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Two penetrating views of World War II

By M.S. Mason Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2001



With Memorial Day fast approaching, there's a stir across the television landscape meant to honor those who laid down the last full measure of devotion.

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TV films and documentaries this month will honor Korean War veterans in "Korean Stories" (PBS, check local listings); pre-World War II military in "Submerged," (NBC, May 20); World War II with "Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack" (NBC, May 27); and even a post World War II occupation story in "Far East" on PBS (check local listings).

And because World War II was also a war on civilians, two films ("Conspiracy" on HBO and "Anne Frank" on ABC) remind us just how great was the individual cost of that war.

This week Conspiracy (HBO, May 19, 9-10:45 p.m.) concerns the infamous 1942 meeting convened by Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the "Final Solution," to enlist the support of the German High Command in exterminating European Jews.

The film is well-made and painful to watch, but not because the discussion is graphic. The 15 men who gathered that day were besotted with evil - so enmeshed in their own convoluted rationales, so steeped in hatred, so fearful of their superiors, and so merciless, that they spoke tranquilly of murdering millions.

Kenneth Branagh stars as icy SS General Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as his self-deprecating henchman, SS Major Adolf Eichmann, once described by Hannah Arendt as epitomizing the "banality of evil." Tucci and Branagh have both said that they researched their subjects scrupulously, but found them so soulless that it was difficult to play them. Nevertheless their performances are riveting.

Colin Firth, who plays Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, state secretary in the Reich Ministry of the Interior, said in an interview made available to the press that the topic is timely, partly as a reminder of the past, but also as a mirror for current events. He points to mass killings in the Balkans and in Rwanda: "It is remarkable how many parallels there are ... the machete attacks were not performed by frenzied mobs.... The people committing these murders were doctors, priests, research scientists, and other professional people."

Mr. Firth's observation is helpful in understanding the greater implications of this TV film. It is meant to contribute to a greater awareness of political evil. Director Frank Pierson (who wrote the 1975 movie "Dog Day Afternoon," starring Al Pacino) gives his excellent ensemble cast just the right lighting and camera angles to put you in their very thoughts. In this mind-set, evil is petty at its core, however ferocious its possible appearance. The smallness of these men's concerns, their self-interest, and in most cases, their cowardice is revealed carefully in Loring Mandel's tight script, based on the one existing copy of the minutes of that meeting.

Anne Frank (ABC, May 20 and 21, 9-11 p.m.) picks up where "Conspiracy" leaves off. Based on a new biography by Melissa Muller, the story goes much further than the earlier play or film into Anne's life, before and after she was hidden from the Nazis in the "secret annex." The miniseries format offers the time to expand and tell us of Anne's experience in the concentration camp where she and her mother and sister clung to life, and each other.

Ben Kingsley and Hannah Taylor Gordon star as father and daughter, Otto and Anne Frank. They create a tender and intelligent relationship that perfectly resembles the one described in Anne's journal.

In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Kingsley says that however emblematic she may be, Anne Frank never becomes a myth. "Her life was creative and full of promise," Mr. Kingsley says. "What our director, Robert Dornhelm, has achieved is the filming of a genuine life emerging - a gifted child in a family complex."

Anne's dad encouraged her to read, Kingsley continues, and to be curious about life. He was an observant and loving father who gave her the space to develop as a writer.

The story is real, touching, funny, and life-affirming, which "is the great achievement of this film," Kingsley says. "I would love to stress that the film is full of joy and life - the social fabric that surrounded that beautiful child will be very valuable."

Kingsley says we need to be able to look tragedy in the face: "The tragedy, the betrayal, and the systematic destruction of every person in the attic except Otto.... I think we need to take a hard look at the past century.... It's too easy to say we can't understand it. Examining history is healthy and helpful. The past goes with you."

He says that it is because we love our language, our culture, and our children that "we need to be more aware and more vigilant of the values we uphold and cherish, and the pattern of behavior we need to follow in order to save us from this ever happening again."

What the director has been able to do, he says, is to present almost the smells of the kitchen, the texture of the Franks' clothes, their points of reference - it is a very full portrait of a real family, not an idealization.

Nonetheless, the last act of the film is difficult to watch. Nothing is sentimental about it, nothing glossed over. And the unvarnished facts are sharp as knives. But the message is meant to encourage greater kindness. All children are uppermost among the thoughts of the actors and the director.

"It's a gift to our children," Kingsley says. "We hope it will encourage the viewers to listen to children who are crying out to be heard. I hope our film will be a service to humanity."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor