- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kenneth Branagh has not been able to sustain his initial creative impact as a cinematic Shakespearean actor-director, which commenced so impressively at the end of 1989 with his remake of “Henry V.”

However, at 48, he seems an invaluable and versatile fixture as a character actor and occasional director — and for all one knows, he could be part of another Shakespearean revival while playing famous supporting roles. Henry IV and Falstaff are two that spring to mind. So, why not both in an overdue movie version of the “Henry IV” plays?

Mr. Branagh’s current supporting role as a senior Wehrmacht officer in “Valkyrie” calls attention to his most conspicuous sub-specialties as a movie or television actor: portraying historical figures or members of the Nazi power apparatus. His credentials as a historical impersonator date back to “Coming Through,” a 1985 British TV movie about D.H. Lawrence. They were confirmed with unexpected poignancy for Americans when he portrayed Franklin Delano Roosevelt a few years ago in HBO’s made-for-cable movie “Warm Springs.”

The memorable Nazi associations began in 1993 with Thomas Carter’s “Swing Kids.” It deployed Mr. Branagh in an eerily effective, unbilled role as an “enlightened” Gestapo agent called Knopp, who saw it as his mission to persuade delinquent Hamburg teens that there was a brighter future to be had in serving the Fuehrer than grooving to American jazz. He won a hard-eyed convert in Christian Bale, but lost a soft-eyed one in Robert Sean Leonard. (Not to digress, but the entry about this stirring, underrated picture in Leonard Maltin’s annual “Movie Guide” is unforgivably obtuse.)

The most commanding of the Branagh performances as a servant of the Reich won him an Emmy Award as best actor in 2001. Cast in the pivotal role of SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich in “Conspiracy” — an admirable BBC-HBO co-production that dramatized the belatedly notorious Wannsee Conference of Jan. 20, 1942 - Mr. Branagh proved a disarming embodiment of Nazi authority and malevolence. Superficially genial and accommodating while bringing guests up to date on Adolf Hitler’s intentions for the Jewish population of Europe, his Heydrich uses the velvet glove to enhance the iron fist. He is unmistakably steely and menacing at the sign of any prolonged resistance to marching orders.

Historically, there’s no particular evidence that Heydrich possessed a disarming aspect. His photographs don’t seem to betray one. On the contrary, they tend to confirm Hollywood stereotypes that emphasized cadaverous creepiness in the German officer class. Nevertheless, Mr. Branagh’s aura of blooming health, social geniality and unassailable confidence are sharp-edged weapons within the group dynamics contrived by screenwriter Loring Mandel and realized by director Frank Pierson. Mr. Branagh’s personality profile seems to demand consensus, while suggesting that its denial will be a form of obstinacy leaving a reasonable man no justification to be merciful.

The filmmakers manage to summarize years of anti-Semitic debate and brutality in Hitlerian circles during a 90-minute “working luncheon” whose upshot is the imperative to pursue mass extermination without further delay or second thoughts. Veteran writers who began their careers in television in the 1950s, Mr. Pierson with the “Naked City” police series and Mr. Mandel with such live anthology shows as “Studio One,” the “Conspiracy” team achieved a harrowing immediacy and focus that the sheer enormity and appalling legacy of their subject matter would seem to preclude. They certainly got to the sickening heart of the matter with more alacrity and ironic penetration than “Judgment at Nuremberg” or “Holocaust.”

One of Mr. Mandel’s entrapment devices is particularly effective. At certain junctures, we’re encouraged to misapprehend the argumentative tendencies of some participants, notably Colin Firth as the legalistic Wilhelm Stucker, who prides himself on co-authorship of the regime’s racial laws, and David Threlfall as the melancholy Friedrich Kritzinger, an official of the Reich Chancellery, who seems to recoil at the idea of hastening the pace of Jewish deportation and eradication.

The catch? Their objections are not grounded in the humanitarian motives one desires to hear articulated and defended. It’s all a case of minor wrangling among committed Jew-haters and willing accomplices. Arguably, appeasing the sense of decency that remains expendable in “Conspiracy” had worn out its dramatic usefulness years earlier; this need now seems a recurrent, overexplicit weakness of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which reflected the postwar outlook, with Nazism as a seemingly defeated and disgraced utopian scourge.

The setting and time frame of “Conspiracy” oblige the filmmakers to contemplate Nazi planners and facilitators when they could afford to be expansively coldblooded. Conquest hadn’t been assured. In fact, it was in the process of stalling short of Moscow. Yet Hitler’s men could still share visions of conquest and racial “purity” with some confidence, while resigning themselves to a longer and more ruthless struggle. For a lot of reasons, ranging from the persistence of Kenneth Branagh’s acting prowess to the persistence of Nazi sentiment, there’s a lot to be said for revisiting “Conspiracy” on every anniversary of the Wannsee Conference.

TITLE: “Conspiracy”

RATING: Adult content - originally telecast by HBO in April of 2001 (occasional profanity and coarse sexual allusions; unvarnished expressions of anti-Semitic prejudices; graphic descriptions of Nazi extermination policies and techniques).

CREDITS: Directed by Frank Pierson. Written by Loring Mandel. Cinematography by Stephen H. Goldblatt. Production design by Peter Mullins, with art direction by Kenneth Wheatley.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes, plus brief, inadequate supplementary material.


WEB SITE: www.hbo.com

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