A writers’ writer, that’s Frank Pierson. For a man who has led the Writers Guild of America and served four consecutive one-year terms as president at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, he manages to keep his head and his cool, all while giving great quotes to sum up a timely topic or news event.
Never one for glossing over issues, Pierson has written some of the most memorable characters I’ve seen and loved. Loving these people is so important to the success of a story; I believe it’s the validity of the character that gets me to invest in the story. Among my favorites are Cat Ballou and Dog Day Afternoon, and his directorial efforts that rate high include Soldier’s Girl, Citizen Cohn, and now, Conspiracy. The latter will be screened at UCSB’s Campbell Hall at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with Pierson himself there to introduce the film and participate in a Q&A afterward. You must go!
This film is important to see because it speaks to the maxim, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The phrase ran through my head as I sat, transfixed, watching the historical docudrama unfold. All at once, I was revolted by the subject matter and drawn in by the passion held so tightly under the surface of the skin of the men depicted on the screen. Humans are full of contradictions and Pierson seems to locate the inconsistency and mine it to the fullest, thereby giving his audience an experience to savor and remember.
Pierson directed Conspiracy, and won his peers’ recognition with the 2002 Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television, as well as two Emmy nominations for it. He kindly answered a few questions about Conspiracy, which should whet your appetite to see for yourself.
Admission to the event is free. Click here for more information or call UCSB Arts & Lectures at 805.893.3535.
Conspiracy synopsis: On Jan. 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking German military officers and Nazi party officials gathered in a villa on the outskirts of Berlin for a clandestine meeting that ultimately would seal the fate of Europe’s Jewish population. Ninety minutes later, the blueprint for Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution was in place. The Wannsee Protocol (pronounced von zay) is the only document in which the details of Hitler’s maniacal plan were actually codified, and it serves as the basis for this intriguing film. The gripping docudrama stars Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci. Us Weekly has called the film “fascinating and perversely entertaining.”
Mo: I did not know about the Wannsee Conference before this film. How did you first come to know of it?
FP: An old friend and a great film editor, Peter Zinner (edited The Godfather, The Deer Hunter), himself a Holocaust refugee, showed me an early Austrian film that dramatized the conference. It was very powerful, and Peter and I saw in it a way to dramatize Hannah Arendt’s famous notion of the “banality of evil.” The idea that evil often comes in the most ordinary guise, done by ordinary men in the course of getting through their days as best they can. There was the horror of evil in piles of bodies, and smoke from chimneys, but there was this other side in which the evil of the Holocaust was done as casually as a business conference. Peter and I became co-producers, and sold the idea to HBO, and from there it took only 12 years to get it to the screen. The marvelous screenplay by Loring Mandel has been redone by Loring for the theater and will open in New York next year.
Mo: Casting choices were so perfect, but, honestly, Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci are not usually seen in characterizations such as these hateful men. What told you they would be accepted?
FP: The very fact they don’t usually play villains, that their face to the public who know them is that of ordinary men.
Mo: Detached from the common man, this table of men decided the fate of millions of Jewish people and it was coldly reminiscent of the detachment with the Iraq War. Would you tell me the parallels you draw between then and now?
FP: That is exactly why history is important, so we hopefully can see our mistakes before it’s too late. What this movie is about is how the Holocaust was brought about entirely according to the law — the laws of a civilized nation were changed to allow it to happen. Does that remind one of memos written to make torture legal?
Mo: Words were used improperly in Conspiracy, like “evacuated” instead of “execution” or “extermination,” and I imagine it was to try to downplay the horror. It actually reminds me of marketing ploys.
FP: Of course. If you want to change people’s thinking about used cars call them “pre-owned vehicles.” If you don’t want to face reality invent fantasy. Torture becomes “abuse.” Want to eliminate the inheritance tax? Call it the “death tax.” Advertising and marketing, that’s what was happening at Wannsee. Language is corrupted when put in the service of evil. And, of course, it was important to the leaders of Nazi Germany this be kept secret; all but one of the copies of the record of the Wannsee Conference were destroyed. The surviving copy was discovered by chance by American prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials. The record was not used in evidence, and for a time was ignored and lay unread. The reason was many of the people at Wannsee were important to the U.S. occupation to keep the country running, and making a big deal of the Wannsee Conference was seen as counterproductive to getting on with rebuilding Europe from the ruins of the war.
Mo: I was taken by the shot at the beginning of the film where the plane is coming in over the lake and the Morris Minor car logo comes into the frame … it truly set the tone and time period. Art direction on this film was perfect down to the last little detail. How did you secure the actual space where this conference took place?
FP: The actual mansion … had been taken from a Jewish family. It is now a Holocaust museum. The curators were glad to let us film the exterior, which is exactly as it was in 1942. The interior, recreating the original, was built at Shepperton Studios in England.
Mo: What was the hardest historical fact to re-enact?
FP: Loring Mandel’s was the hardest job, and his brilliance made ours easy. (Reinhard) Heydrich, (Adolf) Eichmann, a few of the men at the table we knew a great deal about. Loring had Eichmann’s testimony and behavior at his trial and his memoir to draw upon in dramatizing what he might have done and said at the conference … For others the record was thin, and Loring could only deduce or with the intuition of a dramatist imagine what a character would do and say from limited historical evidence. A youngest son, a failure at the family business, a failure at his own, joins the Nazi Party in 1933 after Hitler comes to power. This is what is known about one of the men, now a general who never saw combat. He joined the Nazis to get a job, not necessarily to kill Jews, but he’ll go along with that if it will show his father he’s not a fool. We can imagine an insecure, desperately ambitious man eager to flatter and weasel his way into the graces of his superiors. We can imagine how he would behave in an argument with Gen. Heydrich, we can imagine how Eichmann, the ultimate bureaucrat would treat him. This is the hard part. This is what dramatists from Shakespeare to Shaw do. This is what Loring did, that won him an Emmy and a Peabody award.
Mo: Tagged as “Two hours that changed the world of the 1,000-year Reich,” your film lasts as long as the historical meeting did. Were the actors affected by the cold, cruel and fast approach?
FP: Yes. At times they would have do outrageous things — improvise the Monty Python version of the Holocaust — to hysterical hilarity, just to get it out of their system. It was very intense.
Mo: Did you have any interesting otherworldly spirits show up for your production? Seems there would be restless souls wandering the grounds.
FP: We were shooting in Germany in the actual place, where we had created the time with snow on the ground and a depressing mist over the lake and the mansion. Our actors in Nazi uniforms, with weapons and their military vehicles were moving about the grounds, and the restless souls arrived in the form of Jewish Holocaust survivors who come from all over the world to this museum. They got off their buses and found themselves almost literally transported back 50 years, having to pass through this ghastly illusion to complete their tour of the museum itself. It was very strange and disturbing to us, but what it was for them I can only imagine — it was not in the tour description they had been given.
Mo: It was nearly an all-male production, not to mention tense territory to explore. Your choice or history?
FP: Actually, there was no record of who took the notes, although obviously there was a stenographer. In the Austrian film the steno was a woman and, of course, there were jokes about that in that film. I felt that military culture, and particularly this regime, would not have let a woman record the meeting. … It seemed to me Gen. Heydrich and even more so Eichmann, who made the arrangements, would have relied on a male clerk for the job.
Mo: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
FP: What I did. A terrible sadness, a regret the human race cannot always be what every culture aspires to. But most of all a fury that this shall not be forgotten so it cannot ever be repeated. And a shy optimism, expressed in one of the films’ last images, that after all, we keep on living, the ordinary people do, if their leaders would only leave them alone.
Thanks for your time, Mr. Pierson. Keep those stories coming!
In the final scene, Tucci’s character (Eichmann) puts on a record of Shubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D.956 “Adagio,” and it played through to the end of the credits. It was the only music in the film. I wondered if the musicians to whom he was listening were “evacuated” and, with no words, only music, it brought me to tears. Powerful piece of work, this Conspiracy, and I highly recommend you see it!
Pierson received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 at the Ojai Film Festival and that’s how I’m segueing into the next item. I recently signed on to be communications director for the Ojai Film Festival this year (Nov. 6-9). For the ninth edition, the fest will be headquartered at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a five-diamond resort with a top-notch golf course.
For the first time ever, the festival kicks off with a Celebrity Golf Classic with actor Malcolm McDowell as host. Additionally, the festival has already named its 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award honorees: Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, who have so many films under their collective belts — Lethal Weapon (all of them), Superman I & II, X-Men, Free Willy — you’re bound to have seen a few of their titles.
The pièce de résistance for the 2008 festival is getting legendary author Ray Bradbury to accept an award and he has confirmed his attendance. With all these announcements in place, the festival announced its VIP passes are on sale now. Click here for more information.