top of page

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut - Book and Movie Review

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book or movie; rather, it is to examine how the book or movie relates to the meaning of life.

Mother Night is a fictional novel that was published in 1962 by Kurt Vonnegut. In 1996, a movie adaptation directed by Robert B. Weide was released, starring Nick Notle.

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

The Book: The story revolves around the American character Howard W. Campbell Jr. who moved to Germany as child, fell in love with a beautiful actress named Helga, and decided to stay there despite the onset of WWII. He became both a famous playwright and a Nazi propagandist; he was also a spy for the American military as well. The story is told from the perspective of Howard writing his memoirs from a jail in Israel—the jail in which he would hang himself in the end.

One of the first lines in the introduction is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

And, this is exactly what we're to see in the story, a moral of sorts—a warning more likely. We have Howard, the American playwright who could care less about the war, and so to insulate himself from the Nazi he pretends to be—will become, he creates a nation of two with the woman he married, the woman who inspires him to write great plays, do great things, and even to keep a very meticulous sex diary which documents every time they did the nasty in great detail. On some level, if Howard did not secretly agree with the Nazi propaganda he was spouting, he must of been distraught that his beloved wife became a devout Nazi, as he never does tell her that he's a spy, believing that it would break her and she would not be able to handle the truth.

Then we also have George Kraft who is a Soviet spy, but living more as an artist than anything else. So much so that he actually isn't doing any spying at all, at least until Howard comes along and he sees an effortless and golden opportunity. We also have Resi Noth, whose life is so downtrodden that after working in factories in the Soviet Union for so long, when she finally returns to Germany, and has a choice to make: stay living as woman known as Resi, or take on the identity of Helga Noth (Howard's deceased wife)—she, of course, chooses the latter. Let's not also forget Harold J. Sparrow, who is pretending to be Colonel Frank Wirtanen in order to recruit Howard as a spy.

That is a lot of pretending. Vonnegut would leave us with us with a few final words of wisdom in the introduction: There's another clear moral to this tale, now that I think about it: When you're dead you're dead. And yet another moral occurs to me now: Make love when you can. It's good for you.

Howard, who is recruited by Colonel Frank Wirtanen to become a spy on behalf of America, does so, but does so only reluctantly. He goes on to start a radio show that passionately inspires most of Germany to the bitter end of the war and is heard throughout the world on shortwave radio. In the show, he calls himself the last free America and spews virulent hate against the Jewish people of the world. He does his job a bit too well; because Nazi or spy, he is helping both sides further their agenda. As a spy, he broadcasts secret messages through coughs, pauses, etc. to the allies during his propaganda show—without ever realizing what it is he is broadcasting. He even broadcasts his wife's death a few days before he finds out—a heart wrenching discovery on top of everything else.

Once the war ends, Frank tells Howard that there isn't much they can do for him—oh, and that he's sorry about his wife's death, and his parents too (Howard was unaware that his parents had died), so now he's alone in the world, a nation of one—no friends, no family left. Frank suggests going back to New York, so Howard does just that under a false identity, one which he quickly abandons as he realizes no one is looking for him—no one cares about him. It wouldn't be until the Reverend Doctor Lionel J.D. Jones, D.D.S. (a failed dentist and a racist with a bunch of fake degrees) publishes an article in his little known paper, The White Christian Minuteman, about how Howard was a true American hero, one that stood up for the Aryan cause.

Until that point, Howard had given up on life. He was going through the motions, but doing nothing, living off the interest from the money his parents left him. He finds some passion, some revival when he meets George (the Soviet spy and artist) and starts playing chess with him, using a chess set, he (Howard), made out of wood. Both lamenting over where they are in life, George says the following: Howard, when my wife died, I had no allegiance to anything on earth. I, too, was a meaningless fragment of a nation of two. George's wife was alive and well back in the Soviet Union, most everything he told Howard was a lie.

When Lionel shows up at Howard's door, he brings with him a surprise, and we're not talking about the surprise of the Black Fuhrer of Harlem, who was a self-proclaimed racist wearing Nazi symbolism. You see, he was on the side, the side of the colored people—a Japanese spy who just happened to be African American, and ironically was also good friends with the white supremacists, because they shared comically and idiotically, similar racist views—just for different races. No, the surprise was, Lionel had brought over from Germany, Howard's wife, Helga, who was supposedly dead.

Howard, thinking that Helga was back, gets a bit of life back in him, even gets a little frisky and makes love to her, writes his last entry in his sex diary, and then the next day, goes out to explore the city, talks about buying a new bed, so on and so forth. That is until, the person pretending to be Helga tells Howard that she is really the younger sister of Helga, Resi; and that she has always loved Howard. At first Howard is in shock—aghast even, but then he falls in line and just kind of goes with it pretending that she really is Helga because that's who Resi wants to pretend to be and he'd like to pretend it too. Vonnegut does prior to this, describe Resi as a nihilist due to her belief pessimistic views that life in wartime was pointless, and as it would turn out, she was also a Soviet spy.

Howard, learning from Frank that both Resi and George were Soviet spies, confronts them. Resi's heart is broken as Howard is done with her. She pleas with him to give her something to live for, because without his love, she has no reason to go on with life. It doesn't matter what that reason is, it could be a chair for all she cared, she just needed someone to tell her. Howard can give her no solace, no answers, so she kills herself. George, Lionel, the Black Furher, and the rest of the gang are arrested. Howard is set free and goes about walking home. But, suddenly he stops in the middle of the street and just pauses for hours on end, until a police officer questions him and eventually asks/tells him, it is about time to move on. That breaks Howard out of his spell and he continues onward to his home. He, like Resi, got to such a broken point in life where he needed someone to tell him what to do next.

When he gets back to his vandalized house, he is confronted by Lt. Bernard B. O'Hare, who arrested him many years ago in Germany and treated him miserably—beat him, showed him hanged Nazis in concentration camps, and told him he would be next. Now, Bernard is back to finish the job. He believes his remaining purpose in life is to finish off Howard after he escaped the first time.

Bernard: Just when you think there isn't any point to life—then, all of a sudden, you realize you are being aimed right straight at something.




When the war ended, I expected to be a lot more in fifteen years than a dispatcher of frozen-custard trucks. I was going to be a doctor, I was going to be a lawyer, a writer, an architect, an engineer, a newspaper reporter—there wasn't anything I couldn't be.




And I asked myself, what does it mean? Where do I fit in? What's the point of any of it?

One wonders, and Vonnegut probably knows best as a former solder, not only how many countless solders' futures ended with their death in the war, but also how many other countless dreams were dashed upon returning to America and realizing not everyone gets to live the American dream? I'm sure Rosewaters might have something to say about that (inside Vonnegut joke).

Howard's one remaining purpose in life is to be tried in Israel, but even that is taken from him when his blue fairy godmother, Colonel Frank Wirtanen, a.k.a. Harold J. Sparrow, confirms Howard's story that he was actually a spy working for America. Howard, wanting someone so desperately for someone to tell him he wasn't a bad guy after all, gets no resolutionhangs himself. So it goes.

It is a dark ending to a pretty dark book. Given the suicide at the end, this has to be one of the darkest books from Vonnegut that we've ready yet. A book which blurs the lines between good and evil; and makes us question if those lines really existed to begin with. It is a quick read with a simple premisea clear moral. We highly recommend you check it out.

The Movie:

The film does not deviate too much from the book. However, it does cut out some important scenes, most notably the one where Bernard and Howard face off towards the end of the novel. This did detract significantly from the story as that was an important part of the book.

Another slight deviation, in the movie Howard is the one that says the line, I guess the moral here is: you must be careful what you pretend to be because in the end you are who you're pretending to be. In the book, Vonnegut is the one to say something similar in the introduction.

One more very interesting statement in the film that didn't appear in the book, is when George and Howard are talking about what they've lost.

George: The Brotherhood of the Walking Wounded. It's the largest organization in the world. You don't even know it exists until you're in it. You get your membership card when you lose the one thing that gives your life any meaning, the thing that binds you together. The thing that holds the group in one piece is the fact that the members are absolutely incapable of speaking to one another.

Other than that, if you read the book, the movie, except for some minor differences, does follow the same story without any notable twists. The Vonnegut cameo when Howard was stuck on the street was one of the powerful scenes in the movie.

We rate the movie:

Overall - 6

Meaning of Life Relevance - 3

Uniqueness – 4

If you read the book, watched the movie, what did you think? What did we miss? Was Howard a hero, racist, or perhaps just an opportunist? Maybe something else? Comment below and let us know.

36 views0 comments


bottom of page