Conspiracy is so accurate and realistic, forcing the viewer to see by proxy a real meeting held by Nazi Germany’s administrators to plan The Holocaust that it actually leaves the viewer quite literally on the verge of nausea. It is a horribly sad, but true tale, based upon the one surviving copy of the meeting’s notes found in the aftermath of World War II.
Similar to the manner in which Kenneth Branagh (of Frankenstein fame), who plays the group’s leader/dictator SS General Reinhard Heydrich, traditionally acts, the film has the feel of a play with very few sets, no special effects to speak of, and no soundtrack whatsoever, save for an emotionally-charged playing of the Adagio from Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major’, D. 956, op. post. 163. Branagh’s performance is without flaw; he portrays Heydrich in the same thuggish, bullying manner in which he is historically recorded as having behaved. He bullies everyone from the direct representatives of Hitler on down as the meeting to decide what to do with all of the Jews that have been rounded up is supposed to be decided at this meeting, but is in fact, already decided and this meeting is simply to inform the various other elements of Nazi Government how to best cooperate and subjugate themselves to Heydrich and the SS.
The only other actor vying for the main character is the real-life organizer of the meeting, who would later be captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and famously put on trial in the 1960s: Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann, played masterfully by Stanley Tucci. Eichmann is perhaps colder still than Heydrich, as Heydrich is acting on orders from Hitler while Eichmann is acting simply because he is a person absent of feeling for the Jews other than enough of a hatred to see to it that their extermination advances his career. Tucci’s performance is unavoidably depressing as one is constantly reminding oneself subconsciously that his character is probably the best represented since he survived the war and was infamous long enough for Tucci to not only have the substance of how Eichmann behaves and what he is doing, but how he says it and his cold, emotional detachment.
For those who do not already know, this movie can be summarized very easily and without spoiling the ending (and I hesitate to put it that way, given the subject matter): a group of leading Germans are summoned to a house bear Berlin towards the middle of the war, when Germany is in the grips of losing its Russian front to plan the Holocaust. Eichmann is the organizer of the meeting and the project and Heydrich is the administrator charged by Hitler himself with the task.
The supporting casts are virtual unknowns, but even their performances bear some serious note as all seem to initially try to play political games to garner additional power and privileges in the Nazi government and all are either humiliated, muzzled in their efforts to speak, or not-too-subtly threatened to either cooperate or face the wrath of, as Eichmann puts it to the leading opponent, “the bullies we know we have in the SS.”
The director of the film has either through happenstance (perhaps by the suggestion of Branagh) or conscious effort, added an element of additional realism to the film in its absence of a soundtrack and nearly single set. One feels as if one is truly at a meeting where such a horrible thing is being discussed and decided. Director Frank Pierson, has previously directed another independent film very eloquently that told the story of the obscenity case against a museum director in Cincinnati over a display of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in Dirty Pictures.
Perhaps the one recognizable face in the supporting case is Colin Firth who plays the man who wrote the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which began, in my opinion, the slope towards the Holocaust, Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart. He is, incidentally, opposed not for moral reasons, but simply because he is obsessed with law and order and the sloppy paw of the SS short-changing the laws and legal technicalities in favor of its subjective judgment is offensive to his sensibilities; even he is forced to at least fall under the pretense of support for the project.
An example of the cold, calculated terror of the film and its sinister real-life occurrence comes when a side discussion emerges as to whether the Jewish religion has a concept of a hell and Heydrich responds by saying, “They do now. We provide it.”
The callous, heartless, immoral, cruel and just disgustingness of the movie’s topic is captured perfectly making for a beautifully crafted film almost free of flaws that is still something most people will not want to see, if for no other reason than it is so realistic that it is almost intolerable. The viewer’s only solace comes at the film’s conclusion in knowing that the plan did not succeed and finding out the fates of the meeting’s participants, which, regrettably, were not of the execution-for-crimes-against-humanity variety for the most part, but more usually, released-for-lack-of-evidence-and-went-on-to-die-of-natural-causes variety, which if anything, makes the film’s realism and subject even more infuriating.
That said Conspiracy is the perfect example of what an independent film can be when done properly: cover a topic with absolute artistic perfection that would have little commercial value to the bigger Hollywood studios and do something important with the medium of film in keeping The Holocaust always remebered and always associated with the merciless cruelty of the Nazi leadership. It is something to see, but something to see with a movie that is very nice and has a happy ending to watch as a digestif to make the experience palatable.