The Holocaust remains an unfathomable atrocity, the unholy benchmark by which all such are measured. Stalin and Mao both make Hitler look like an amateur when it came to sheer body count, yet the Holocaust remains unique. It seems to boil down to two reasons. First, the Nazis were terrifying in their systematic approach to the slaughter of Jews, driven by their ideological belief that they were acting for the greater good of all mankind. And second, they hunted Jews in any land they conquered; the goal wasn't merely to "purify" Germany, but the world.
Few films have captured these points as well as HBO's 2001 film, Conspiracy.
On January 20, 1942, a group of senior officials of Nazi Germany met at a lovely house in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The purpose of their meeting was to determine the "final solution" for the Jews. The Wannsee Conference developed what is referred to as the Wannsee Protocol. A single copy of the document remains. Conspiracy, drawing from that and other resources, chronicles that meeting.
I've watched this film several times and it's fascinating each and every time. Director Frank Pierson keeps stylistic flourishes at a distance, lending an almost documentary feel to the production. The lack of musical score emphasizes this feel. The performances are beyond reproach and avoid any hysterical melodramatics. The result is a clear discussion of the unthinkable, while at the same time small details such as meals, drinks, cigars, and crude humor allow that human beings, rather than cartoon renditions of inhuman monsters, were discussing inhuman matters in a cold, calculating fashion that illustrates, perhaps more than anything else, Hannah Arendt's notion of "the banality of evil."
In a film filled with excellent performances, finding a standout is almost futile. I say "almost" because then there's that moment with Colin Firth as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart. He and David Threlfall (Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger) are the most reluctant to proceed with the topic at hand, the mass murder of Jews, but their objections are decidedly different. Kritzinger objects because the discussion contradicts what Der Fuhrer has told him directly, and there's that chilling moment when Kenneth Branagh, as Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the meeting and the driving force behind development of a final solution, looks at him and says that yes, the Fuhrer has denied this, and will continue to deny this. The silent exchange between the two is all it takes to understand that officially, this won't be policy, yet equally officially, yes it will.
But it's Stuckart's objection that haunts me. He is all about the law, and having written Germany's racial purity laws, he's not about to see them all tossed aside willy nilly. He doesn't object to the idea of killing, or any other other proposed solutions, but he insists it be done in accordance with law. This, to me, emphasizes the monstrous nature of what was being discussed. The morality of slaughtering people was never in question; they felt they were doing a moral, even ethical, duty. But by Wodan, they were going to do it in accordance with law and proper procedure.
There are no monsters at this conference, at least not by their beliefs. Yet they casually planned the monstrous. More so than any other Holocaust film, Conspiracy gives you a glimpse at the morally bankrupt, bureaucratic mind that planned the final solution for the Jews. The hint that they knew how evil what they proposing was comes from the insistence on controlling all records of the meeting (nicely managed by Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann, Mr. Banality himself). If they truly believes that they were doing the moral and ethical thing, why the demand for secrecy?
It's this contradiction that Conspiracy captures so well, men talking openly, even brazenly, about genocide on an industrial scale, while at the same time wanting to keep their little discussion as secret as possible. This film tells you all the need to know about the Nazi mentality and why it does, indeed, represent the greatest horror in history.