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Conspiracy: The Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt's book on Nazi Lieutenant Adolf Eichmann speaks of the "banality of evil". That is, that the greatest evils in history were committed by ordinary people who followed orders thinking that their actions were normal. One quote from her book reads:
“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Conspiracy, which features Eichmann himself, is a chance to see that banality in the works as it dramatizes the events of the Wannsee Conference in 1942. The meeting, attended by a small group of Nazi officers, was supposed to be a moment to decide on the "Final Solution" for Germany's "Jewish problem". The film was produced by HBO, and it features known stars like Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, and Colin Firth, surrounded by an ensemble of respected TV and stage actors.
The film opens with the preparations of the meeting, organized by Adolf Eichmann (Tucci). As servants and cooks scramble around the house prepping everything, the attendees start arriving in small groups. In a few scenes, the personalities of the characters are established in the way they arrive, how they are treated, and how they mingle with each other. From the get-go, the film offers us subtle moments of great direction and acting, as body language dictates the ambiance. Some characters establish their authority with their attitudes, while others prance around pimping their credentials.
The most important arrival is that of SS high-ranking officer Reinhard Heydrich (Branagh) who will lead the meeting. He makes his grand entrance arriving last after flying by himself to the location, and entering the house with authority and dominance.
I've seen this film a dozen times, and I've loved it since the first time. However, seeing it shortly after seeing 12 Angry Men for the first time, was interesting because I could see similarities in filming techniques as well as the thematic implications of human manipulation. Like 12AM, most of Conspiracy takes place in a single room, while men sit at a table. As attendees settle in their chairs and the agenda is subtly exposed, there is some fidgeting and looks to the side. But after the initial shock, the topics of the meeting flow with such casualness that one might think they're planning a corporate picnic.
The banality with which the attendees discuss forced sterilization and mass murders is just chilling. The sterilization of children is discussed with an insulting, passing reference; the after effects of the gas chamber in Jews is treated as a joke; there seems to be little to no emotional effect in most of them. And, in a way similar to 12 Angry Men, most of the action is shot from a table-top point of view, to keep the viewer "at the table", along with the rest of the attendees. As the camera moves around the table, we feel part of this horrific meeting, we are witness to their actions, perhaps tantamount to the way that some people were, and still did nothing.
And the way that Heydrich leads the meeting just adds to the chilling nature of it. In an exceptional performance from Branagh, Heydrich dismisses potential opponents with cutting glances, or condescending refusals. But when the meeting breaks, he subtly twists their arms to his advantage. As the meeting progresses, one has to wonder "what's the purpose of the meeting?". Because, if you pay close attention to it all, nothing is actually determined; no big decision is taken because they were already decided on. The meeting is just a way for Heydrich to establish his authority, and have everyone on track as to who was in charge (the SS).
In 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda's character uses common sense and careful analysis to slowly manipulate his peers into agreeing with him, not necessarily with malice, but with the desire to lead them to his goal. In Conspiracy, Heydrich is more blunt as he establishes his authority, and cunningly manipulates those around him to be on the same page. During breaks in the meeting, he approaches the more dissenting ones of the group, and it's impressive to see how
he adjusts his manipulative approach to each personality. Branagh does a great job of portraying Heydrich's cold and manipulative nature, with few words and a lot of body language. His look and overall demeanor totally tells you who he is and how he has reached his stature.
Aside of Branagh, the next best performances belong to Tucci and Firth. Tucci, who plays Eichmann, takes a more subtle and pensive approach to his character, as you see some slight hesitations, and maybe even doubts. Firth has some great moments as he is one of the most adamant and vocal to the procedures. Not for principles, he says, but for the bureaucratic implications it might bring, or rather for what it might mean to his work. His rant to General Klopfer is one of the peak moments of the film.
Although I've usually praised Branagh, Tucci, and Firth, this last time I rewatched the film, I paid more attention to David Threlfall's performance as Minister Kritzinger, another of the main opponents to the procedures. His subtle reaction to how the meeting unfolds is so great, as he eventually surrenders to it, knowing there's no chance he can fight it all. It's no surprise that he ended up feeling "ashamed of Nazi atrocities", according to the final write-up.
Overall, Conspiracy is an excellent film; a perfect portrait of how those in power can manipulate us without we even noticing it. I certainly don't condone any of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but I sure think that a lot of them thought they were doing the right thing for their country. Evil can sneak up on us like the most banal and casual of things. Grade: A+
Kenneth Branagh on Conspiracy
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