Mother Night: You Must Be Careful What You Pretend To Be

Examining the intersections of perception and reality in Mother Night

I suppose the moral here is: You must be careful what you pretend to be… because in the end you are what you pretend to be. - Howard W Campbell, Jr

There are many interesting facets of the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about the fictional Howard W. Campbell, Jr, a self-described American spy who functioned as a Nazi propagandist during World War II; I’m going to focus on one particular series of scenes during the third act of the film.

Mother Night sets us up with a very particular visual paradigm regarding events in the past and present; much like The Wizard of Oz, present day (or in the case of Wizard, “real life”) events are portrayed in black and white, while narrative events are portrayed in color. This is interestingly subverted in this first scene.

Campbell has just met August Krapptauer, who proceeds to die moments after meeting him. He is asked by the Reverend Dr. Lionel Jones, D.D.S., D.D., to speak at a Neo-Nazi rally – but as he is a wanted man, he instead leaves Jones with a note laced with a sardonic double entendre…


The truth of your leader, August Krapptauer, and those like him will be with mankind forever, as long as there are men and women who listen to their guts, instead of their minds.

… which uses Campbell’s literary wit to undermine the very cause his literary wit used to serve.

Even the stoic Nazis are shown to tear up at the passing of their leader, oddly showing emotion for a single loss as they contemplate the extermination of an entire group of people


Jones offers a “special treat”, and we cut to Campbell, who is writing.


He gets up, and begins following his voice. We see him pass, as a shadow, in front of a poster of Hitler …


… and becomes a shadow against the visage of the enormous Nazi flag. The visual contrasts the shadow of a man he has become with the reason why he has become this – the Nazis have taken everything from him, unwittingly.


Campbell walks out behind the projection screen, which is semi-translucent – he can see the image and the projector light, but the audience cannot see him – and our entire visual paradigm shifts:


Campbell is, by virtue of the light casted on him of the recording of his past sins, now represented in the same dichromatic idiom used to represent the present – that same present in which he is both physically and mentally imprisoned for these sins. Campbell occupies a sliver of the frame, compared to the enormous legacy splashed across the screen.


We reverse shot to see the pale translucent image projected on his face, and for a moment, we see him through this:


A shadowy figure hands Campbell a note.


We look down to see that he is being warned about an impending danger:


… and we come back to the same shot of Campbell’s face with the projection overlaid on it, with the ominous words “the last free American”. They are the sign-off that Campbell used during his broadcasts for the Nazis, and again we are treated to an ironic twist to that meaning, for Campbell is effectively a prisoner of his past actions.


Campbell leaves, and we’re left with a ghostly image of his past repeating the mantra of the Nazi: “Heil Hitler.” This is the lasting image of him – what the world sees when they see him. It isn’t him; it’s an apparition, and we know from the rest of the expositional elements in the story that it doesn’t represent who he is as a person – or does it? Regardless of what kind of a person he believes he is, it’s what he pretended to be that will matter.


He leaves, in accordance with the warning note, and enters a building via a side entrance. Campbell is, again, masked in darkness.


As he moves down the unmarked hallway, his face becomes illuminated, and as he is finally bathed in light, he steps out…


… and we are confronted with what looks like a series of paintings.


We pan down …


… to reveal a rising curtain, with a lone figure in the audience. We instinctually know who it is; it is Frank Wirtanen, Howard’s “blue fairy godmother”.


The curtain rises, and Wirtanen claps. Campbell’s entire life is, for a moment, lampooned as the sort of play about selfless heroism which he used to write in his pre-Nazi writing days.


After Wirtanen tells him that his entire world is a lie, and that his friends are actually conspiring to turn him in, we return to Campbell, slumped over his typewriter, defeated:


His reality is the stark black and white of his prison cell, the black and white of the typewriter ink on the blank page, the black and white of the celluloid record of his sins. There is no room for what he perceives to be the nuanced core of his inner being and inherent goodness – he has become what he has pretended to be: a monster, portrayed in the stark contrast of black and white.

(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Fine Line Features, New Line Cinema, Whyaduck Productions, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)