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Conspiracy Is A Docudrama But A Special Kind Of Docudrama

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Conspiracy Is A 'Docudrama' But Quite A Special Kind Of 'Docudrama'

Terry Cornick

BA (Hons) Media Writing

Author, Authority & Audience

Conspiracy Is A 'Docudrama' But Quite A Special Kind Of 'Docudrama'

The film Conspiracy was released in 2001 as a HBO production and attempted to re-create the meeting that arguably decided the fate of the persecuted European Jewish population during World War Two. The film has been described as a docudrama, which Janet Staiger explains is:

'A fact-based representation of real events. It may represent contemporary social issues - the "facts-torn-from-today's-headlines" approach - or it may deal with older historical events...'

(Staiger, n. d.)

However Staiger does make it clear that unlike mainstream drama, the docudrama 'does make claims to provide a fairly accurate interpretation of real historical events.' (Staiger, n. d.) To begin to explore the idea that Conspiracy is a 'special' docudrama, it must first be established what 'special' could mean. The obvious definitions are extraordinary, unusual or unique; therefore it must be determined and discussed in what ways, if any, is Conspiracy a 'special' docudrama.

The conventional docudrama has always attracted controversy and caused much debate to what worth it actually has. As a mode that has significant cultural importance in the twentieth century it is inevitable that events and actions that occur in docudramas at times will be met with suspicion as to their accuracy. Derek Paget describes docudrama as, 'problematic because it openly pro-claims both a documentary and a dramatic provenance.' (Paget, 1998: 1) Essentially in Paget's view the main problems are as follows:

(a) the nature and status of the factual material used in the programme,

(b) the kinds of dramatic representation the programme employs,

(c) the overarching worry that 'dramatic license' might mean that liberties are taken, and gross simplifications made, by programme makers. (Paget, 1998: 1, 2)

In terms of the first concern with factual material, the docudrama Conspiracy was actually based on a real document called the Wannsee Protocol. The top secret document was essentially the minutes of what is known as the Wannsee Conference with only one copy surviving from thirty made, found in the files of the German Foreign Office in 1947. These minutes detailed the 90-minute discussion, which was primarily held to implement the escalation of Hitler's genocidal "Final Solution." Reinhard Heydrich who was second in command of the SS chaired the meeting. He made it clear the SS would be calling the shots concerning the extermination of the Jews and not the Nazi party or any of the government ministries represented at the meeting. As Michael Berenbaum states the most extraordinary factor about the meeting is how '...the minutes record in the most ordinary way a dispassionate discussion of the potential slaughter of what Eichmann estimated to be 11 million Jews throughout Europe...' (Berenbaum, 2005) This shocking dialogue was said to be replicated almost exactly to the word in the film, the only scenes where no accurate dialogue could definitely be portrayed being the breaks in the meeting for refreshments, described as a "buffet lunch." The use of these minutes in Conspiracy itself makes the docudrama unique and could certainly add weight to the argument that the docudrama is 'special.' Chief Historical Consultant for Conspiracy, Michael Berenbaum, agrees that Conspiracy is indeed a 'special' docudrama:

'Where was known, we stuck as closely to the protocols of the Conference as possible. The writing by Loring Mandel was brilliant, tremendous; he knew the era and knew what he wanted to do.' (Berenbaum, 2005)

The accuracy of the docudrama was further strengthened by the use of the exact Nazi and SS uniforms of every person present at the meeting, something that commonly been neglected in other docudramas. The exterior shooting was shot at the exact house where the meeting took place at Wannsee Haus, an elegant private home then being used as an SS guesthouse in a beautiful lakeside district of Berlin. This almost haunting setting was ironic, as the house was previously owned by Jews and according to Berembaum this setting added to the verisimilitude of the film. (Berenbaum, 2005) Film techniques used in Conspiracy also could arguably be considered 'special'; docudramas generally attempt to make you feel you are 'close' to the action. However the techniques used in Conspiracy, although subtle, could arguably be considered unique; Berenbaum specifically talks about the directing of Frank Pierson and the brilliance of his technique:

'He did several things differently. The men sat around the conference room for the 19 days of shooting. No individual shoots and he kept the camera at eye level so you, the audience, was the sixteenth person at the table. He did not allow the audience to know anything more than the participants.' (Berenbaum, 2005)

When discussing the actual making of the drama in a docudrama, Paget explains that the 'instruments of the camera and the microphone stand in place of the eventual watchers and listeners,' and the camera and the microphone have an agency that is, 'different from, but similar to, that deferred audience.' (Paget, 1998: 19) When applied to Conspiracy this observation is adhered to but to the maximum of it's capabilities, resulting in the viewer being extremely involved in the events that are unfolding. Furthermore the actors in Conspiracy have been critically acclaimed for their performances. The group included such esteemed names as Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich, Colin Firth as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann. The decision to employ these actors could perhaps be considered as a major success, with some being previous Oscar winners and contributing to the notion that this was a 'special' kind of docudrama. Berenbaum staunchly agrees with this suggestion: 'They (the actors) rose to the occasion and understood the seriousness of what happened there. In gestures and remarks, they pulled

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