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  • Benjamin May

The Wannsee Conference (1984) Review

In 1942, the wealthy district of Wannsee played host to a gathering of high-ranking officials of the Nazi party. Led by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich- considered by many to be Hitler’s natural successor- the group are there for one purpose: to discuss the method by which they will make the Third Reich free of Jews. As they debate their options, analysing the situation as they see it, the men consider many fiendishly methodical methods of murder, showing themselves to be completely morally bereft in their quest for a final solution.

Directed by Heinz Schirk, ‘The Wannsee Conference’ is a gripping account of the titular meeting, offering much insight into the personalities and attitudes within the Third Reich. A made for TV movie, it is based on the minutes of the real conference, and boasts strong dialogue and perceptive characterisation from screenwriter Paul Mommertz. His characters are believable, villainously banal and systematic in their approach; making the film all the more impactful.

Heydrich and the others, regarding Jews as subhumans on the level of vermin, contemplate mass murder with the casual air of businessmen deciding on their lunch orders. Their discussions about who they consider Jewish, or half-Jewish, makes for fascinating viewing, offering viewers insight into their heinous mindset. Schirk’s film shows how the bureaucratization of genocide transformed the unthinkable into the executable, meticulously depicting the process by which a group of seemingly civilized men could rationalize and organize the systematic slaughter of millions. The stark, cold meeting room becomes a chilling echo chamber of complicity, where the veneer of legality and procedure masks the monstrous reality of their plans.

By stripping away the dramatic excess often associated with the portrayal of Nazis in media, the film presents a more disturbing truth: that the Holocaust was a product of seemingly mundane administrative decisions made by men who believed they were simply solving a problem. This realization is perhaps the film’s most haunting contribution to the historical narrative, leaving viewers to ponder the depths of human depravity and the importance of vigilance in the face of ideology run amok.

Visually, it is filmed as if it were a play, with static shots, minimal camera movement and a focus on dialogue and performance, emphasizing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the conference room and reflecting the oppressive nature of the subject matter. The production design is austere and functional, with an attention to historical accuracy that lends authenticity to the setting. The use of real-time filming, mirroring the actual duration of the Wannsee Conference, creates a sense of immediacy and tension, as viewers are made to feel as if they are there witnessing the events unfold.

Dietrich Mattausch leads the cast as Heydrich, making him seedily suave and chillingly charismatic. Calculating and persuasive, his controlled delivery and cold gaze capture the chilling resolve of a man orchestrating genocide. Gerd Böckmann is similarly impressive as the reserved Adolf Eichman, giving an understated and subtle performance; his matter-of-fact tone and clinical precision revealing the horrifying casual composure with which these men approached the extermination of millions. Peter Fitz does strong work as Wilhelm Stuckart, who has a strange and twisted sense of his own morality, conveying both the intellectual arrogance and the moral bankruptcy of his character; adding another layer of depth to the film’s exploration of complicity.

Furthermore, Harald Dietl and Martin Lüttge also shine as Afred Meyer and Rudolf Lange, respectively, highlighting the power dynamics at play and the uncomfortable ease with which they discuss mass murder. Additionally, in the small but pivotal role as the secretary taking down the minutes, Anita Mally subtly embodies the overlooked cog in the Nazi bureaucratic machine. Devoid of any visible emotion or moral conflict, her dutiful transcription of the conference’s proceedings encapsulates the terrifying ordinariness that can accompany evil deeds.

Informative and captivating, Heinz Schirk’s ‘The Wannsee Conference’ is an important and effective made for TV movie, documenting a turning point in history. Featuring strong dialogue from Paul Mommertz, this retelling of the titular event explores the situation and characters involved with nuance and insight. Boasting fine cinematography from Horst Schier and authentic production design, as well as powerhouse performances from all in the cast, the film stands as a stark reminder of the banality of evil and the ease with which humanity can slip into darkness.


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