By the winter of 1942, the Russians had repelled German forces after the spectacular failure of Operation Barbarossa. Despite low morale, the Nazi war machine proceeded apace. One enterprising officer in particular, Reinhard Heydrich (then the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office), had engineered the mass extermination of Jews within the territorial control of the German advance in Russia during the autumn of 1941. In recognition of Heydrich’s administrative prowess, he was charged by Göring with submitting a plan for ‘a final solution.’

German resolve to advance the extinction of the Jewish population was by January of 1942 a fait accompli. Nonetheless, Heydrich assembled Nazi political leaders at Wannsee to consolidate power by ensuring administrative compliance from the dozen or so agencies under their control. That conference is dramatized in Frank Pierson’s BBC/HBO production of the events at Wannsee, which kicks off this month’s series of conspiracy-themed movie recommendations at RBC. It’s Conspiracy (2001).

The film opens with Nazi elites gathering at a beautiful stately home, unaware of the reason for their assemblage and speculating as to the secretiveness of their meeting. They each sign their names in a guestbook marking their attendance, but this will be promptly destroyed. A stenographer sits at the ready, but knows not to record upon command. Even the servants are instructed not to question what explains the meeting.

Adolf Eichmann, played by Stanley Tucci, is the conference’s host. He is highly-strung, and he is meticulous; to him, it’s as though even the incorrect arrangement of silverware might topple the Reich. Tensions run high as the attendees await Heydrich’s arrival, and with him, clarification of their meeting’s purpose.

Kenneth Branagh plays Heydrich with pomp and flair – he arrives fashionably late, pilot gloves still in hand as he brushes off the snow that collected on his jacket while he steered his fighter plane to Wannsee. Branagh has been made into an Aryan poster-child, with peroxide blonde hair, contacts that make his eyes a startlingly bright blue, and a wicked sense of entitlement (“This is a nice home,” he mutters as he enters the foyer, “I’ll take it as my own after we win the war.”). His leadership quality is impressive and undeniable, but it doesn’t derive from charisma as much as from imposition. The attendees have barely gathered to sit at the table before he begins issuing pronouncements with the officiousness of a hall-monitor. It’s clear that they can either come along for the ride, or they can be left behind. There is no third option.

The ‘Jewish Question’ has become so severe, Heydrich informs the attendees, that the usual procedure of ‘evacuations’ and ‘containments’ is no longer sustainable. He similarly dismisses alternatives like mass sterilization, over the objections of fellow conference attendees who argue that it is the “most expeditious” option. Heydrich swiftly takes aside those with the temerity to speak against his designs, and threatens them with SS reprisal unless they offer not only passive agreement, but rather full-throated support. The deftness of Heydrich’s execution is as impressive as it is terrifying.

One of the challenges with this film is that as an audience member, you might find yourself sympathizing with those recalcitrant enough to oppose Heydrich – even though they, too, are barely less odious than he. Colin Firth, for example, plays State Secretary Wilhelm Stuckart, architect of the Nuremberg laws devised to quantify Jewish ancestry for the purposes of persecution. When Stuckart insists that a solution to the Jewish Question be grounded in the rule of law, his arguments have an odd appeal when contrasted against Heydrich’s unbridled animus. Sympathy for the author of the Nuremberg laws highlights just how depraved the sense of perspective has become.

It isn’t long before people begin to realize that Heydrich’s intention is in fact already set. Compliance with Heydrich’s plan for Jewish extermination, the attendees learn, will be surrendered rather than offered. Conspiracy is therefore a master-class in the dangers of acquiescence and the horrors of deference to authority. It isn’t enjoyable as much as it’s fascinating and instructive. The action unfolds in real time (the true Wannsee Conference lasted the same hour and a half as this dramatized version), and the reactions seem all the more real for it. Heydrich and Eichmann may know what’s happening, but you, me, Stuckart, and the rest of the characters are all similarly situated: we’ve just watched Heydrich have his way and move on to administer the next atrocity with the same clinical precision he applied when dealing with us.

Rather than post a trailer, here’s an extended clip that provides a taste of what follows:

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.