Last night I went to see a staged reading of Loring Mandel’s play Conspiracy, an adaptation of Mandel’s screenplay for the HBO film of the same name. Conspiracy reconstructs the events of the 90 minute-long Wannsee Conference. The movie and the play (the latter is very faithful to the former) are a chilling attempt to get inside the conversations, and even into the heads, of the bureaucrats responsible for the planning of the Holocaust’s most-industrial phase.*
Mandel himself was at the reading, and so we were lucky enough to hear him speak a little afterwards about the project and the research he did for it. It was an interesting conversation, aside from an unfortunate question that just replayed the functionalist-intentionalist debate. The Wannsee conference memorandum is both vague and elliptical, so writing the dialogue and the positions required intensive research that looked at other speeches, letters, and statements to understand what would have been said in that room. Mandel said that the process was half-roleplay and half-stenography: it was only when he wrote the diatribe from Wilhelm Stuckart’s that comes at the midpoint of the show that he realized that the script was really going to work.
It’s pretty amazing that Conspiracy got made: a 90 minute movie that takes place almost entirely in a single room, consisting mostly of men talking at a table, about a topic so indescribably vile that even those involved have trouble acknowledging its true scope: one of the greatest moments of the movie is right near the end, when the conference attendees break into a round of table-thumping applause that goes on and on until you realize that it’s no longer just applause for what’s been said but a cathartic attempt to convince themselves that they really do agree—that if they just pound the table hard enough they can drown out the screaming of what’s left of their consciences and pound themselves into agreement.
The humanization of those at the conference is one of the toughest and the best aspects of the script. During the Q&A most of the actors mentioned just how uncomfortable it felt not just to be playing the parts of men plotting genocide, but to be playing characters who had humor and sympathetic qualities. Talking to one of them after the show, he admitted that it was hard to say which was worse: to be nauseated by having to immerse himself in playing a Nazi; or to feel comfortable enough in the role to no longer to be nauseated by playing a Nazi.
The ease with which relatively ordinary people can become complicit in horrible atrocities is a perennial issue in discussing the Holocaust (as well as being the basis for the title of Christopher Browning’s stunning study of Reserve Police Battalion 101, Ordinary Men). Conspiracy gets into that head-space with disturbing success.
You need to see this movie. And if the play comes to town, you probably need to see that too.
*The importance ascribed to the conference varies from historian to historian. The minutes that survive are little more than a summary of the agenda, and the only comments on it from an attendee are those Adolf Eichmann made at this trial in 1963. As the characters in Conspiracy observe, the mass killings have already begun. As Tim Snyder points out in his book Bloodlands, those shootings would kill far more Jews than the extermination camps.