Friday, January 25, 2002 by

One consequence of the recent resurgence in historical-based factual television has been the ubiquity of the dramatic reconstruction.

Few TV histories of the last few years, including those vehicles for one man’s grandstanding (David Starkey, Simon Schama) have passed over the chance for some illustrative sequences of unnamed extras in period costume. Particular favourites are the self-conscious battle on a piece of wasteland or inside a quarry, and the collage of suggestive glances across a banqueting table. We never hear these people speak, and they rarely get credits, but they do a pretty valuable job. Sure, it’s one that’s necessarily very mannered, and is all too easy to smugly poke fun at. But as a way of concentrating attention on key turning points in history, it’s a simple, useful strategy. Except it’s then left to the presenter to often extravagantly put words into the extras’ mouths.

Conspiracy offered up the core elements of the reconstruction on a grand scale. The locations, the sets, the costumes and the props – all looked and felt suitably real and evocative. The ensemble of characters was quickly introduced on screen and their contrasting personalities efficiently formalised. An off-screen narrator rather earnestly set-up a historical context; and the tableau was rounded out with supporting players and bit parts to add exaggerated colour and depth. This was all done in a matter of minutes.

Despite knowing full well what was to come next, however, it was still a bit of a shock to hear the characters begin speaking for themselves. Conspiracy was a dramatisation of a crucial meeting held in the winter of 1942 just outside of Berlin, when various representatives from German high command met to agree upon the methods to enact the so-called “Final Solution”. Based upon archive documents, at the film’s heart were supposedly real sentences, arguments and declarations that had come from the mouths of real people. Words were to be chief focus here: words that sought to countenance the decision to annihilate an entire race of people, and words that elucidated how such a process was to be successfully carried out.

So despite the presence of a high calibre cast, led by Kenneth Branagh, the film contrived to make the dialogue the priority. Aside from the opening and closing scenes, showing the characters melodramatically arriving and departing from the opulent palatial meeting house, physical action was kept to a minimum. The bustle of the servants preparing a buffet contrasted with the eerie calm of the guests and the sense of quiet purpose with which they pursued the meeting’s agenda. When movement did come it was all the more sudden and dramatic, such as when characters ferociously banged the table to show their agreement with a point of view. The occasional visual gesture, such as Branagh signalling for the doors to be closed, or the short breaks for food and wine, deepened the tension still further.

Yet in truth it was what exactly these people were saying, and how they were saying it, that was of central importance. Attention was focused relentlessly, through close-ups, asides, and occasional tracking shots, on the dialogue. These people were to be defined purely by what they said within the context of the meeting; all other information, about their jobs and backgrounds, was withheld. Certain characters were shown as entertaining palpable doubts and weaknesses; but though these provided a counterbalance to the more resolute of personnel, the film continually endeavoured to emphasise how all were ultimately unanimous in their belief in the Final Solution. Disagreements and misconceptions were resolved through language, and it was to this film returned again and again.

For here was the most chilling of contradictions: an examination of the extraordinary conducted in the vocabulary of the ordinary. Lines of dialogue were delivered precisely and flatly, with veiled threats couched in the semblance of cordiality. The intricacies of how to classify Jews were debated in purely empirical and statistical terms; questions of ethics and morals were shown as irrelevant or only of note from a legal or technical point of view. Indeed, the film seemed increasingly obsessed with the idea that the greatest conspiracy being perpetrated here was against language itself. The word “evacuation” was shown as the preferred shorthand for “assassination”; “resettlement” a coy euphemism for “genocide”. At one point a show of hands served to reveal what proportion of the turnout were lawyers; later someone asserted how it was legal training that made them so “distrustful of language”. Their actions were to be justified, moreover, because their “Solution” was an “inevitable” one; and that such a scheme would succeed providing they exercised what George Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: to be able to hold two contrary opinions in your mind at the same time, but deny the profound illegality of the one for the sake of the survival of the other. “We control events better when we control opinion,” affirmed Branagh’s character.

The storyline was progressed through the repeated suggestions that sheltering amongst the reams of argument concerning genealogy, technology and technical data was an all-encompassing hatred and loathing that could never be satiated. Various personnel were depicted as initially expressing reservations or concerns, but it soon transpired these were solely of a selfish nature. Those who held contrary viewpoints were shown as weak and easily won over; they were allowed to expend their frustrations then made to appear foolish or, worse, disloyal. Ultimately there was no-one here to sympathise with; you had to respond to the production on terms that moved beyond simple characterisation. Searching out the familiar clichés of Nazi Germany appeared counterproductive, because aside from the endless chanting of “Heil Hitler”, there simply weren’t any.

It was actually a welcome relief not to find the mostly British cast adopting dreadful cod-German accents. Instead they spoke in their normal voices, and the impact of hearing familiar UK dialects casually discussing the extermination of several million people was greater for it. One other pitfall was avoided. It was maybe inevitable to fear that Branagh would end up, even by default, upstaging everyone else – he was Kenneth Branagh after all, and he was playing the chair of the meeting. Indeed, he was given a grand entrance (as the last character to arrive, and filmed from above so we got a striking shot of his blond hair before his face), and his character, Heydrich, dominated the opening third of the film, barely letting anyone else speak or if so then simply to humiliate them.

But for the duration of the middle 30 minutes he barely spoke at all. His presence was felt of course, mainly through knowing glances, intimations and unspoken threats. However the structure was so that all the other members of the ensemble (14 in all) enjoyed their own respective moments of influence, and no one person unduly commandeered the spotlight. Whether this was by chance – being the manner in which the actual meeting unfolded – or design, it was a neat and succinct manner in which to vary the pace and colour of the action. Then, as Heydrich was shown gradually resuming predominance, the sense was of this being totally stage-managed and predetermined from the start; and obviously with orders direct from the Fuhrer himself any dissenters would and did come round in time. The last 10 minutes, cut to the sound of an elegiac Schubert quintet, comprised shots of the servants tidying up contrasted with on-screen captions relating what subsequently happened to each of the characters. This felt just as powerful and moving for having no dialogue whatsoever, merely letting sounds and images imply the full significance of what had just concluded.

There are still plenty of ways to retell the history of World War II on television. It remains an event that, through its narrative and visual power and diversity, seems to merit continual attention from writers and producers. The results vary from epic and overwhelming dramas such as Band of Brothers, carefully assembled archive collections like The Second World War In Colour, to involving investigative documentaries such as The Nazis: A Warning From History. Factual reconstructions, however, remain all-too rare; Conspiracy was a reminder of how a carefully constructed script, realised by thoughtful direction and sympathetic ensemble acting, can produce some of the most striking work within this genre.


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