Fatherland is one of those "What If" movies that leaves you wishing the moviemakers had just left the entire subject alone. It's based on the novel of the same name, and it's distinctive in that it's the only film we've seen in which the guy wearing the swastika is the good guy. And no, it's not a disguise.
This made-for-HBO film is set in the mid-1960's, and the premise is that Nazi Germany encompasses all of Europe, due to the fact that the US beat the crap out of Japan in retribution for Pearl Harbor and then stayed out of the European theater of World War II. "Germania" has finally opened its borders to the US, Hitler (still alive and "sieg"-ing) wants to talk treaties with the President, and a group of American journalists are at hand to record the whole thing.
It's one of these journalists, Charlie Maguire (played by the always lovely Miranda Richardson), who stumbles onto a series of murders being investigated by an SS cop, Xavier March. March, played by the seemingly-omnipresent-in-the-video-store-these-days Rutger Hauer, is convinced that the Gestapo are somehow involved, and he's out to find out why. The movie leads us to believe that there is no love lost between the SS and the Gestapo. After some digging, it turns out that each of the victims were high-level officials during the war, and they all know something that Hitler would rather be kept a secret.
Fatherland's main problem is that no one really seems to care about anything that happens, either in the plot or in their acting performances. Hauer routinely plays his part close to the hip, almost sotto voce, and we wonder if the man has had an genuine emotion since Blade Runner. If so, we certainly can't tell by this picture. Richardson is a Brit playing an American pronouncing German words; the accent that results is inconsistent at best. She follows the plot and Hauer's emotional lead dutifully until the last minutes of the film, when some drama is finally provided by one of our favorite British actresses, Jean Marsh. In fact, it's the character actors that provided some acting relief in this film: the principal actors bored us to tears.
As a result of the information that Marsh's character gives them, March and Maguire (wasn't that a line from a Mamas & Papas song?) discover that the Jews and gypsies who were supposedly relocated to the Ukraine actually only made it as far as Auschwitz. The unlikely duo then decide that this information must be given to the US President before he does anything silly like bear-hug Hitler. In one of the sillier crowd scenes we've seen, Maguire pushes her way through to the president's motorcade just in time. Actually, this part reminded us of the Nazi crowd scene in Woody Allen's Zelig, but that only made us wish we were re-watching that film instead of this one.
A rating of two lava lamps means that there are one or two redeeming characteristics keeping it from the bottom of the heap, so we might as well mention those. The production values in the film are quite high. Despite the obviousness of the matte painting backgrounds, the Germania from the original novel is reproduced quite well, from the Speer building to the Beatles posters. The use of black-and-white footage at the beginning of the movie was an intelligent choice, giving us the sense of history that is so desperately needed to carry the rest of the film off. Even the Hitler actor who appears as the Fuhrer's older self is a pretty good match.
In the long run, however, Fatherland is dragged down by principal actors who don't seem to care, a plot with very little action to speak of, and a kid actor whose voice is dubbed so poorly we could have been watching Kung Fu Gold theater. With that, we say "auf wiedersehen" to this film.