Conspiracy (2003)

What is the most chilling movie you have ever seen and why? Was it a violent film about a serial killer, or a psychological thriller? What made it so disturbing to you? I have seen a lot of movies in my time, some I wish I hadn't, but the most emotionally disturbing film I have ever seen is Conspiracy. Not because it's violent, since it's not, but because of the subject matter -- and the horrific truth that this really happened.


Snow covers the delicate landscape surrounding the country mansion. The whirring of an airplane motor can be heard overhead as a small plane comes in for a landing. Sleek, expensive European cars pull up the long driveway and let out distinguished looking businessmen and soldiers. Servants hurry through the rooms setting up the table and preparing luxurious food for the guests. Each man that arrives asks if another has come yet. There is small talk, polite conversation, compliments about the house. In all accounts it is a dinner party. Except it's not. Our first clue is the house. "Yes, I think it belonged to a Jew," is the casual remark. The others nod or smile understandingly, and a few grimace. Our second clue is the red armbands with swastikas worn on all the sleeves present. The officer from the plane arrives. His name is Reinhard Heydrich (Kenneth Branagh) and he has brought together the most influential men from the Third Reich for a secret meeting.


The question? "What is to be done about the Jews?" Those present sit down at the table, most of them calm and collected, one or two openly concerned. There are passionate ideas and arguments. Nods of agreement and occasional sharp words of dissent. A discussion on words, since words are important. Words go down in history, and history is being written around that large table, teeming with good food and wine glasses. "This is good wine," someone says, and then conversation resumes about sterilization, deportation, extermination. Some of them are in favor of deporting them, but there are so many... what is to be done with them? Labor camps, someone else suggests. They are needed especially in newly-claimed Poland. What happens when they round all of them up? The men laugh about whether or not this time next year, they will be sitting in the White House.


Is your skin crawling yet? It should be. That is the purpose of Conspiracy, a bio-pic about the horrific meeting that determined the slaughter of the Jews during the Holocaust. It consists of no more than a dozen extremely talented American and European actors (including Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci) seated around a table engaged in a spirited discussion. If one of the men at that table had not neglected to burn the documentation he was sent as ordered, we might never have known about this meeting, the context, or the outcome, or even when it was decided that the Nazis were going to systematically eradicate the Jews. What is so fascinating and ultimately so jarring is that these men are depicted as normal human beings. They smile, they tease one another, they make jokes. They are pleasant and a few of them are even likable. The audience, desperate for someone to like or root for, will latch onto one or two of them only to be stunned and horrified when that character opens his mouth and delivers a violently offensive anti-Semitic rant -- or worse yet, says nothing at all, just squirms while conversation banters about the table about how Jews turn pink when they are gassed.


The reality of the film and its history is that humans are capable of anything, even the most violent, profane acts. That a seemingly nice, normal man can in actuality be a cold-blooded killer under the wrong circumstances. How did the Holocaust happen? How could people allow it? Questions that have haunted us for many years, as we reflect on the millions of human beings who were exterminated in prison camps. This film does not offer the answers, but it gives us a penetrating glimpse into the minds at work behind those decisions. As such, it goes without saying that the subject matter is intense and extremely disturbing and even offensive -- because it is meant to be. Because those men were offensive in their beliefs. Because the Holocaust and what happened to the Jews should be offensive. We should feel a mixture of anger and repulsion at hearing conversation about gunning down Jews in cold blood, at the practicality of gassing them, the staggering number of exterminations that could take place within a year.


Most mature viewers should see this film at least once in their lifetime just for its shock value, but should also go in knowing that in addition to the intense thematic elements is some offensive language. A half dozen f-words make their way into the script, along with a few anatomical references and one abuse of Jesus' name. I feel that this was unneeded and may not have been historically accurate. The film is rather small in its focus and surroundings, but considering it was an immense accomplishment, since it was shot in a mere 23 days, remarkable for its staying power. You won't be able to just walk away from it and forget what you have seen. And really, you shouldn't be able to.

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