Bearing Witness at 'Wansee'

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On Jan. 24, 1942, top-ranking officials from Germany's wartime government met in a villa on the outskirts of Berlin to eat, drink and secretly plotted the slaughter of the European Jewish population.

Director Frank Pierson and a stellar cast make the viewer feel as if they were actually there in Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wansee, Home Box Office's dramatization of the fateful meeting in which the Nazi elite sketched out their so-called final solution to the Jewish "problem." The film is adapted from the final surviving copy of the minutes of that gathering.

Particularly menacing is Kenneth Branagh as Reynard Heidrich, the manipulative SS commander who summons the 30 Nazi brass for a "discussion" of the plans for dealing with the millions of unwanted Jews in German-occupied Europe. But the talk is merely a smokescreen: Heidrich and the SS have already crafted their plan, and the goal of the meeting is for him to manipulate the rest of the machinery of state into going along. Branagh plays the part with the proper mix of charm and menace, never letting the character's cold exterior get too far from the surface.

"There are no shortage of meat hooks on which to hang enemies of the state," he reminds one potential opponent, a high-ranking civilian in Hitler's inner circle.

Stanley Tucci is equally skilled in his portrayal of Adolph Eichmann, Heydrich's henchman and eventual successor. Though Eichmann seems outwardly gracious, Tucci's nuanced portrayal of a man prone to unprovoked bursts of anger reveals the true nature of one of the Nazi era's greatest villains.

But Conspiracy
is an ensemble effort, and each actor has a chance to stand out. Much of the action occurs around the conference table — some of the telepic is shot as if it's a filmed stage play — so the actors must use emotional intensity to keep the script moving along. They don't fail to deliver.

The movie places a considerable amount of attention on the civilians at the table, their reaction to Heydrich's heavy-handedness and the shock these high-ranking Nazis feel about having been left out of the loop. The only character who shows the slightest regret over the "solution" is Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger (David Threlfall), who tries to take a stand against Heydrich for going against what he believes is the standing policy of deportation, but he's ultimately strong-armed by the SS leader.

Another reluctant party is Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Colin Firth) — author of the infamous anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws — who feels that the blueprint for what we now call the Holocaust is a recipe for lawlessness, but strangely sees no criminality in exterminating as many as 2,500 people per hour. To him, it's a matter of procedure and of protecting his legacy.

And the light tone used when the group discusses the "evacuation" — their euphemism for extermination — of Europe's Jewish population is perhaps the film's most shocking revelation.

Conspiracy
bows May 19 at 9 p.m. and repeats throughout the month.

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