Next week, television viewers will have a chance to spend a few revealing hours with Adolph Hitler.
"Hitler: The Rise of Evil," the two-part miniseries that airs May 18 and 20 on CBS, covers biographical territory well-known to fans of the History Channel, the cable network awash in Hitler-centric documentaries.
But for audiences with limited knowledge of Hitler’s prewar career, the lushly filmed four-hour drama will illuminate how the infamous hate-monger came to wield unlimited power over a modern democratic nation.
Clearly, his rise was not due to personal charm. As portrayed by the scowling, spitting Robert Carlyle ("The Full Monty"), Hitler is an empty shell of a man, driven by an uncompromising belief in German purity and superiority.
He connives and manipulates. He erupts at the sight of Jews and Communists. He surrounds himself with brutish World War I veterans. He beats his dog. He slavishly adores a married aristocrat but abuses his girlfriend. He has an unspecified but clearly perverse relationship with his niece, Geli (Jean Malone). ("You can’t imagine what he asks of me," she confides.)
"He’s not human," Fritz Erlich, the journalist played by Matthew Modine, tells the German prime minister after having tea with the rabidly anti-Semitic Hitler. "I could see into his eyes, and what I saw there was terrifying."
Initial plans for the CBS documentary met with opposition by those who feared the film would glamorize or trivialize its subject. Now, having previewed the film, many of those critics are praising "Hitler."
The Anti-Defamation League commended Carlyle’s "brilliant portrayal" and said the miniseries shows "Hitler for the monster he was." The author and rabbi, Joseph Telushkin, said "the film was "extraordinary in that it dimensionalizes Hitler in a way that makes him seem even more dangerous."
Filmed on location in the Czech Republic, "Hitler: The Rise of Evil" also stars Stockard Channing ("The West Wing" ) as Hitler’s doting mother, Liev Schreiber ("RKO 281") and Julianna Margulies ("ER") as his wealthy patrons Ernest and Helene Hanfstaengel and a shaky Peter O’Toole ("Lawrence of Arabia"), swimming in his military uniform as German President Gen. Paul Hindenberg.
In this film, at least, what is most dangerous is not Hitler, but the political apathy that allows him to thrive. His nationalistic views attract enough wealthy patrons to finance grand offices, a spacious apartment in Munich and his party’s own newspaper. Civic leaders see Hitler and his Nazi Party as either a nuisance or a useful political pawn, until it’s too late to stop him.
The only real opposition the TV Hitler encounters is in Erlich’s newspaper. Even Erlich’s publisher tells him to drop it. "[Hitler] is yesterday’s news," Erlich is told. "People don’t care anymore." Erlich’s pursuit of Hitler in the press costs him his job and, later, his life.
The miniseries begins with quick vignettes from the future Fuhrer’s younger years that give inklings of the coming disaster.
"Parsifal," his abusive father tells the young "Addie" as he puts the needle on record. "The German ideal, a combination of strength, determination and fury." Moments later, little Hitler has burned down the man’s beehives.
Hitler’s early disdain for Jews is evident as he winces under the embrace of the Jewish doctor who tells him his mother is dying of breast cancer. These seeds bear rotten fruit later on, as Hitler slowly hones his skills as an orator, borrowing some of his primary rhetoric from Vienna’s anti-Semitic Mayor Karl Luger and some from the Communists themselves.
"With the hero Lohengrin as our model and the music of Wagner as our inspiration, we will hang the profiteers, crush the Communists and disinfect our country of the Jewish vermin," Hitler says repeatedly before ever-growing crowds at beer halls and ultimately in public arenas.
The first episode of "Hitler" ends with the 34-year-old at the helm of the Nazi Party and set to be imprisoned after the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, having pleaded guilty to treason. The second episode follows his progress from his cell at Landsberg Prison (where he dictates the text of his memoir, "Mein Kampf," to his secretary Rudolf Hess) to the chancellorship.
Along the way, audiences learn how Hitler assembled his cast of significant figures from Nazi history: He sees Ernst Rohm, the leader of the Storm Troopers (played with a villainous lack of emotion by Peter Stormare), beating a "Red" in the street. He meets Herman Goering (Chris Larkin) at an upscale dinner party, and he vies with Josef Goebbels (Justin Sallinger) over party leadership only to appoint him later on as minister of propaganda.
Filmed in a muted palette of gray and sepia, the only bright color in "Hitler" is the bright crimson of the Nazi posters and banners. Producer Peter Sussman had previously worked on the Holocaust-themed docudramas "Haven" and "Judgment at Nuremberg," as well as the feature film "Sunshine," and his appreciation for historical detail is evident in "Hitler."
Using reams of documentary photographs taken by the Nazis themselves, Sussman’s crew was able to match wardrobe, hairstyle and postures. (Hitler is shown in one scene practicing his characteristic gesticulations.)
Some adjustments were needed. Carlyle’s visage is augmented with a prosthetic nose and cheeks and his eyes are tinted with contact lenses. Instead of German, the actors speak in a blended American and British accent (known in the business as "mid-Atlantic"). To distinguish his character, Carlyle masks his natural Scottish accent with a British dialect that becomes more refined throughout the film.
Scene by scene, Carlyle’s Hitler is transformed from a rodent-faced struggling artist into the mesmerizing orator familiar from newsreels. In one scene, Hitler’s wealthy patron Ernst Hanfstaengel suggests that he come up with a flag and a distinguished look, along the lines of Lenin. (He apparently borrowed the stiff-armed salute from the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.)
In short order, Hitler has trimmed his moustache and selected the swastika as his symbol. "It means unconquerable," he tells a dinner-party guest at Hanfstaengel’s house, a few minutes after insulting another guest’s Jewish heritage.
Carlyle said that his biggest problem in playing Hitler was looking for a way to identify with the character. "I had to look outside for almost ephemeral things," Carlyle said in a telephone press conference. In the end, he focused on Hitler’s love of opera: even listening to Wagner in his hotel room after grueling days of shooting.
Ultimately, audiences know more about Hitler’s steps to power, his personal predilections (he didn’t drink; he hated fresh flowers) and his interpersonal relationships, but it’s not clear to what end.
Sussman has said that he wanted the film to fill in a missing piece from the history’s puzzle, but denied any connection to current events. He and CBS have distanced themselves from statements made by co-producer Ed Gernon, whom TV Guide quoted as saying that the film provides Americans a lesson in blind adherence to leadership.
The ADL is calling "Hitler: Rise of an Evil" an important film with positive educational consequences. "It makes us understand how fragile democracy is and how potent evil is," an ADL statement reads.
Asked for his reaction to the film, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel told The Jewish Week that "Hitler" was "not offensive." When asked if the film was helpful, he said, "That is a different story."