Written by: Stanley Weiser & Ron Hutchinson
Based on: Fatherland: A Novel by Robert Harris
Directed by: Christopher Menaul
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Miranda Richardson, Peter Vaughan, Michael Kitchen, Jean Marsh, John Woodvine
In 1992, Robert Harris, a British journalist and author of the non-fiction book Selling Hitler, became prominent as a first-time novelist with Fatherland, a nifty murder-mystery tale set in Nazi Germany some 20 years after World War II ended in a draw between a nuclear-armed Third Reich and an equally armed United States.
In this alternate history, the novel’s hero is a former U-boat commander named Xavier March, who now wears the black and silver uniform of the SS in his capacity as a major in the Kriminalpolizei (Criminal Police), or Kripo. A competent police officer with the determination of an Inspector Jauvet, March nevertheless is looked on with suspicion by his superiors in the SS; a loyal German who served with distinction during the war, he – much to the dismay of his son Pili – is not a member of any Nazi organization.
Not only does this practically freeze his career advancement prospects, but it also estranges him from his divorced wife and Hitler Youth son.
March’s life becomes more complicated a few days before April 20, 1964, Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday (the Fuhrertag) when the body of an old man is dragged out of a lake one rainy morning in Berlin. It is the corpse of a founding member of the Nazi Party and a big-wig in the government during the war, and as often happens in murder mysteries involving powerful people with government connections and deep dark secrets, March, along with German-American journalist Charlotte “Charlie” Maguire, soon finds himself digging into a conspiracy to cover up his country’s darkest secret of all: the fate of Europe’s entire Jewish population.
Harris’ novel, with its subtler-than-is-usual presentation of history twisted into an alternate reality, was a best seller in Britain and the United States, and rumors flew fast and furious about a film version for the big screen; one tale had Mike Nichols pegged as the director of such a feature, and the name of Harrison Ford was bandied about as a possible star to play the role of Xavier March.
Whether or not these rumors had a grain of truth in them, I don’t know, but for some reason Fatherland ended up being made by Eis Pictures and HBO Pictures as a 1994 made-for-TV movie.
Although Fatherland’s basic premise is essentially the same as Harris’ novel, its alternate version of how World War II ended in a German victory of sorts is different.
In this reimagined scenario, the Normandy invasion was a complete failure, with Gen. Eisenhower being sent home in disgrace and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill dying in exile somewhere in Canada. The Nazis and Americans both develop the Bomb, and a bizarre Cold War begins, with the Americans going off to beat the Japanese in the Pacific, while Western Europe gets absorbed into what Hitler calls “Germania.” The Soviet Union’s eastern half is the only former Allied power defying Nazi rule, and the Eastern front has become the Reich’s equivalent of the Vietnam War.
As directed by Christopher Menaul and adapted by scriptwriters Stanley Weiser and Ron Hutchinson, 1994’s Fatherland is an uneasy and therefore uneven attempt to keep the premise of the cleverly-conceived and highly plausible plot of the novel while trying to make the tale more palatable for television viewers, i.e., by changing details here and there and unwisely making the ending upbeat.
To be fair, the film has quite a few things in its favor, starting with the radical concept of having its protagonist, Xavier March (Rutger Hauer) wear the uniform of one of the most frightening organizations in history, the SS.
Artur Nebe: You’re a good promotion prospect, Xavi, leave this alone and you could go far. You can’t afford to make an enemy of Globus… or of me.
It’s not, as some might say, a Nazi-as-a-hero portrayal; in the real Third Reich the SS did indeed take over all law enforcement agencies, including the local police departments, so if you were a beat cop, you had a rank in the SS whether you were a Party member or not. Beneath the black and silver uniform and cap, March is a decent, honorable, if perhaps too-dogged-for-his-own-good investigator who would have fit in nicely in the Law & Order squad room.
Another plus is that for a while, Hutchinson and Weiser stay true to Harris’ scenario of a war-weary Germania attempting to normalize relations with the United States, now under the leadership of President Kennedy.
No, not the young, charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but his father, the isolationist, defeatist, and possibly even anti-Semitic former Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Jan Kohout). To do so, Der Fuhrer invites the President to a summit in Berlin…just in time for Hitler’s 75th birthday.
Charlie Maguire: They killed all the Jews.
Xavier March: No, we didn’t. We resettled them. We gave them their own piece of land.
Charlie Maguire: [shows some pictures] Xavi, look at these.
Xavier March: These are forgeries.
Charlie Maguire: Forgeries?
Xavier March: They must be?
Charlie Maguire: So, Luther, Stuckart and Buhler… they were killed for forgeries?
Xavier March: Do you want this to be true? Do you think it’s a good story?
Charlie Maguire: It is true.
But first, the Nazi leadership, including Gestapo chief Odilo “Globus” Globocnik (John Shrapnel) must erase all traces of “the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” by any means possible, including the murders of former Nazi officials connected with the extermination of six million human beings. Even Kennedy, they realize, would be forced to call off any political relations with Germania should that ugliest of secrets be brought to light.
Charlie Maguire: We’ll send a car for you in a couple of hours.
Anna Von Hagen: [gives files] America! Franz says you still have them in America. You didn’t do anything about them? All that may change of course, now you have a president who thinks like the Fuhrer does. It was a real problem for me, making a career in Hollywood.
Charlie Maguire: Why?
Anna Von Hagen: Jews. They controlled all the studios, you know – they even tried to keep me out of Broadway. The public wanted me, you see… and then “they” started the war. Ah, Berlin was beautiful before the war. The only thing that spoiled it was the Jews. I have no career left, but I would like to go to America just to upset the Jews. So what do you think, you think you can finally do something with your Jews just like what we did with ours?
Charlie Maguire: What did you do?
Anna Von Hagen: We put them in cattle cars and shipped them east. Always east.
Charlie Maguire: To the Ukraine, you mean? To the resettlement camps?
Anna Von Hagen: Ja, we resettle them. In the air
The fly in the Nazis’ ointment, ironically enough, is March, who is loyal enough to his nation to first doubt Charlie (Miranda Richardson) when she first tells him that there’s proof out there that the Jews were not “resettled to the east” as the official story goes, but becomes determined to find the truth when more ex-officials end up as corpses and more pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Now March and Charlie are in a race against time as Globus and his henchmen chase the pair across Albert Speer’s redesigned and rebuilt post-war Berlin before they can get their information into President Kennedy’s hands.
There are other nifty touches that save Fatherland from being a total washout. One, of course, is Hauer’s uncharacteristically subtle performance as Xavier March. The Dutch-born actor is usually seen in really over-the-top-roles such as TNT’s 2004 remake of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and forgettable direct-to-video flicks, but here he does a hell of a job as a decent man serving one of the most detestable regimes. His scenes with Rory Jennings, who plays his Nazified son Pili, convey a father’s anguish at seeing that his son has no soul, and his determination to get at the bottom of the coverup is totally believable.
Another nice thing is the film’s visual representation of what Berlin would have looked like if Germany had won World War II. Here, computer generated images based on Nazi architect Albert Speer’s grossly grandiose blueprints depict a monstrous People’s Hall with a dome bigger than those of the U.S. Capitol or St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, an equally garish Arc of Triumph that dwarfs the one in Paris, and (interestingly), posters for an up-and-coming British rock band known as “die Beatles.”
Finally, the glimpses at what might have been ordinary life in Hitler’s Germania are pretty startling. Whether it’s the visual impact of a modern city inhabited by swastika-wearing Party members or the more disturbing attitudes spouted by Nazi racial purists (in one scene, we hear that an “Aryan” woman will be “resettled” to the East for having sex with a Polish slave laborer), Fatherland certainly captures the essence of Harris’ “what if?” scenario.
Somewhere along the way, the film takes a sharp turn that veers from what made the novel such a page-turner and into the realm of Hollywood meddling with a good thing to please those viewers who may not like dark endings.
I’ll not reveal the film’s climax, of course, but the finale of Fatherland is not only conventional and oh-so-cheerful, but it totally undermines the cold menace and suspenseful atmosphere that director Menaul had managed to create despite the uneven teleplay.