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Prime Time for Hitler

CBS goes ahead with its biopic plans, but skeptics warn it had better step carefully.


by Sally Ogle Davis

August 1, 2002 | 8:00 pm

At first it sounded like just another routine announcement. Twice each year, 200 or so TV critics from across the country gather at Pasadena's Ritz Carlton Hotel to hear network and cable honchos wax enthusiastic about the coming TV season. Up to a point, this season's bill of fare was predictable: There were the endlessly repetitive sitcoms reproducing like some errant virus, and the bio-dramas on Martha Stewart, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and cosmetics queen Mary Kay.

Then, as if to see if we were all still awake, Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS and Nancy Tellem, his entertainment chief, confirmed what had been up until then only a frisson: The network would air a young Adolf Hitler miniseries right in the middle of next year's sweeps.

Moonves later said he had misspoken: The film would not be called "Young Hitler," with its shades of "Young Indiana Jones," or "Young Einstein." It would instead be "Hitler: The Early Years." In other words -- not Hitler the goose-stepping, ranting Führer, but Hitler the misunderstood son, the young soldier, the painter manqué.

While World War II and its stars have often been the subject of films, documentaries, plays, and even comedies such as "The Producers," this latest project -- and others like it -- is the first high-profile picture to dramatize Hitler and to search for understanding.

"We know how the story ends," said Moonves, one of the many Jewish executives in top TV positions, "but this is how Hitler came to power. This is Hitler from a very early age in which people don't know much of the story. This is a very timely subject about how bad guys get into power, and how it affects the rest of the world."

The attempt to link the film with the post-Sept. 11 world was unsubtle and the reaction was immediate. Under the headline "Swastikas for Sweeps," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd notes with irony that the miniseries covered Hitler's life from age 18 to 34, directly corresponding with, "the demographic sweet spot of network television."

"If there's one thing Hollywood executives understand," she observed, "it's megalomania. And if there's one audience they crave more than any other, it's teenagers and young adults."

Tellem, a child of survivors who lost much of her extended family in the Holocaust, describes the story as Hitler's rise to power and society's allowing it to happen. However honorable the intention, it's all in the execution says Susan Lynn, president of ABC entertainment , whose network turned the project down. "I think maybe you can't do a great miniseries about Adolf Hitler. To do a responsible miniseries about Hitler may be in conflict with doing a show that will attract a big audience."

The news that CBS has ordered the miniseries based on the first volume of British professor Ian Kershaw's highly acclaimed book "Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris" brought forth emotions ranging from genuine angst in the Jewish community to hand rubbing schadenfreude from rival network executives.

"I wouldn't touch the subject with a 10-foot barge pole," declared the boss of one network who did not wish to be named.

"If they had come to me with this one," said the head of another, "I would have told them to turn around and leave."

Romanian-born, Viennese-reared Jewish director Robert Dornhelm, who directed the acclaimed Anne Frank miniseries last year, says he also turned the project down when it was offered to him. "We had a hard enough time selling advertising on Anne Frank. NutraSweet bought the second hour entirely, and the rest was cosmetic companies and weight loss -- the irony of it was beyond words. I can't imagine how you'd sell Hitler," he says.

Undaunted, CBS is at pains to emphasize the true-blue pedigree of the project: the academic legitimacy of Kershaw's work -- "It's a scholarly work" was repeated like a mantra in response to press questions, along with the prestige of the producers, Alliance Atlantic, the folks who brought you "Nuremberg," "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadow" and the upcoming "Battle of Mary Kay." The director is French Canadian Christian Duguay, who was responsible for Alliance's 1999 miniseries "Joan of Arc." Then there's the smarts of the writer, Ross Parker, who just happens to be working for ABC on "Exodus 1947," a miniseries that continues the Leon Uris tale of Israel's formative years.

The Hitler script is not available to The Journal, says Alliance's CEO Peter Sussman, a Canadian brought up in a Conservative Jewish congregation in Toronto. "It's still being polished."

Parker, the writer, is not talking. But Sussman says he finds it surprising that there wasn't this kind of outcry when his company made the 1999 film "Nuremberg."

"I don't see the difference," he said, a comment that hardly augurs well for their sensitivity.

All of this is making some in the Jewish community and outside it, very nervous. Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar and incoming director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at the University of Judaism sums up the dilemma: "CBS is taking on a monumental gamble because if it shows us Hitler's humanity and makes him a sympathetic character, it's a total outrage. If it makes him into a monster without us understanding how he became a monster, it allows us to say that Hitler was Hitler, he shared no common humanity with us, so we don't have to worry about him. There are a thousand ways they can make mistakes with this. But only one or two ways to get it right."

With Scotsman Ewan McGregor, one of the star names being bruited about for the lead, the humanizing of Hitler is a real concern. Actors, we are constantly told, can't play pure evil. They have to find the humanity in the character to make it work. The better the actor the more they succeed.

Witness the brilliant Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter -- the lovable cannibal in "Silence of the Lambs" and its recent sequel (Hopkins tackled Hitler none too successfully in the 1981 TV movie "The Bunker") -- or Brian Cox's vivid performance as Hermann Goering in "Nuremberg," a movie that almost reduced the greatest international trial in living memory to a sappy love story between the prosecutor and his assistant. And how about killer Tony Soprano, the most popular mobster since Don Corleone?

Award-winning screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, who has impressively tackled politically sensitive docudramas such as the neo-Nazi primetime film "Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy" and "The Man Who Captured Eichmann," recalls that he discussed doing a young Hitler movie with actor Richard Dreyfuss more than 20 years ago.

"We argued back and forth," Chetwynd remembers. "To do a young Hitler, you have to humanize him, and what are the ethical implications of that? The minute you bring a good flesh-and-blood actor in, he's going to humanize him."

"It's vital in any such project that we understand the roots of this man's evil," Berenbaum says. "But the problem is that when you understand, you sympathize -- and that's exceedingly dangerous. You must be careful to create a character that is faithful to history, who is understood without empathy, without sympathy, and that you don't create disciples and followers who become fascinated by this guy."

Sussman seems to feel it's simply a question of prestige: "Who we cast to play Hitler has to be somebody with a capacity to execute the role," he says. "And he has -- and this is more of a touchy-feely thing -- to have an elegance relative to the piece. And when I say elegance, it will have to be an actor who we associate by reputation with a weighty piece."

Some would prefer that Hitler never be seen outside of documentaries or news reels -- that the inevitable mixing of fact and fiction in a drama leads to a blurring of the differences that only aids the Holocaust denial school. Others believe it's important that young people learn about the man and the period, because the young tend not to watch documentaries.

Of course a drama that dealt with Hitler's bland ordinariness could be valuable, Dornhelm says.

"It's Hannah Arendt's 'Banality of Evil,' it's the beast in all of us," he says. "There was a beautiful film on the young Hitler done in Austria in the '70s that did just that. It's not the caricature -- the helmet and the swastika, the death's head. It's the brain just like yours or mine. Something triggers off that kind of beast, and we better be on the watch for it all the time."

But such a treatment requires the sophistication and understanding of HBO's recent Emmy-winning "Conspiracy" about the Wanasee Conference as Hitler's henchmen discuss The Final Solution like executives at a Fortune 500 company board meeting. And a network trying to snare the 14- to 25-year-old crowd whose idea of history is Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and who ask "Who won World War II anyway?" isn't likely to muster that kind of complexity and truth.

And in a society where personal responsibility only lasts until the attorney catches up with the ambulance, couldn't Adolf could come off as a poor abused victim of a discriminatory society?

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, witnesses the problem firsthand in the young people who come into the museum: "Based on the 110,000 teenagers we have coming in ever year, " he says, "the fear is that when they're watching it on TV with their families they might say, 'He's a teenager like me. He had a bad family life. It's not his fault. If they would have taken him into art school, he wouldn't have been such a bad guy. He just got some bad breaks.'"

Despite the bona fides of the original work, Kershaw is a social historian. Not of the neo-Freudian psycho history school, he is more interested in German society's role in creating Hitler than in Hitler's childhood traumas or disappointed loves. But network TV doesn't do social history, they do personality. And if Kershaw's portrait of the personal Hitler is thin, then someone -- actor or writer -- will have to fill it out, and it would be a brave observer who would have too much faith in that process.

Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg isn't one of them, although he doesn't believe there's any danger that Hitler will come across warm and snuggly. "I can't imagine CBS taking that kind of risk. They will be walking a tightwire with a 500-pound weight. I'm not afraid that they will make Hitler sympathetic. I can't conceive of how they would do that. And of course it will probably do extremely well. If you put a swastika on a book, it sells."

Rosenberg says he has a more pressing concern: "My biggest fear is that they would not give the emergence of the Third Reich sufficient context," he says. "In docudrama, they tend to slop over that. So I would just implore them to give the whole story the proper context."

Sussman has also optioned Kershaw's second volume ("Hitler l936-45 Nemesis"), but it has not yet been given the green light. Presumably if the earlier saga racks up the ratings, No. 2 will follow. So the tale of the young Hitler will finish long before we see the consequences of his megalomania.

Hier points out, "We don't see where this young man took the world, we don't see the cruelty of Auschwitz. CBS needs at least a special segment attached to the film, three to five minutes to show the 1.5 million children who were gassed, the millions killed. You can't just do a crawl at the end, which is what they are planning. It's too impersonal. That's the great fear we have."

Sussman realizes what he's up against with this one. He emphasizes that the miniseries is now called simply, "Hitler" and part of the controversy, he says, resulted from what he calls, "the unfortunate misinterpretation of the words -- young Hitler -- which at the CBS press conference was used for clarity."

"This film will be more under the microscope than any other we have done," he notes. "It's a weightier film that I hope will sit on the shelves of history forever and be watched by many generations to educate and inform them."

Citing their track record, he says, "I think the world is lucky that the film is being handled by our company."

But Berenbaum is not so sure about the project. He quotes Martin Buber: "There is a narrow ridge which gets you between two impossible situations. Truth is found only on that narrow ridge."

When it comes to Hitler, the question remains: Can network television have the ability to find that narrow ridge?

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