Fifteen high officials of the Nazi regime gathered on Jan. 20, 1942, at a formerly Jewish-owned villa on the outskirts of Berlin for a meeting that lasted — including three breaks for refreshments — less than two hours.
At the conclusion of the meeting in Wannsee, the SS and civilian officials had laid out the blueprint for the “Final Solution.”
A “dramatic reconstruction” of the fateful Wannsee conference by HBO Films will air Saturday, May 19 at 9 p.m.
The meeting was chaired and dominated by Reinhard Heydrich (portrayed by Kenneth Branagh), known as “The Hangman” throughout occupied Europe and second only to Himmler in the SS hierarchy, and was coordinated by his deputy, Adolf Eichmann (Stanley Tucci).
Eichmann prepared 30 top-secret and heavily edited copies of the meeting’s minutes, or protocols, of which only one survived the war.
The minutes form the basis of “Conspiracy” — and, like most such documents, make for dry reading. More than half the participants were lawyers, among them top bureaucrats of the Foreign and Justice ministries, and the Nazi penchant for euphemisms further obscured the real purpose of the meeting.
For instance, the words “extermination” or “killing” are never mentioned, with “evacuation” serving as a stand-in.
Scriptwriter Loring Mandel and director Frank Pierson thus had their work cut out in recreating the characters and infusing life into the discussion, without straying too far from historical accuracy.
Even more difficult is the task of creating a sense of tension or conflict in what was essentially an assembly of yes men. Branagh plays Heydrich, who even by Nazi standards was a singularly cold-blooded killer, with proper authority and a certain sardonic wit.
We know more about Eichmann than any of the other participants, and Tucci accurately catches the nervous officiousness of the middle-level bureaucrat, a role Eichmann perfected at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem.
The most complex character in the film is Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, state secretary of the Reich chancellery (well acted by David Threlfall), who seemed to be the sole participant to have a sense of the enormity of the mass murder being contemplated. But even he caves in when Heydrich exerts some judicious pressure.
Two scenes, when the film hews closest to the original minutes, puzzles the mind, even after all we have learned in the past 60 years.
One is the obsessive preoccupation of the Nazi leaders in defining the exact percentage of Jewish blood in one-half, one-quarter and one-eighth Jews, which in turn determined their order in the extermination timetable.
The second is that even after German armies were stalled before Moscow and after America had entered the war, Hitler’s minions were sure that they would dominate all of Europe.
The Wannsee Conference laid out precisely how many Jews would have to be “evacuated” to make Europe Judenrein.
The number came to 11 million, and included not just the Nazi-occupied countries and their allies, but the Jews of Great Britain and those of neutral Ireland, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.
Not even the 200 Jews of Albania were overlooked.
(“Conspiracy” will be repeated on May 22, 27 and 31 and June 4, 9 and 13. Check local stations for times.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.