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Precise Bestiality

HBO depicts the Wannsee conference, where exact details of the Final Solution were decided.

by Tom Tugend

May 17, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Fifteen high officials of the Nazi regime gathered Jan. 20, 1942, at a formerly Jewish-owned villa in Wannsee, on the outskirts of Berlin, for a meeting which lasted -- including three breaks for refreshments -- less than two hours.

At the meeting's conclusion, the SS and civilian officials had put in place the blueprint for the Final Solution of the Jewish problem in Europe.

A "dramatic reconstruction" of the fateful Wannsee conference by HBO Films will air Saturday, May 19, at 9 p.m.

The meeting was chaired and dominated by Reinhard Heydrich, second only to Himmler in the SS hierarchy and known as "the Hangman" throughout occupied Europe, and was coordinated by his deputy, Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann prepared 30 top-secret and heavily edited copies of the meeting's minutes, or protocols, of which only one survived the war.

These minutes form the basis of "Conspiracy" and, like most such documents, make for dry reading. More than half the participants were lawyers, among them, top bureaucrats of the foreign and justice ministries, and the Nazi penchant for euphemisms further obscured the real purpose of the meeting.

For instance, the words "extermination" or "killing" are never mentioned, with "evacuation" serving as a stand-in.

Scriptwriter Loring Mandel and director Frank Pierson thus have their work cut out for them in recreating the characters and infusing life into the discussion without straying too far from historical accuracy. Even more difficult is the task of creating a sense of tension or conflict in what was essentially an assembly of yes-men.

Kenneth Branagh plays Heydrich (who, even by Nazi standards, was a singularly cold-blooded killer) with proper authority and a certain sardonic wit.

We know more about Eichmann than any of the other participants, and Stanley Tucci accurately catches the nervous officiousness of the middle-level bureaucrat.

The most complex character in the film is Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, state secretary of the Reich chancellery (well-acted by David Threlfall), who seemed to be the sole participant to have a sense of the enormity of the mass murder being contemplated. But even he caves in when Heydrich exerts some judicious pressure.

Two scenes, when the film hews closest to the original minutes, boggle the mind, even after all we have learned in the past 50 years.

One is the obsessive preoccupation of the Nazi leaders in defining the exact percentage of Jewish blood in half-, quarter- and one-eighth Jews, which determined their order in the extermination timetable.

The second is that even after German armies were stalled, before Moscow and after America had entered the war, Hitler's minions were sure that they would dominate all of Europe.

The Wannsee Conference laid out precisely how many Jews would have to be "evacuated" to make Europe Judenrein. The number came to 11 million and included not just the Nazi-occupied countries and allies but the Jews of Great Britain and those of neutral Ireland, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Not even the 200 Jews of Albania were overlooked.

"Conspiracy" will be repeated May 22, 27 and 31, and June 4, 9 and 13. Check local stations for times.

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