August 15, 2002
Furor Over Der Fuhrer
The first draft of "Hitler: The Early Years" evokes sympathy, but in the end shows the leader's true colors.
"Attempts to find in the youngster 'the warped person within the murderous dictator' have proved unpersuasive. If we exclude our knowledge of what was to come, his family circumstances invoke, for the most part, sympathy for the child exposed to them."
-- Ian Kershaw,
"Hitler: l889-l936 Hubris."
Historian Ian Kershaw clearly understands the inherent risks in telling the story of the greatest sociopath of the 20th century. In his definitive two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, after describing Hitler's difficult childhood with a stern authoritative father who beats him, he describes the biographer's dilemma: "A feasible in-built danger in any biographical approach," he writes, "is that it demands a level of empathy with the subject which can easily slide over into sympathy, perhaps even hidden or partial admiration."
Amen. The first draft of G. Ross Parker's script for CBS' proposed four-hour miniseries based on the first volume of Kershaw's work, secretly released to The Journal, does indeed at least in the beginning slide into sympathy, if not admiration.
If the printed page evokes sympathy, how much bigger is the problem when the young Hitler, a devoted son to his mother and a loyal friend, is shown playing cowboys and Indians with his pals in a sunny field in Linz, Austria, and sitting in a classroom where his teacher admires his intelligence and his dreams of one day getting out of Austria and becoming a great artist?
The script depicts the teenage Hitler on his first foray into big city life in Vienna, as a Goth-like poseur, dressed all in black carrying an ivory-topped cane -- a kind of Andy Warhol meets a wannabe rock star, railing against the Philistine bourgeoisie who wouldn't recognize talent if it hit them between the eyes, and pining for the beautiful rich blonde who doesn't know he's alive. Is this a character American teens can identify with -- or what? Their parents, on the other hand, could well respond to Hitler's virulent anti-communism, his bravery amid the slaughter of war and his military discipline maintained even as his fellow soldiers become a rabble.
"Hitler is a winner, a survivor," says a former top network executive who has read the script. "They throw everything at him, they try to kill him, they put him in jail, he finds a way out, he gets rid of his opponents, he wins. By the end of the second night he's the king -- he's the German Rocky."
John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who has also read the script, says it's not really the screenwriter's fault that Hitler emerges as a recognizable human being.
"This is an extraordinarily complex person who did atrocious, horrible things, but to bring some life to him in a TV series, I was struck by the fact that it's an overly human portrayal of a guy who was the epitome of evil."
By the second night of the series, however, there is little for anybody to admire in this absurdly Chaplinesque mediocrity, with appalling manners, and a Messiah complex: ("Did you know I was born on Easter day?") He's an opportunist who delights in the poverty of the Germans because he sees it his path to power; a leader, surrounded by deviants and sycophants, who runs to save himself leaving his followers to die in the street; a self worshipper consumed by his own vanity; and a sexual "weirdo" who might be having an incestuous relationship with his young niece that drives her to suicide.
But will audiences get that far? Once the script gets into the heavy-duty politics, the endless strategic bull sessions between Hitler and his cohorts, they're likely to switch off in droves. To quote Oscar Wilde in another context, "It's worse than immoral, it's boring."
It's also, at times, faintly ridiculous. As a reliable historian, Kershaw refrains from putting words in Hitler's mouth, whereas television scripts are all about dialogue. And some of it is laughably banal.
Goring: "God in heaven, Goebbels, you're enough to turn me back to morphine."
Hitler: "Introduce me to more of these wealthy old ladies. They adore me. So many of their boys died in the Great War. So now they want to adopt me." (It sounds like a line straight out of "The Producers.")
There is a tendency to insert things that may appeal to American audiences. Parker (who wrote: "Exodus l947" for ABC television, "Sesame Street," cable TV's "Deadline," adapted from the Sam Fuller novel) invents a truly ludicrous scene between Hitler and his foreign press liaison, the half-American publisher Ernst Hanfstaengl. The Harvard-educated aristocrat Hanfstaengl plays "Hail Harvard" on the piano while Hitler marches up and down to the martial music. In the twinkling of an eye, the cheer "Hail Harvard" becomes "Heil Hitler."
"This is just what we need for the movement," an excited Adolf says. "On their feet, everyone shouting together." Harvard should sue.
As the Fuhrer furor has grown, some Jewish leaders have questioned CBS' timing in running a prime-time miniseries about a youthful Hitler with its inherent scenes of pageantry, marching bands and banners in the middle of one of the greatest crisis facing the Jews worldwide for 50 years.
Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel in Hollywood, who has also seen the script, says, "With the fear of terrorism everywhere and the economic recession, anti-Semites coming out of the woodwork all over Europe from the left and right, little sympathy anywhere for Israel, and a lot of latent anti-Semitism in America, the timing couldn't be worse."
Rosove worries about a subliminal message being conveyed by the story. "They had a lot of economic problems just like we do and Hitler brought them out of the depression. They might say, 'He did a bad thing killing all those people but if he hadn't done that he would have been a great leader,'" he says.
The former network executive goes further. "I think it's going to get people killed. You're going to see swastikas on synagogues, kids 'heiling' Hitler at high schools."
But others are more moderate in their reaction.
"We live in a country where we all value freedom of expression," Fishel says. "But they have to reflect on the potential consequences of their final script, and will it have an impact they haven't thought of?"
Alhough the Federation has no official position on the film, Fishel said, "I am concerned that something as important as this project be done well. Let them think it through and not react in knee-jerk fashion."
Peter Sussman, CEO of Alliance Atlantis Entertainment, the company making the film for CBS, defends the miniseries: "We are obviously aware of the sensitivities. I'm Jewish myself," Sussman says.
"I have no intention of making a film that makes him out to be any kind of good guy, hero or misunderstood youth. He was a manipulative son of a bitch, not a guy who has been dealt a bad hand."
But Sussman doesn't think Hitler as a subject should be ignored: "That's the big mistake. The worst kind of evil is that which is not visible. Guys in Germany who knew the Sept 11th terrorists said they were so nice and friendly and educated. Hitler didn't come out of his mummy's tummy evil. He didn't have a sign on him saying 'evil.' By the time the German people realized how evil he was, it was too late."
Despite the concern of community leaders, by the end of the four hours, this Hitler is anything but a great leader. Kershaw's interest is in the societal influences on Hitler, the factors that turned him from just another narcissist who thought he had a future into a raving lunatic for whom the Jews were the anti-Christ.
The TV script, which is likely to have several rewrites before shooting begins, follows Kershaw's evidence that Hitler couldn't have cared less about the Jews, and if anything, he was at one time rather favorably disposed to them. He admires his mother's Jewish physician, giving him one of his prized watercolors. He compares them favorably to the Germans for their ability to "stick together." But in the screenplay, when he makes his first beer hall speech, the audience reacts viscerally to his mention of the Jews -- more even than to Hitler's real bugaboo, the communists -- and he has found his easy rabble-rousing dogma.
It's the typically facile "Aha!" moment beloved of television movies. Kershaw, on the other hand, resists easy answers, insisting, "In truth, we do not know for certain why or even when Hitler turned into a manic and obsessive anti-Semite."
The British historian carefully paints a picture of the turn-of-the-century Vienna, "one of the most virulently anti-Jewish cities in Europe" that Hitler encounters at an impressionable age. He quotes a local politician saying the Jewish problem would be solved, and a service to the world achieved if all the Jews were placed on a large ship to be sunk on the high seas.
Karl Lueger, the lord mayor of Berlin who was greatly admired by Hitler, declared, "Wolves, leopards and tigers were more human than Jews -- these beasts of prey in human form."
When accused of stirring up anti-Semitism, Lueger said it wasn't a problem, because anti-Semitism would die out, "when the last Jews perished." And Kershaw discounts Hitler's friends who said they didn't recall him spouting anti-Semitic slogans, pointing out that such opinions would have been completely unremarkable in the Jew-hating Vienna of that period. The same would have been true of Munich, which was Hitler's next port of call.
None of this finds its way into the first draft of the script, and the effect is to minimize the complicity in his crimes of the society in which Hitler lived. The script gives credence to the idea that the Fuhrer was a one-time only maniac who couldn't happen again. It also once again lets Austria off the hook for Hitler.
In the penultimate scene of the movie in which Hanfstaengl, having fled Germany, is being debriefed by U.S. military intelligence, Parker finally addresses the question of collective responsibility. "Hitler didn't steal anything," Hanfstaengl says. "We gave it to him, all of us. The car, the keys, the gas. Then all of Germany jumped in the backseat to enjoy the ride. God knows where he's going to take them."
But it's too little, too late.
Meanwhile, rumors are circulating that CBS is having trouble finding an actor willing to take on Hitler. Hard to believe. Anyone who has had even minimal contact with actors knows they would murder their mother to get a chewing-up-the-scenery role like this one. But despite the genuine concerns, the hand-wringing and the community efforts to change CBS' collective mind, the movie will almost certainly go forward.
Daily Variety's Army Archerd quotes CBS Chief Leslie Moonves, who, while pointing out that his Polish grandmother was the only one of 11 children to survive the Holocaust, insists: "I feel totally comfortable with it. I still believe we should deal with all historic subjects. Should we put our heads in the sand?"
A spokesman at CBS referred The Journal's questions about the script changes to the film's producers at Alliance Atlantic, the Canadian -headquartered production company.
But to allay our own fears, we prefer to rely on the opinion of a colleague who resists the alarmists.
"We needn't worry," he says. "Nobody under the age of 50 is going to watch the damn thing anyway." And that may be CBS' real punishment -- lousy ratings.