It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
When Kurt Vonnegut, then in the U.S. Army, was being held in a German prison camp, he was asked by his guards why he was not fighting for the Germans--since he had a German name. Vonnegut later confessed in his introduction to his novel, Mother Night, “If I'd been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi.” It is easy to lose sight of the fact that almost all of us take the side of that country where we are born or that tribe we are born into; for every person who takes sides for ethical reasons, a thousand or more take sides because of accidents of geography or birth.
“Mother Night,” a difficult movie made from Vonnegut's 1961 novel, is about a man whose life illustrates that reality. His name is Howard W. Campbell Jr., (Nick Nolte) and he is born in the United States but moves with his family to Berlin in 1919. He grows up, becomes a successful playwright, marries an actress, and by then the war clouds are gathering. Should he stay in Germany or return to America? An American agent (John Goodman) makes it easy for him, by asking him to stay and deliver anti-Semitic and anti-American diatribes on Nazi radio. Through a subtly coded system of pauses and coughs, the broadcasts will also carry secret information of great use to the Allies.
I have no doubt that such systems were in fact used, but for the purposes of “Mother Night” this scheme is ideal: It puts Campbell on both sides of the same fence. As his German father-in-law tells him, “Even if you were a spy, you served Germany more than the enemy.” Did he? The experience at the time indicates that none of the propaganda broadcasts (by Tokyo Rose, Lord Haw Haw, Ezra Pound, etc.) had much of an effect, since they were seen as exactly what they were.
Campbell's secret handler tells him that the American government will never claim him or come to his rescue. After the war is over, and he sees with his own eyes the horror of the death camps, Campbell is able to make his way to New York City, where he lives for almost 15 years under his own name; no one can believe he is the same person as the notorious traitor.