(Updated 1/13/02)




BBC2 airdate January 25, 2002 at 9:00pm

53rd Emmy Awards

Colin Firth Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Conspiracy received two awards from its ten nominations: Lead Actor (Kenneth Branagh) and Best Writing (Loring Mandel)


 
 
Colin Firth talks about his character and the shocking approach to the "Jewish problem" that he proposes
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On 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.

Adolf Eichmann prepared 30 top-secret copies of the meeting’s minutes. By the fall of the Reich, all had disappeared or been destroyedexcept 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.
Cast
Colin Firth
Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, Secretary of State, Ministry of the Interior
Kenneth Branagh
Reinhard Heydrich (SS-Obergruppenführer) and chief of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
Stanley Tucci
Adolf Eichmann (SS-Obersturmbannführer), head of Jewish Affairs office
David Threlfall
Dr. Friedrich Kritzinger, State Secretary of the Reich Chancellery

Dr. Josef Bühler (Ben Daniels), State Secretary-General Government of Occupied Poland; Dr. Roland Freisler (Owen Teale), State Secretary-Justice Ministry; SS-Gruppenführer Otto Hofmann (Nicolas Woodeson), Race and Settlement Main Office; SS-Oberführer Dr. Gerhard Klopfer (Ian 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 Heinrich Müller (Brenden Coyle), Chief of the Gestapo; Dr. Erich Neumann (Jonathan 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.
 

Production

Director 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.

"The 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 moviesat 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."

Colin 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."

"It 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."

For 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."

"Our 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."

"Playing 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."

Stanley 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."

David 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."

Directed 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 Mandel.
 

 Gallery

Reviews

 The Hollywood Reporter
by 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 problem.

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...
 

 Variety
by Laura Fries (May 16, 2001)

It could be a boardroom at any Fortune 500 company where stockholders bicker over inventory and storage.

Instead, 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.

Theoretically, 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.

Known 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.

Reinforcing 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 place cards.

This 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.

As 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.

The 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.

For 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 lunch.

Director 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.
 

 People Weekly
by Terry Kelleher (May 21, 2001)

ABC's Anne Frank...looks at the Holocaust from the victims' point of view. This HBO-BBC coproductionvery different but equally meritoriousis 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. And Colin Firth is superb as Wilhelm Stuckart, a legal authority who declares his hatred of Jews but tries to draw the line at annihilating them.

Bottom Line: This meeting's a must.
 

  Us Weekly
by 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 movie.
 

  Financial Times
Semantics that set evil in motion
by Euny-Hong-Koral (May 5, 2001)

More 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...

The 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...

The 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.

The 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.

These 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.

Read more reviews and background articles

News

 The Sunday Times
Brandy and cigars and the Final Solution
by Stuart Wavell (Jan 20, 2002)

Sixty 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.

Tracking 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 (Stanley Tucci). 

But 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.

“There’s 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 peoplesterilisation.”

Firth, 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.

“That 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.”

In 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.”

In 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.’ ”

All the levity was knocked out of them, however, when they went to Berlin for the last week of shooting ConspiracyThe 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.

“I 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.”

Other 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.

His 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 of law.

“His 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’.

He is overruled with a few words by Heydrich: “Death is the most reliable form of sterilisation.”

Critically 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 Prejudice.  (To complete article)
 

 Marilyn Beck and Stacy Jenel Smith
Horror Story
(May 18, 2001)

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 the Jews.

"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."
 

 Entertainment News Daily
Bridget Jones' Sweetie Would Rather Play Bad Guys
by 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."
 

 The Herald
Dastardly, Mr Darcy
by Gavin Docherty
December 9, 2000

Colin 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?

Colin 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 to play.

He 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.

Dispassionately, 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.'

[His 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?...

He 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.'

Background Links


 56-58 Am Grossen Wannsee is now a Holocaust Museum

The conference room
 

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