Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Mother Night


Of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, I love this one the best. It’s not nearly as well-known as Slaughterhouse Five, but it has much more heart. In fact, Kurt’s novels are not known for heart. His characters are thinly drawn, and stumble through life largely unable to do anything about anything. Here, the characters are vivid, and the losses they suffer are heartbreaking. It is unlike anything else he wrote. Don’t get me wrong, I love his comic-tragic stories inordinately, but this is the only one that really moved me.

Howard W. Campbell, Jr., “The Last True American,” is a radio broadcaster on the pattern of Tokyo Rose or Lord Haw-Haw. He spews his hatred all through the war, and his secret is that he is really an American agent, and his broadcasts contain coded messages being smuggled out of Germany right under the noses of the Nazis. But no one knows this but his handler, Wild Bill Donovan of the OSS, and FDR. He suffers the loss of the love of his life, ends up in America, where he lives in anonymity for a long time, until re-discovered by Nazi sympathizers and others. That’s enough of the story. Vonnegut says this is the only story of his to which he knows the moral, which is simply that we are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be. In an Israeli jail awaiting his trail, he shares the place with Adolf Eichmann. Campbell asks him if he feels any responsibility for the death of six million Jews. Eichmann says no, and he doesn’t need all six million. He’d be happy to share some with Campbell. Ouch.

This is an extremely faithful production. I can’t think of a thing they left out. Nick Nolte is very good as a man who has given up all hope, who is just existing until it comes time to die. You know, only four movies have been made from Vonnegut books. They resist the movie form, it would be a mistake to make most of them, as Breakfast of Champions sadly demonstrated. (I’ve never seen it, but Slapstick of Another Kind, starring Jerry Lewis, is said to be one of the worst movies ever made.) Mother Night, the movie, is the equal of Slaughterhouse-Five, the movie, and in some ways, better.