Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Excellent Alternate History: "Fatherland" (1994)

The year is 1964. In order to celebrate Hitler's 75th birthday, U.S. President Joseph Kennedy, Sr. will be arriving in Berlin, Germania, hopefully ending the Cold War between the two former foes, and freeing Germany to fight on its eastern front a war, that has run over twenty years, with the Russians.

SS Inspector March (Rutger Hauer) is a weary Nazi party detective who must investigate some murders in the beautiful capital of Berlin. The investigations are hurried, as western reporters are arriving for the big summit. One reporter is Charlie (Miranda Richardson), an American who was born in Germany and left when she was a child. She is approached by Luther (John Woodvine) and given some photographs and cryptic clues to a Nazi war secret.

The Gestapo begins taking over assorted murder cases, and dumping March, which only heightens his suspicions. He keeps making inquiries into why retired top level Nazi bureaucrats keep turning up dead, and crosses paths with Charlie, who finds one man and his prostitute shot to death. Luther tries desperately to get close to Charlie to feed her additional information, but March is there in full Nazi regalia. We do find March is a good man at heart, and the pain in his eyes is obvious as his young son says dinner grace to the Fuhrer, not God.

Eventually, on the eve of Kennedy's visit, March and Charlie discover that the Jewish people were not resettled in the east as originally thought, they were gassed and burned, all this information courtesy of Luther's lover Anna (Jean Marsh). As March tries to kidnap his son out of Germania, Charlie tries to get the information to the president, and both are trailed by Gestapo agents trying to kill them.

While it might be easy to dismiss this alternate history story, since we already know of the Holocaust, novelist Robert Harris has put a fresh spin on the German people finding out about it. Hauer is excellent in his role, he is our hero in the repulsive Nazi uniform, and Hauer proves he should be doing more than direct to video thrillers. His breakdown in the park over the Holocaust facts, and his final scenes with his son, are great all around acting. Richardson is good as the American reporter, with her hair teased and always on the lookout for a story. March and Charlie share many scenes together, but the film makers wisely do not force a romance.

The production design itself is spectacular. Nazi architect Speer's designs are brought to life, via special effects, and location shooting in Prague totally convinced me. I never doubted that the film was set in a 1964 where we beat the Japanese and not the Germans, that Eisenhower and Churchill died in exile, and detente exists between us and Germania, with an elderly Stalin still holding on to his Russian front. Jean Marsh has one chilling scene, giving away the Jews' fate while postulating to Charlie if us Americans still have a Jewish problem.

This is not just an old fashioned murder mystery, but the finale at the Nazi/American rally needed to have a bit more suspense. This is a small quibble, otherwise. In the end, "Fatherland" makes us think. We know things did not happen like this, but what if they had? It is interesting to think about, and a little distressing as well. Twenty years after the Jewish people were wiped out, the cast of characters finally comes to grips with the horror of the Holocaust. Today, we still need to be reminded of past historical wrongs and try to take lessons from them. September 11, 2001 was a horrible day not soon forgotten, but when was the last time Pearl Harbor or World War II victories were marked in something other than a blurb on the network news or an over-budgeted Ben Affleck film?

"Fatherland" is a chilling look at an alternate universe that thankfully did not come to fruition. We cannot foresee the future, but preparing for it by studying history can only improve our reactions to inhumanity by others.

All this from a cable film? This film is good, and if it can get you thinking along these lines, it has more than done its job. I highly recommend "Fatherland." (* * * * *) out of five stars.