for me to maintain
my outrage. But there were photographs in that museum—medical experiments,
some involving children—which are some of the most horrific things I’ve
ever seen. I was haunted for months afterwards.”
memories intrude. One day the cast, wearing their German uniforms, were
taking a break outside when they were spotted by a group of German schoolboys,
who began cheering them. Firth is still not sure if it was mockery or something
else. And near his lodgings in east Berlin, he noticed a synagogue surrounded
by a protective ring of army trucks.
most abiding sense was of the banality of evil that floated in the cigar
smoke and brandy fumes filling the villa on January 20, 1942. His character,
Stuckart, had helped to draw up the Nuremburg laws on racial purity, but
balked at mass extermination because, paradoxically, it flouted the rule
argument was not, ‘Save the poor, innocent people’ but, ‘Have patience.
Wait a generation and we’ll rid the world of a pestilence through sterilisation.
If you hurry things, there’s going to be a backlash’.
is overruled with a few words by Heydrich: “Death is the most reliable
form of sterilisation.”
acclaimed in America, the film has already won two Emmys and three nominations
for the Golden Globe awards. It is another chance for Firth to exorcise
the heart-throb stereotype of his famous wet-look Mr Darcy in Pride and
Beck and Stacy Jenel Smith
It's a lot more shocking
than anything I've seen on the Holocaust in years," reports Colin Firth
of HBO's Saturday night (5/19) "Conspiracy." Firth stars with Kenneth Branagh
and Stanley Tucci in the film that chronicles the Third Reich's meeting
outside of Berlin to come up with the final solution for exterminating
"It's based on the actual
transcripts of the conference that took place in the early '40s. We're
all Nazis there to settle the Jewish question."
Firth notes that in other
Holocaust-themed movies and docus "we've seen the terrible images dramatized
many times ... I don't think we've become inured to it, but it's very hard
to represent it in a way that allows it to shock. 'Conspiracy' is so utterly
shocking because of this kind of strange casualness and banality with which
the Nazis talk about things like using gas because it's more effective
than industrial methods ... talking about killing children and mental patients,
and joking about it while passing the tea at a buffet lunch."
Bridget Jones' Sweetie
Would Rather Play Bad Guys
Cindy Pearlman (May 4, 2001)
Just check out "Conspiracy,"
an HBO television movie that will debut on May 19. Starring Kenneth Branagh,
the film casts Firth as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart in a story about the Wannsee
Conference, a famous meeting among Nazi leaders on Jan. 20, 1942. Their
agenda was to decide what to do about "the Jewish problem," and their decision
was what would become known as the Holocaust.
"It's shockingly heavy
stuff," Firth says. "We sit there and talk about 'the Jewish problem,'
as they called it. At this point, the Nazis had been trying to solve it
with forced immigrations and random shootings. But then a memo came down
that all the Jews had to be killed.
"At this meeting," he
continues, "the Nazis decided they couldn't send the Jews to America, because
America would probably just send them back. And bullets were too expensive.
So at this conference they decided, 'Let's just do gas.'
"Then one character says,
'Good, that's decided. Pass the wine and cheese.'
"It's chilling," the
actor says, "because these men are eating and exchanging jokes while deciding
to wipe out 6 million people. It's shocking."
Dastardly, Mr Darcy
Firth has a habit of setting female pulses racing, so how will his fans
respond to seeing him as a senior Nazi at the infamous Wannsee conference
where the Final Solution was formulated? Is the move from ladykiller to
mass murderer a step too far for the man for all seasons?
Firth slopes into the room, filling it with megawatt charm. His Erect Highness
extends a warm handshake at the door of his dressing room at Shepperton
Studios in London. It is early evening and he has just come straight from
a film set. Still in makeup and costume, he wears a double-breasted grey
worsted suit and, heaven forfend, those gloriously peaked cheekbones have
been painted powdery white. The deathly pallor suggests a corpse that has
just been prepared by a cosmetologist for an open casket. The effect is
entirely deliberate, of course. For his latest film, Conspiracy, Firth
is playing one of Germany's most senior Nazis, who in 1942 attended a secret
conference at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, to formulate a plan to exterminate
the Jews. Being a film baddie obviously agrees with Firth, though it's
a role that many of his legions of fans might not be too happy for him
set the female half of Britain on fire as the smouldering Darcy in the
last BBC version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. How they will receive
him as a Jew-killer might not be open to a lot of interpretation. But since
he turned 40 this year, Firth, who is joined in this film by stars Kenneth
Branagh, Stanley Tucci and David Threlfall, has become a risk-taker supreme
with his choice of roles.
he proceeds to nutshell the Conspiracy plot. He says 'Some senior Nazis,
15 to be exact, in January of 1942 met and discussed the extermination
of the Jews. They had a nice buffet lunch and went home. Minutes of the
meeting have survived and this thing is based on those. It is shattering
stuff. This is utterly banal. They cracked a few jokes. Discussed whether
bullets were better than gas. Whether sterilisation was better than forced
emigration. Basically, the brief was no messing around with these half
measures. We have to free German living space, as they put it, from all
Jews so there is not one left.'
parents] ought to see him here now, on the set of Conspiracy. Seated at
a table. Playing one of Hitler's henchmen. The SS eagles and swastika armbands
abound. He and his actor pals spend all day sitting in this room while
the cameras record them discussing unspeakable things. So how does he compensate
for this greedy swallowing up of all these dreadful words and images from
one of our worst periods in modern history?...
replies: 'Oh, you can't take on all of it all of the time. There's actually
a lot of humour abounding. I think it is a release of tension. In some
ways you feel a terrible phony. I think all the angst and rigour of the
job is terribly enjoyable. It's fun angst. We don't really suffer.'
56-58 Am Grossen
Wannsee is now a Holocaust Museum
The conference room