Just as they had won over some of their harshest critics, the people behind an upcoming miniseries about Adolph Hitler find themselves on the defensive again.
This week’s TV Guide quotes Ed Gernon, who was executive producer of "Hitler: The Rise of Evil," as characterizing the German leader’s ascent to power as a cautionary tale for Americans today.
"It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear, who ultimately chose to give up their civil rights and plunged the whole world into war," Gernon reportedly told the weekly’s Mark Lasswell.
Executives behind the CBS miniseries have distanced themselves from Gernon’s remarks.
CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves called them "totally irresponsible and wrong." Peter Sussman, Gernon’s boss at Alliance Atlantis, the Toronto-based company producing the film, said drawing such a parallel is "crazy thinking." Gernon has been cut from the project, he said.
The current controversy comes after months of damage control and hours of consultation with historians, educators, rabbis and other Jewish leaders. Network executives were reportedly blindsided by negative reactions to the project, which was billed last summer as the story of Hitler’s younger years. Since then, Sussman has successfully reached out to Jewish leaders who had voiced objections early on.
While acknowledging that hundreds of films have flowed from Nazism and its genocidal consequences, Sussman said that by focusing on Hitler’s rise to power, "I felt we had a chance here to fit in a missing piece of the puzzle." That is, "How did we let this guy get into power?"
The two-part series is set to air May 18, during television sweeps when networks lure viewers for ratings. It stars Robert Carlyle as a glowering Adolph Hitler, Stockard Channing as Hitler’s doting mother and Oscar-winner Peter O’Toole as Paul Von Hindenburg, the German president who against his own wishes appointed Hitler as chancellor in 1933. Liev Schreiber, Julianna Margulies and Matthew Modine round out the cast.
Sussman, who is Jewish, said he knew he was entering a "sensitive area" with the project, but he’s visited such territory before.
His credits include the 2001 CBS miniseries "Haven," a biopic about Ruth Gruber, a Jewish U.S. government official who helped escort nearly 1,000 Holocaust survivors to safety in America. In 2000, he was executive producer of TNT’s "Nuremberg," an Emmy-nominated series about the postwar trials of Nazi leaders, starring Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox.
A Canadian native now based in Los Angeles, Sussman said that in doing research for "Nuremberg" he was shocked by the level of ignorance about the Holocaust. The idea for "Hitler" came out of a brainstorming session two years ago. Thinking about the body of Holocaust films, Sussman and his team decided to look at Hitler’s rise, which they saw as under-investigated in film. CBS agreed, and scheduled the miniseries to air in May 2003.
The film’s timing in the midst of a war is "purely coincidental," Moonves said.
"Hitler" focuses on the Nazi leader’s young adulthood and early 20s as he amassed enough power to win a democratic election and subsequently to take over the government completely.
The miniseries, originally based on Sir Ian Kershaw’s 1999 biography "Hitler: 1889-1937: Hubris," has undergone several thematic changes. An early script that was criticized for being too sympathetic was tossed out, and new story lines were added to provide historical context.
These include the development of real-life characters like Fritz Gerlich (played by Modine), the German journalist who opposed Hitler and risked his life to expose the dictator. Another storyline follows the aristocratic couple Helene and Ernst Hanfstaengl, whose opposing views of Hitler end their marriage.
One of the few people outside of the production to have seen more than the three-minute promo, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, praised the film as "powerful."
"It dimensionalizes Hitler in a way that made him more frightening," Rabbi Telushkin said of the rough cut he watched with his wife. Sussman had produced Telushkin’s screenplay for the "The Quarrel," based on a story by Chaim Grade.
"Hitler" was especially good at showing how the megalomaniacal leader preyed on Germans’ fears and resentments after their bruising World War I defeat, Rabbi Telushkin said.
"Basically, all of us have seen Hitler only in documentaries, as a screaming maniacal person," said Telushkin. "How the hell did Germans vote for that guy?"
That’s the question Sussman and Moonves say "Hitler" sets out to answer, with Sussman suggesting that the film is in part an indictment of the German people who allowed Hitler to rule, and others who stood by.
He and Moonves rejected the notion that their film might stir anti-Jewish feelings at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise.
Rabbi Telushkin concurred. "I did not watch the film and think, ‘Oh my God, anti-Semites are going to want to distribute this film," said the rabbi, who with Dennis Prager authored "Why the Jews? The Reasons for Antisemitism" (Simon and Schuster, 1983).
Critics feared the project would create sympathy for one of history’s greatest villains, glorify him or even trivialize him.
"To put it crudely: Who cares if [Hitler] was a bed-wetter or not?" Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said. "That’s not going to contribute to an understanding of history."
After seeing a trailer for "Hitler," Foxman said he was reserving judgment. "If it lives up to the promo, fine."
Sussman said he was especially sensitive to critics who worried that the docudrama would tell only half the story.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, was especially dismayed by plans to end the film’s action in 1934, just one year after Hitler assumed power.
"Don’t tell me that this is an educational film, when you stop mid-track," Rabbi Hier said in an interview. "The story of Hitler ends in Auschwitz, not in 1934."
Urged by Rabbi Hier to include a more significant treatment of Hitler’s Final Solution, Sussman said he added a "postscript with visual footage" describing the sequence of events from Hitler’s taking power until his reported suicide in 1945.
"It’s a mini history lesson," Sussman said. Moonves suggested that CBS could continue the story in a second miniseries, which he said could air as early as next year.
The network is turning to TV history in promoting "Hitler." Promotional materials cite the 1978 NBC miniseries "Holocaust" as an indication of how a broadcast can stir Holocaust awareness.
NBC reportedly estimated that by the time the film was rebroadcast two years later, 220 million people had seen it in the United States, Europe and significantly in West Germany, where the film had a profound effect on the German public’s consciousness of their own history.
At the time, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel criticized what was touted as a "major television event" ó as "untrue, offensive, cheap."
Wiesel, who is a Holocaust survivor, reportedly wrote to Moonves last year with concerns about "Hitler," which is similarly being promoted as "the miniseries event of the year."
Moonves said he had delayed responding to Wiesel and other Jewish leaders until filming was finished. Only Monday did Moonves reach Wiesel by phone, offering him a chance to view an early cut of "Hitler."
"Like everyone else we spoke to, his opinion is of great importance to us," Moonves said. (Wiesel did not return several calls seeking comment.)
Moonves’ call came too late to stop Wiesel’s displeasure over the executive’s failure to respond to his letter, which was registered in the April 12 issue of TV Guide and reprinted in the New York Post.
As to Gernon’s quotes, which were also repeated in the Post, Sussman said that drawing contemporary parallels to 1930s Germany is way off base.
"The motivation, timing, and manner in which we tell the story is not at all motivated or inspired" by evil doers like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, Sussman said, adding, "Certainly not George Bush."
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