A scene from 'Mother Night' Buy movie posters at
Courtesy Photo
*** stars
113 minutes | Rated: R
LIMITED: Friday, November 15, 1996
Directed by Keith Gordon

Starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kirsten Dunst, David Strathairn, Frankie Faison, Arye Gross, Anna Berger, Bernard Behrens, Vlasta Vrana, Gerard Parks, Henry Gibson (voice), Kurt Vonnegut (cameo)

Read our interview with Keith Gordon 2000 interview with director Keith Gordon


This is one of those rare films that survives the transition to the small screen virtually intact. The film's nervous tension and sonorous performances will penetrate the screen.
Fascinating on-set interview with Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Nolte that reveals quite a few insights into the main character and the story. Commentary track by director Keith Gordon and screenwriter Robert Weide delves deeply into the layers of meaning and symbolism in the film, the way Gordon shot it (colors, camera angles, music and mood) and especially Nick Nolte's performance and the character's ego, his mistakes and his choices. Yet the track is also refreshingly sparse. They don't talk over every minute.

Nolte has his own track, but it's not direct commentary. It's taken from a long interview that meanders from the subjects of the film into philosophies on the nature of man, violence and the politics of war (he goes on at length about the 1991 Gulf War without really saying much). It's not entirely uninteresting, but after a while it hardly jibes with the movie.

A treasure trove! This film's trailer is one of the best I've ever seen -- it'll give you goosebumps. (And Gordon's throw-together original trailer is included too). Several deleted scenes are included with the same insightful commentary Gordon provides on the feature. Plus newsreels from Adolf Eichman's trial, historical biographies of relevant Nazis and more.

1.85:1 ratio; 5.1 or 2.0 Dolby
DUBS: French
SUBS: English, French
Very good (a few minor print blemishes)

DVD RATING: ***1/2

  • WWII
  • Keith Gordon
  • Nick Nolte
  • Sheryl Lee
  • Alan Arkin
  • John Goodman
  • Kirsten Dunst
  • David Strathairn
  • Frankie Faison

  •  LINKS for this film
    Official site
    at Rotten Tomatoes
    at Internet Movie Database
    Powerful Vonnegut adaptation 'Mother Night' stars Notle as Reich propagandist who can never reveal he was a spy

    By Rob Blackwelder

    Nick Nolte is one of those actors that will draw me to a film without any other motivation, and he owns every moment of "Mother Night," a cerebral and crafty World War II spy drama adapted from a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

    As he is in literally every scene of the 113-minute film, the audience becomes a party to Nolte's consciousness as an American playwright living in Germany as the Nazis come to power. Knowing those in power through his celebrity, he becomes a propaganda broadcaster promoting the Nazi cause but secretly transmitting coded messages to the Allies on his weekly radio program.

    He lives comfortably with his German actress wife (Sheryl Lee, best known as Laura Palmer on "Twin Peaks"), and without knowledge of the consequences of his Nazi speeches or his Allied spying.

    But when the tide turns against Germany, his wife, the only thing that mattered to him, is killed at the front and suddenly his life changes drastically.

    The story is told in flashback as Nolte writes his memoirs in an Israeli prison while awaiting trial on war crimes. Only three people in the world knew he wasn't a Nazi and they haven't come forward to save him.

    In his memiors he escapes to New York with a new identity and settles into a hidden existence. But once you've been a spy, things are never as simple as they seem. His best friend (Alan Arkin) turns out to be a Russian spy. His wife returns from the dead, but is it really his wife?

    "Mother Night" is wonderfully mysterious and emotionally draining. We know, because the story is told in flashback, that there is no happy ending -- his loves, his friendships and his buried secrets are doomed -- and this intensity is the power of the film.

    Directed by Keith Gordon, who helmed "A Midnight Clear," a tense battlefield drama also set in WWII, "Mother Night" pins the audience with social undertones and rich images in color and black and white. Gordon can create as much tension with his camera as he does with his emotional tone.

    But the film is hindered by a few loose cannons. Sheryl Lee is damn nice to look at, and she can toss painful and longing looks around just fine, but she lacks the depth to make Nolte's desperate love for her convincing.

    There is also some unfortunate comic relief in the form of a satirical bunch of neo-Nazis that show up in New York to honor Nolte as one of their heroes. The ironic chuckles they provide let the audience off the hook by diluting the building unease that was the fabric of the film.

    But because of Nolte, the tension never fully disappears. His sorrow, despair and grief are riveting.

    There is only one scene in the film that Nolte doesn't command completely. After his wife's death, her young sister, played by Kirsten Dunst ("Interview with the Vampire"), declares her love for him, longing to be spirited away from the encroaching Russian army. Dunst, who is talented beyond words, holds you rapt and steals the scene.


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