Posted Monday, August 26, 2002

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The producers and CBS fail to understand ... the impact this will have on the haters in America, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. -- Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood


Monday, August 26, 2002




'Hitler' Saga Has All Eyes on CBS

CBS's plans for a miniseries about the life of Adolf Hitler has some circles concerned about the potential handling of this historically explosive subject.

ANYONE watching Sunday's trashy and worthless CBS movie, "The Biographer: The Secret Life of Princess Di," will understand concern in some circles about the same network's plans for an Adolf Hitler miniseries in 2003.

What neo-Nazi Danny Balint erroneously said in Henry Bean's "The Believer" about Jew -- "It's the only word that never loses its meaning" -- applies instead to Hitler, a name synonymous with genocide and other crimes as incomprehensible as the logic behind them.

David Irving comments (Monday, August 26, 2002):

IN NOTE that reviewer Howard Rosenberg in The Los Angeles Times blasts CBS for preparing a mini-series on Hitler, but has not yet actually seen the series. And savor this passage by Rosenberg: "Can any commercial network, in fact, be trusted to tell with care the childhood-to-adulthood story of modern history's greatest monster (edging out Stalin)? And most importantly, can it be done without making him a recruiting poster for anti-Semites and other bigots?"


In Athens, Georgia, a few days ago, going through the papers of Gauleiter Joseph Schmidt (who jumped from a train to kill himself in 1941), I found this early class photo of Hitler taken at the Linz Realschule in 1900-1.

A Hitler biography, charting his rise to absolute rule from youth and obscurity, in the hands of (gulp) greedy CBS? Won't CBS trivialize his panoramic evil by giving him the tabloid Princess Di treatment?

Can any commercial network, in fact, be trusted to tell with care the childhood-to-adulthood story of modern history's greatest monster (edging out Stalin)? And most importantly, can it be done without making him a recruiting poster for anti-Semites and other bigots?

We'll know that only when "Hitler" is aired.

Mainstream TV has a bulging, mixed-quality archive of Jewish Holocaust stories, and the airwaves have heel marks from years of goose-stepping Nazis. The in-progress script for this CBS two-parter, though, is drawn from British historian Ian Kershaw's book, "Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris," that earned excellent notices when it was published in 1999. One reviewer called it a "painstakingly scholarly attempt to explain what may never be fully explained."

Stories with ambiguity are rarely on commercial TV's radar. Closure and tidy endings are beloved. So for the moment, CBS gets credit for boldness in tackling the kind of potentially risky material more apt to be found on pay-cable's HBO and Showtime but which timid commercial networks are routinely chastised for avoiding.

When one does break the mold, and then gets scorned for doing so, that amounts to relegating commercial networks to their demons and ordering them to conduct business as usual.

The demons generally prevail, and may again now. Perhaps CBS has no ambition for "Hitler" beyond serving it up as a titillating come-on in a ratings sweeps period. On the other hand, perhaps CBS will surprise the skeptics and come through gloriously.

In any case, Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood told The Times recently that the producers and CBS "fail to understand ... the impact this will have on the haters in America, as well as in Europe and the Middle East."

The fear is that "Hitler," however it turns out, will swell anti-Semite rolls at a time when anger toward Jews is said to be on the rise -- a propaganda concern also advanced by some critics of "The Believer" well before it aired on Showtime.

Based on a real character, that film's confused 22-year-old protagonist defied common wisdom about neo-Nazis. He was a violent racist and anti-Semite, all right. Yet beyond that familiar skinhead profile, he was also secretly a Jew (who had received devout religious training as a child), as well as highly intelligent, articulate and charismatic. His brain and agile tongue made him the most dangerous of extremists. You could see also, however, that he was twisted.

As was the crowd in HBO's factual "Conspiracy," where Kenneth Branagh's sinister, murderous arch-criminal SS Gen. Heydrich was charming, witty and glib, the ideal host for a dinner party while presiding instead over Nazi functionaries whose chatty ordinariness belied their agenda. They had gathered on this wintry day in 1942 -- dining on an exquisite buffet lunch served with wine by butlers in a fine old house -- to secretly codify Hitler's "final solution" for Jews.

Society's worst heavies are rarely as one-dimensional as we wish them to be, and it's wiser to acknowledge and understand their complexities than to ignore them. For all we know, some of the worst offenders in today's stock market scandals may have led stellar, charitable lives on the home front, only to suspend those values when they arrived at the office. Just as serial murderer John Wayne Gacy was an admired, solid citizen who liked kids so much that he performed as a clown for young hospital patients when he wasn't brutalizing his adult victims.

Nowhere on TV are such internal conflicts more visible than in several of cable's fictional crime series.

  • Vic Mackey, the main man of FX's "The Shield," is an easily moved softy at times. He's also a dirty cop and murderer.
  • Critics of HBO's "The Sopranos" accuse it of glorifying gangsterdom by tapping the humanity in its criminal characters.
  • Mafia boss Tony Soprano is a killer, but also a devoted father who once waxed another mobster while touring college campuses with his teenage daughter. His wife, Carmela, at once endorses old-fashioned family values and, tacitly, Tony's line of work that keeps the family in riches.

Instead of glamour, however, overlapping and clashing realities give the show's characters all the more credibility.

As they do in the "The Wire," David Simon's series about wire-tapping Baltimore police and violent drug dealers winding up its first extraordinary season of Sunday nights on HBO.

It's a tossup, at times, which side of the law is more corrupt, as lines between good and evil blur in turbulent parallel universes where cops and drug lords bloody themselves in turf wars. The genius here centers on Simon's ability to somehow create sympathy for some of these "Yo" boys selling smack in the projects while not softening damage from the crimes they commit in this rarely observed subculture.

Simon walks a high wire here, just as CBS will in its miniseries that, best-case scenario, will make us smarter about Hitler's relationship with the German people and the conditions that lifted him to power after he had failed at nearly everything. Instead of something to fear, "Hitler" may turn out to be something to admire.

Knowledge is another word that never loses its meaning.


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