Fatherland Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000

How do I tell my son that I worked for murderers all my life? How do I explain that it wasn't a glorious war for national survival?
Fatherland box art

Next to the Confederate States winning the American Civil War and John F. Kennedy escaping the bullet of Lee Harvey Oswald, a victorious Germany in the Second World War is probably one of the more popular 'what if?' scenarios in the alternate history genre. Though historians are in general agreement that Hitler's defeat was inevitable, this has not stopped numerous essays and books from being written by alternate history buffs, detailing possible scenarios of a world where the Nazis prevailed. For example, Len Deighton's best-selling novel "SS-GB" takes place in Nazi-dominated Britain, where a Scotland Yard detective's investigation into the death of a black marketeer leads to atomic bomb secrets and the fate of an imprisoned King George VI. Similarly, Kenneth Macksey's "Invasion: The German Invasion of England, July 1940" details a German campaign that destroys the RAF and forces Churchill's government to flee to the United States. And then there is Robert Harris' best-selling novel from 1992, "Fatherland", which formed the basis for one of the few films of the alternate history genre, an HBO movie of the same name from 1994.

The story begins in 1964, twenty years after the end of the Second World War. Nazi Germany emerges victorious, with most of Western Europe under the flag of 'Germania'. While the United States emerged victorious in its war with Japan, peace was never officially brokered between Germania and the United States, which led to a two-decade long 'cold war'. Meanwhile, the war between Germania and Russia continues to drag on with no end in sight. In Berlin, preparations are underway for two auspicious occasions-- the celebration of Hitler's 75th birthday, and a historic summit between Hitler and pro-German President Joseph P. Kennedy II of the United States. Germania, much like the Soviet Union in the Eighties, has once again opened its borders, and seems poised for reforms and re-entering the arena of international politics once again. Hoping to curry favor with the anti-Communist United States, it is hoped that the new alliance will allow Germania to resolve its long-standing conflict on its eastern front.

Charlie Maguire (Miranda Richardson of "Sleepy Hollow") is an American reporter who is invited to Berlin as part of a press junket to cover Hitler's birthday celebration and the impending historic meeting. Upon her arrival in the mostly-rebuilt Germania capital, she is handed an envelope by a stranger, inside which contains a faded black-and-white photograph taken during the war. With her curiosity piqued, Charlie investigates the meaning behind the picture, an investigation which soon has her crossing paths with SS police officer Major Xavier March (Rutger Hauer of "Blade Runner"), who is investigating the mysterious death of a high-ranking member of the political elite. Together, with great risk to their own lives, they uncover what may be the greatest secret of the Third Reich-- that millions of Jews, supposedly resettled to the Ukraine, were actually systematically slaughtered in what was dubbed 'The Final Solution'.

Think you'll finally do something about your Jews, as we did with ours?
What... did you do?
We put them in cattle-cars and shipped them east... always east.
To the Ukraine... to the resettlement camps?
To resettle them... in the air.
Excuse me?
To turn them into smoke. They burned the bodies after they gassed them. They had to, so nobody would ever know. At first, it was a bullet for each, but a child takes as big a bullet as a grown man or woman. We needed those six million bullets we saved.
Six or seven million Jews, and then the bullets for the Gypsies, the lunatics, the cripples...
So all the Jews were killed then. There was no resettlement...
My dear... I hardly think that after the war there were hardly enough of them to resettle half an acre.

One of the great things about Harris' book was the attention paid to historical detail. For example, the picture that Charlie is given was taken in January 1942 at the site of the Wannsee conference, a real-life meeting in which top Nazi bureaucrats, including Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, coordinated the logistics for exterminating Europe's estimated 11 million strong Jewish population. Another interesting bit of historical accuracy is that the President in the film is the older brother to John and Robert, who was actually shot down during the Second World War when he was stationed in England. Of course, in this alternate universe, Joseph Kennedy II never fought in England due to the Nazi victory, and ends up in the White House.

The war was over, the Jews were...
And in two generation's time, who will care enough to ask?

Unfortunately, "Fatherland" is one of those films that fail to capture the essence of the original book, eschewing much of the meticulous historical, social, and political detail to create a poorly paced film that narrowly keeps its focus as a strict murder mystery. While director Christopher Menaul (who later went on to direct "The Passion of Ayn Rand") tries to put some of the lost details back into his film, such as a poster advertising 'Die Beatles' or a cityscape dominated by Albert Speer's architectural tribute to Hitler's victory, the audience is given little opportunity to explore the intriguing setting of the story, other than through a brief voice-over at the film's opening.

The characters are also poorly sketched out, which makes it difficult to fully appreciate the film's dark ending. Though Xavier is presented as a man who has spent much of his working career in the service of the Third Reich, and grown weary of Nazi philosophy in the process, we never get a true sense of what got him to this point, or why this case is so important to him. The story is also fairly predictable, and the suspense never really builds since there never seems to be a sense of urgency or danger for Xavier and Charlie with respect to their investigation. Compared to the only other 'Hitler winning WW2' film, "It Happened Here", most of "Fatherland" is flat, with the exception of a key scene in which Charlie finally learns the truth about 'The Final Solution'. In addition, the moralizing in the big-budget "Fatherland" is often spoon-fed in a heavy-handed manner (particularly some banal dialogue that Hauer utters), compared to the approach of the much more thrifty "It Happened Here", in which the script which gives the audience enough credit to 'read between the lines'.

While "Fatherland" starts of promisingly enough, it quickly falters as a slow-moving and highly conventional police procedural. While fans of alternate history may find this film of interest (especially since there aren't too many of these around), one would be better off reading the original source material.

Images courtesy of HBO. All rights reserved.

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