January 23, 2003
Moonves: No Sympathy for Hitler
President and CEO of CBS Television Leslie Moonves came in for a good deal of flak last year following news that the network was planning to make a two-part miniseries from British history professor Ian Kershaw's book, "Hitler: 1889-l936: Hubris" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), which covers the prewar life and times of the Führer.
Some Jewish leaders worried that a too- sympathetic portrayal of the early life of the man responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews would feed into today's current wave of anti-Semitism and that a prime-time portrait of the youthful Hitler might paint him as a misunderstood youth rather than an evil madman to millions of young viewers with scant knowledge of Hitler's terrible legacy.
This month, CBS, along with the producers, Alliance Atlantic, began shooting the miniseries in Prague and might air the show as early as the May sweeps. Scottish actor Robert Carlyle -- best known for "The Full Monty" and "Trainspotting" -- plays Adolf Hitler, while Stockard Channing (first lady Abby Bartlet on "The West Wing") portrays his mother. The cast also includes Julianna Margulies, Peter O'Toole, Liev Schreiber and Matthew Modine.
The Jewish Journal read an early script -- which CBS now says has been totally junked in favor of a completely new version by Jewish playwright-screenwriter John Pielmeier ("Agnes of God"). Pielmeier has drawn upon other books, periodicals and archival material for the new version.
The Journal recently spoke to Moonves about the new face of Hitler.
Jewish Journal: You've said there's more incident in the new script. Do you mean more action?
Leslie Moonves: I wouldn't say more action. There are more things involved in Hitler's personal life that may not have been in the Kershaw book. In no way do I want to put down Mr. Kershaw, who clearly is a genius and a wonderful writer. But sometimes, when you're sticking to one work and dealing with a historical figure it's often good to have a variety of sources.
JJ: Where does this version begin and end?
LM: There are a very few scenes dealing with his childhood to try to get the flavor that this is an odd young man from the time he was a little boy. He was an outsider. He was a strange fellow. By and large, most of the movie begins with him as an unemployed artist in Vienna, trying to get into art school, living in poverty, being homeless and his exploits in World War I. And from there, that's where the bulk of the movie takes place.
JJ: Where do the first two hours end?
LM: I can't recollect the first two-hour ending. Clearly the whole thing ends when Hitler has taken over total power of the country in 1938 on the eve of World War II. We will also be showing a postscript. That's very important. Once again, we do take some of the comments we've received very seriously. And one comment I took to heart: if you are showing the rise to power -- and part of why we're doing this is that everybody knows how the story ended but few people know how it began -- some people said, "Well you're not showing the atrocities that this man committed. And you may be giving an incorrect impression of him." So it's important to know where this led seven or eight years later.
JJ: How will you do this?
LM: We're not 100 percent sure. It may be with documentary-style footage.
JJ: Will you run public service announcements during the film?
LM: Throughout the show, and in the preceding weeks.
JJ: We heard CBS is making a donation to a Holocaust charity?
LM: Yes, to the Shoah Foundation or something like that. It's not quite pinned down yet.
JJ: Who's going to buy ad space for this movie?
LM: You don't sell it the way you sell anything else. It's got to be a careful sale. People have to realize that this is an important piece that is going to be done with quality, class and sensitivity. We haven't yet begun to approach the people. I think it will be easier once we have something to show them.
JJ: Many critics worried that Hitler as the protagonist of the story has to be shown as a human being. But by doing that you automatically make him sympathetic.
LM: In no way, shape or form is this man in this film a sympathetic figure. He is a monster. And it's how he got to be that way. At no point do you feel sympathy for this man and just say, "Oh, I understand, I feel bad this is why he did what he did." That emotion should never occur.
JJ: What made you chose Robert Carlyle?
LM: It was very funny, when his name first came up. He was very charming in the "The Full Monty," but this is Adolf Hitler.
Then I saw pieces of him in "Trainspotting." I saw "Angela's Ashes," then I saw a British film, where he played a cold-blooded killer. And it was chilling. And when I saw that side of him I said, he can do this. And it was who the producers supported right from the beginning.
JJ: Has Rabbi Harvey Fields from Wilshire Boulevard Temple vetted the script?
LM: He read the first two hours and gave us extensive notes. Those notes have been incorporated into some of the changes and he's reading the second part as we speak. He's an unofficial friend in court, but once again, certainly he's amongst the most widely respected religious leaders in ours or any community.
JJ: Did you agree with the criticism of the first script?
LM: When we were receiving the criticism, we didn't like the first script. It was dreadful. And the fact that it was being passed around we felt was blatantly unfair.
JJ: Wasn't your own wife opposed to the project?
LM: I don't want to talk about my personal situation. There has been a lot of discussions with friends and relatives. It certainly is a lightning rod for a lot of people.
JJ: Did you lose family members in the Holocaust?
LM: I lost many relatives on both sides of the family. My grandparents are both from Poland and they lost a number of siblings and cousins, a great many family members during the Holocaust. They escaped from Poland before the war began. But there were some who did not escape.
JJ: Have you seen early footage of the movie?
LM: I've seen a very little bit of it -- some very preliminary dailies.
JJ: How's it looking?
LM: So far so good ... you never like to comment until things are put together. Once again there's a director who I've worked with before, who I have great trust and faith in and a script that is a lot more -- very solid certainly. I'm very pleased with the quality of the cast.
JJ: Have you seen the movie "Max?"
LM: Yes. I don't want to give any criticism. I thought it was a very, very interesting movie. I thought John Cusack was terrific. I thought it shined certainly some light on what we were doing and certainly on the subject matter. I did think it was a decent film.
JJ: May we read the new shooting script?
LM: No. No.
JJ: Can we visit the set in Prague?
LM: That might be possible. I really want your readers to know that this is something we are not treating lightly. It's one of the most important projects we've been involved in and we are trying to do it with great care and great thought.