Thursday, 13 August 2015

Fatherland (1994)

Based on the bestseller by Robert Harris, Fatherland depicts a 1964 in which the Cold War and Beatlemania are facts of life. But SS uniformed officers still march down German streets and Hitler is alive and well and set to celebrate his 75th birthday with a visit from the U.S. President Joseph Kennedy, Sr. This is an alternate universe in which the allies lost WWII and Berlin, as the capital of the continent of Germania, is the centre of the world.

Rutger Hauer stars as weary Nazi party detective, SS Officer Xavier 'Xavi' March who is called out one morning to the suspicious death of a founding member of the Party. Meanwhile, western reporters are arriving in Berlin for the big summit between Hitler and Kennedy. One such reporter is German born American Charlie (Miranda Richardson), who is approached by a stranger and given some photographs and cryptic clues to a Nazi war secret regarding the resettlement of the Jews which in turn leads her to March when she stumbles upon the bodies of another high level bureaucrat and a prostitute. The Gestapo muscle in on the subsequent investigations and warn March off, but both he and Charlie continue to pursue the truth until they become targets for the Gestapo's bullets.

There are two really great things about Fatherland. The first is the spectacular production design. The Reich architecture of the Nazi Speer is brought vividly to life via in the Prague location shoot, mixing with the squat 1960s architecture in an eyecatching and disturbingly seamless fashion. The second is how Harris' story still manages to draw a horrific shock reaction from us, despite resting on the revelation of a Holocaust we of course all know happened. His fresh spin on this sickening act of genocide is to show the German people discovering it for the first time and the reveal is helped immeasurably by a chilling turn from Jean Marsh who reveals the fate of the Jews fate to a stunned Charlie. 

I've always liked Rutger Hauer even though his choice of films does not always make it easy on us fans. He is excellent here in a role that not only affords him the chance to play a good guy - despite his menacing Nazi uniform - and act with good material a world away from the straight to video fare he has a penchant for appearing in. Richardson is also good as the intrepid American reporter,and looks divine in her 60s 'Mad Men'-esque fashions and it is refreshing to see that the film does not force a romance between the two leads. There's also great support from a wealth of talented British character actors including John Woodvine, John Shrapnel, Peter Vaughan, Michael Kitchen, David Ryall and Neil Dudgeon, as well as an early role for Rupert Penry Jones.

Unfortunately, at the heart of Fatherland is a relatively plodding murder mystery cum conspiracy thriller that is rather underpowered in its telling, which makes several passages rather sluggish. 

An unsettling look at an alternate universe that thankfully is just a fantasy, is brought vividly to life in a manner which belies its HBO made for TV roots to deliver something truly striking and distinctive for the eye.

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