When Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, was tried for his crimes in Israel in 1961, the political theorist Hannah Arendt covered the trial for the New Yorker. In her coverage, she coined the phrase, “banality of evil,” the notion that evil need not be the work of extreme villainy, but merely carried out by people who are too willing to accept orders and too unquestioning of their own actions. Sheep leading other sheep to the slaughterhouse, as it were. The “banality of evil” has often been used to explain how an entire nation of people could participate in something as extraordinarily horrible as the Nazi genocide of some six million Jews (as well as many, many, many others) during World War II. Not every German could have been a monster, right? Well, those who first put the Holocaust into motion most certainly were. So much so that their criminal deeds had become mundane to them. The evils they committed were so great, and the hatreds that drove them were so total, that they lost all scope of just what kind of monsters they were. Maybe the 200,000 or so other Germans who helped perpetrate the Holocaust weren’t quite as monstrous—maybe they were just drones doing a job they didn’t think too much about. But even monsters have a hierarchy, and if you’re helping the train to Treblinka run on time, then you’re most definitely in that hierarchy.
Conspiracy is a dramatization of the Wannsee Conference, a high-level meeting of various Nazi officials in a villa outside of Berlin in 1942. This remarkable movie has the feel of a theatrical production, mainly because the action takes place almost entirely inside of a single room in a single house, and plays out as if in real time. The conference was only about 90 minutes long, and so is the movie version of it. Conspiracy spares a few moments to introduce the fifteen Nazi officials summoned to attend the conference, and we watch as they joke and chat while eating a fine buffet, drinking at midday and smoking expensive cigars. Then SS commander Reinhard Heydrich—a man considered cold, evil and monstrous even by his peers—arrives. Using a mixture of artificial charm, forced manners and menace, he lays bare the real purpose of the meeting: to greenlight a “final solution” to the Reich’s “Jewish question,” namely, why must anybody share the world with Jews at all?
Heydrich gives everyone at the table a few moments to say their peace, but just a few. One by one, he isolates them, flatters them, cajoles them, outflanks them, browbeats them, and intimidates them all to follow a plan that he and Eichmann reveal is already underway: to build a system of gas chambers big enough to exterminate every Jew in Europe. Most of the officials loudly cheer the plan. Some recoil from it, but one by one, they go along. Only two object strenuously enough to merit direct personal threatening from Heydrich. One is Dr. Wilhem Stuckart, the lawyer who helped craft the laws justifying the Reich’s treatment of the Jews in the first place. He doesn’t mind brutalizing the Jews. He just doesn’t like that the laws he worked so hard to justify it are being hand-waved away. The other is Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, of the Reich Chancellery, who was under the impression that all Hitler wanted to do was kick the Jews out of Nazi-controlled territory. Extermination was never part of any plan Kritzinger had in mind. But in the end, even they go along with it, perhaps out of a fear for their safety, and perhaps out of a knowledge that if they dug in, Heydrich would have managed to begin the Holocaust without them, and perhaps because somewhere deep down, they were still Nazis, after all. And the Nazis were always pretty clear about what they thought of the Jews.
The meeting ends, the records of it are destroyed (only one survived and was discovered after the war; otherwise the meeting would have been totally deniable), the staff clean up, and everybody goes home. To a casual observer, it is just another day in the Third Reich. But to those of us who are inside that room, we know that this day was anything but ordinary.
This is a difficult movie to love. It is easily the darkest story I have ever seen, simply because the coldness and casual inhumanity on display beggar belief, even when we know this to be a record of history. The performances from the star-studded cast are exemplary—Kenneth Branagh won an Emmy for his role as Heydrich and Stanley Tucci won an Golden Globe for his role as Eichmann. And the dialogue is marvelously crafted. And yet, there is nothing to truly enjoy here. Conspiracy allows us to bear witness to the greatest crime of our modern age, however fictionalized this particular account might be. There is an extremely worthy portrayal of something extremely important to see here. I just would hesitate to call it entertainment. Required viewing, perhaps.
At the end of the movie, we learn what became of the Wannsee attendees. Some of the died in the war. Some of them were tried and executed afterwards. Some of them were tried, did time and were left to live the rest of their lives. The moment of truth is that even as one of humanity’s most chilling and premeditated deeds was recorded and proven, even as the culprits were caught and brought to justice, somehow, there were those among them who agreed to genocide and were not made to pay for it with their lives. That is the movie’s moment of truth. And what an hard truth it is.