There were only 30 copies of the Wannsee Protocols, minutes of the top-secret meeting where Nazi leaders planned the Final Solution. Just one copy of the "heavily censored and sanitized document" survived the war, according to Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a Los Angeles-based scholar who frequently serves as a consultant on films about the Holocaust. No dialogue from the meeting was ever recorded.
So recreating the Wannsee Conference for the HBO film "Conspiracy" proved daunting for screenwriter Loring Mandel, a German Jew whose cousins died in the Shoah. He relied upon Berenbaum, the film's historical consultant, and his own meticulous research to complete a script he describes as "informed speculation."
Berenbaum, past president and CEO of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and the former project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, initially harbored concerns about the movie. "Generally, American filmmakers look for a happy ending or for a sense of the transcendent human spirit when they deal with the Holocaust, so I was worried that they might not present Wannsee in its starkness," he said. "But Mandel didn't back down or back away from the subject."
Berenbaum was called upon to describe the language the Nazi leaders might have used during the conference, especially their euphemisms for genocide. He approved when Mandel decided to make the Wannsee note-taker a man, since the Germans would have regarded a woman as too emotionally frail to handle the subject. He also explained what was at stake for the meeting's leader, SS. Gen. Reinhard Heydrich: "He was only three years younger than his boss, Heinrich Himmler, so if he was going to advance in the ranks of the SS, he needed to develop a specialty -- the Final Solution," Berenbaum said.
"Conspiracy" depicts Adolf Eichmann, head of the SS Jewish Affairs office, as a tense bureaucrat who is so anxious about pleasing his superiors that he suffers a nervous stomach. "When Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem, there was an attempt to portray him as this Superman who was completely responsible for the Final Solution," Berenbaum said. "But the movie reveals he was a man of limited abilities who could organize and structure but didn't have a swiftness of mind, which jibes with my scholarship."
Berenbaum pointed out that a range of "Conspiracy" recreations would have been historically sound. "But I fundamentally agree with Loring Mandel's version," he said. "I felt chills when I saw the movie. It was everything I had seen in my imagination."