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We were shocked when we were doing research for [the television miniseries] Nuremberg by the level of disbelief out there that the Holocaust even happened, by the level of dispute over the degree of its impact. -- Film producer Peter Sussman


Toronto Globe and Mail

Toronto, July 27, 2002

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HitlerThe Führer on screen


CBS wants you to watch its miniseries on Adolf Hitler's formative years. The BBC is planning a drama on Hitler's time as a struggling painter. GAYLE MacDONALD surveys the outcry over these and similar projects and asks whether trying to understand the man is a fool's errand or a brave artistic journey

THE head of CBS, Les Moonves, is a charismatic, always-in-control kind of guy.

So when he took to the stage a few weeks ago at a Television Critics Association event in sunny Pasadena, Calif., to unveil the Tiffany network's fall schedule, he was his usual upbeat, supremely confident self.

Moonves talked about CBS's plans to target the all-important TV demographic of 17-to-34-year-olds. He chatted about how he was sure that two high-profile acquisitions, a Victoria's Secret annual fall fashion show, and a Canadian-produced miniseries on the young Adolf Hitler -- specifically focusing on the monster-in-making's formative years from his late teens to mid-30s -- would both be ratings smashes.

But then the unexpected happened. The Hitler announcement stopped everyone in their tracks. The room got chilly. Some in the media mob began to bray that CBS had gone too far.

Hitler as a prime-time leading man? It was beyond comprehension. One TV critic said any attempt to fictionalize the Führer would be vulgar, exploitative, and would glamorize the German dictator. Another asked the network president: Who in his right mind would want to advertise during such a show?

Moonves, taken aback, scrambled to defuse the situation. He assured the crowd that his network was taking a "studied" approach to this "fascinating" character. He promised that the contentious miniseries, based on a bestselling book by the respected British historian [Sir] Ian Kershaw, would be handled responsibly.

Given the number of dramas and documentaries that have been churned out on the Holocaust and Third Reich, Moonves was surprised at the controversy. "We know how the story ends, but we don't know how the story begins," a somewhat subdued Moonves told reporters. "It's a very timely subject -- how bad guys get into power."

Hitler himself is reported to have said (on learning of an early investigation into his murky origins): "These people must not know where I come from. Nobody must know who I am."

Yet, since his death, a legion of scholars has tried to navigate this heart of darkness. The interest has never been keener than now, the dilemma more pronounced. After more than 50 years, the Hitler problem remains: How do you express the inexpressible? Given the famous observation of Theodore Adorno that "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz," how do you render the man in art? Why, given the inevitable controversy that follows, would anyone try?

The short answer is that evil (like sex) sells. But the long answer is that some people maintain the best way to understand or grasp the maleficence of the Third Reich, and to prevent any similar nightmares, is to study it in the cold, clear light of cultural expression.

These days, CBS isn't the only network or studio willing to risk public wrath by bringing the under-30 Hitler to a contemporary audience. A few weeks ago, New York Daily News art critic Eric Mink dryly accused Hollywood of "playing the Nazi card." That may be putting it too crudely, but still, there are a number of Hitler-as-young-man-about-town productions in the works.

CBS is rumoured to be courting Scottish-born Ewan McGregor -- better known as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the recent Star Wars movies -- to play Hitler. Across the pond, the BBC is planning a new drama about Hitler's days as a struggling painter in Vienna. The television gossip sheets have suggested both the cleaned-up Robert Downey Jr. (Oscar-nominated for Chaplin in 1992) and Glasgow's Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) may be contenders to play the lead role.

As well, an independent feature film called Max will focus on Hitler's days as a starving artist, with Noah Taylor (Vanilla Sky and Shine) as the despot-in-training, and John Cusack playing the Jewish art dealer Max Hoffman, who befriends him.

In a thematically related, similarly controversial project, Jodie Foster plans to star in a film about German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who was Hitler's favourite propagandist, responsible for Triumph of the Will, the infamous 1934 documentary of the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.

Given the activity, it's not surprising there's growing concern about Hollywood's latest discovery, the young Hitler. Recently, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd weighed in:

"If there's one thing Hollywood executives understand, it's megalomania. And if there is one audience they crave more than any other, it's teenagers and young adults. So why not show the teenage Hitler dreaming of his super race?"

Or, in the words of Toronto history professor Irving Abella, "You take on a project like this at great risk."

Such reservations about any attempt to dramatize Hitler rankle Peter Sussman, executive producer of the CBS miniseries, and a senior executive with Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis (which is producing the four-hour, $20-million U.S. film for the American network).

Sussman, who is Jewish and has close ties to victims of the Holocaust, readily empathizes with people who squirm or are angered by the subject matter. Still, he feels it's a worthwhile endeavour because Hitler's rise to power occurred in the real world, and could, conceivably, happen again.

"I'm completely sympathetic to people who are repulsed," says Sussman, who lives in Los Angeles. "It's an extremely emotional subject matter. But I don't think programs like ours glorify Hitler or the Third Reich at all. I have the greatest respect for documentary filmmaking and I agree there's nothing more accurate than real footage. But frankly, too much of the world doesn't watch documentaries or read learned books on Hitler.

"The benefit of dramatizing Hitler is that 25 million people will probably be exposed to our film on CBS alone. That's a fantastic opportunity to get out there and educate."

Moonves and Sussman say their movie will stay true to Kershaw's highly-regarded tome, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris. The idea for the miniseries came out of a brainstorming session, Sussman adds. "We were all sitting around, and somebody said, 'Wait a second. Every film has been made about the results of the actions that flowed from this asshole. Hundreds of films have flowed from the results of Nazism and the Holocaust. But no one has done the guy himself. The centre of the entire problem.'"

Sussman is convinced the Hitler series -- like a previous ratings champion that Alliance Atlantis produced for TNT called Nuremberg, a miniseries on the war crimes trial starring Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox -- will be a hit with both audiences and advertisers.

"We were shocked when we were doing research for Nuremberg by the level of disbelief out there that the Holocaust even happened, by the level of dispute over the degree of its impact. Those ideas might not come out of the centre of Manhattan or the heart of Los Angeles, but they do exist in regional parts of the country. This film is a great opportunity to expose those people to what really happened."

Abella, who teaches at York University and is the Schiff chair of Canadian Jewish history, says that's bunk. He fears any attempt to depict Hitler's formative years could humanize him and make him a cult antihero.

"By broadcasting a drama series it gives him a degree of normalcy that might detract from the enormity of his crimes. Hitler has been the subject of almost as many biographies as Napoleon, so there's not much new that can be said about him. I don't think their attempt is to come up with something new. Their attempt is to introduce him to an audience that don't know him. A new generation of viewers. Hitler to a younger generation is no different than Genghis Khan. By introducing him through a new, younger look, it could make him a sympathetic character," warns the professor.

"By the end of four hours, you might not believe he could be guilty of what he did. This is the man who invented the mechanization of murder. That was his genius. I don't think anything short of a Hannibal Lecter portrayal would be an accurate one. And I don't think CBS or Jodie Foster intend to do that."

Abella is right on that count. Sussman says Hitler will be portrayed exactly as he was in Kershaw's book, which basically means as a man who possesses a multitude of character warts but is not obliterated by them. "We've secured the rights to what the world regards as one of the most respected books on the material, written by the most respected historian on the subject," says Sussman. "We talk to Ian every day, and he'll be blessing and signing off on this script. If you read Kershaw's book, Hitler is not Hannibal Lecter by any means."

Over the years, turning the Third Reich into art has often been tricky, if not treacherous. Earlier this year, New York's Jewish Museum got into hot water with an exhibition called Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art that pushed the limits of irony, interpretation and taste. The show, which closed last month, included a Lego Concentration Camp set and kittens with swastikas.

Visual-arts critics, for the most part, howled with outrage. This week, The Wall Street Journal wrote a scathing review of another new art show, Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna, 1906-1913. In that article, the writer tore a strip off the Williams College Museum of Art for portraying Hitler, first and foremost, as an aesthete, and defining facism as a kind of art movement, "hell-bent to beautify Europe with awesome architecture, uplifting art and buff blondes."

Over the years, practically the only way audiences could stomach the Führer and his henchmen was if they were laughing at them. And by doing so, diminishing them. We've had Hitler and Eva Braun having a gay romp in Mel Brooks's 1968 movie, The Producers. We've had John Cleese as Mr. Hilter, getting a phone call from his buddy Mr. McGoering. We've run roughshod over the bumbling Colonel Klink and his stupid sergeant Schultz in Hogan's Heroes. And we've had Charlie Chaplin goosestep across the screen as Adolf the pathetic megalomaniac in the classic 1940 satire The Great Dictator.

There have been many fine historical portrayals of Hitler and his compatriots on TV and in feature film, such as Alec Guinness's harrowing performance in the 1973 movie, Hitler: The Last Ten Days, or Anthony Hopkins in 1981's The Bunker. Two years ago, British actor Brian Cox took home an Emmy and a Gemini for his sinister but seductive portrayal of Hitler's right-hand man Hermann Goering in the miniseries Nuremberg.

And therein lies the paradox (and danger), some critics say, of fictionalizing the regime. Cox's portrayal was so successful he donned a tuxedo and won awards. The producers at Alliance Atlantis wanted a dramatically interesting show, but not a sympathetic protagonist.

What was the end result? Again, that's open to interpretation. After Nuremberg was broadcast, The Wall Street Journal ran a review which concluded that if the makers of the film intended to educate viewers on the evils of Nazi Germany, they failed because Cox was such an appealing character.

Sussman disagreed, and called the writer to say so. "Goering, as bad a guy as he was," Sussman insists, "was really smart, a terrific leader, a bon vivant kind of guy. And Brian did it beautifully. The worst kind of evil is the evil we don't see in front of us.

"How many reports have you read on the al-Qaeda guy who lives in the same apartment block with countless others, who all came out later saying, 'Oh, they were lovely guys! I'm shocked they did this!' The whole point is Hitler did not come out of his mommy's tummy saying, 'I'm Evil.' It is a useful reminder to the world, especially to people who don't read books or watch documentaries, to make a film that shows people how evil can manifest itself. Sneak up on you." analyst Marc Berman shares Abella's concerns about casting Hitler -- the teen, the artist, the soldier, the political activist -- as the lead in movies or miniseries. It's the kind of subject matter, Berman insists, that is better suited to cable, like HBO or Showtime, where the content can be more unrepentant and severe. As an example, he points to HBO's Conspiracy, a dramatization last year of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where 15 top Nazi officials (Kenneth Branagh played SS General Reinhard Heydrich with chilling efficiency) chowed down on an opulent buffet and sipped Beaujolais while they matter-of-factly planned the Final Solution to eliminate Jews.

"If you're going to tell it well and correctly, you're asking a lot of the advertiser," Berman said to journalists shortly after Moonves's press conference in California. "It's not the family-friendly content that everybody's pushing these days. I don't know if people want to sit through four hours of Hitler."

Abella agrees. "Of course the best portrayal, and the only one I'd recommend, is Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator,"says the history teacher. "First of all, he's actually not Hitler, he's a caricature. And second, Chaplin made Hitler a bumbling, pathetic fool. The subject of derision that he deserved to be before 1940."

Website note: Abraham Foxman, wealthy and controversial chief of the Anti Defamation league, likes to refer to himself as a "Holocaust survivor." As a biography on this website shows, he was not even born when Hitler invaded his native Poland, and he was looked after by Polish Catholics throughout the war; his parents also "survived".

It did not take Abraham Foxman, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, long to step into the fray. "These are documentaries and films about Hitler the man, Hitler the lover, Hitler the young person," Foxman has said recently. "I find that trivializing and offensive -- and we find it very distressing that people would spend talent, time and money to make this man human."

Dowd said more of the same. "This is Hitler in The Young and the Racist. It's different and it's more distasteful," the columnist insisted, adding she doesn't need to see "a brooding teenage Hitler painting away in a garret, listening to Wagner (the Eminem of his age), or accumulating disappointments and rejections as raw material for Mein Kampf."

For his part, Sussman is sticking to his guns that Hitler, the miniseries, will do the public some good. He believes there's an awful lot of people -- especially under-30s -- who get entry-level history through TV.

Dr. William Shulman, president of the Association of Holocaust Organizations [ASSHO] in Queens, N.Y., is willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt. "If they're following Kershaw, which is absolutely wonderful, then I have no problem with it at all. If it's true to the facts of that book, then I think it will be a service."

Sussman admits he and his partners at CBS are nervous about attempting to examine one of history's most hated men, but in this age of megalomaniacal terrorism, feels it is all the more relevant and important. Shooting begins next fall in Eastern Europe and Germany. The cast has not yet been picked, but Sussman is convinced actors will line up to play this juicy role. It will air on CBS sometime next year.

"The ratings will be huge. Our script is really good," says Sussman. "It's a riveting, marketable and compelling story. I don't know of anyone else who has had more impact on the 20th century than Adolf Hitler. I think people will find it fascinating to understand where this guy came from, and how he got there."

Abella, on the other hand, believes no sane person would touch this role with a 10-foot pole. And he says the timing could not be worse. "This is a moment in time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, when Holocaust denial is being disseminated far and wide, and Jews have become a target. This is precisely the wrong time for a new look at Adolf Hitler."

Who is right? Stay tuned to CBS, the BBC and other networks. And chances are that next year you'll be the judge of whether Hitler, as the American author Ron Rosenbaum once put it, "is granted the posthumous victory of the last laugh."

The reel Hitler

For decades, filmmakers have avoided documenting or attempting to dramatize the early years of Adolf Hitler, believing the subject too much of a turn-off for viewers. A safer route was to focus, in film and TV movies, on his rise to power and the Holocaust, which claimed millions of lives.

To date, the most memorable -- and palatable -- depictions of Hitler appeared through the lens of satire. Here are some of the finer moments to hit the big and small screen.

It was a small man with a little mustache named Charles Chaplin who launched the satirical ship in October, 1940, with The Great Dictator. This at a time when still-neutral America was deciding whether to assist those at war with Hitler. The Great Dictator was the final appearance of Chaplin's Tramp character. Chaplin said later if he had known of the true horrors of the Nazis, he could not have portrayed the character with the same comedic enthusiasm. This year the Berlin Film Festival ended with Chaplin's film.

Mel Brooks's contribution was his Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1968 movie The Producers, which included such unforgettable lines as "Don't be stupid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi party." It tells the story of two men who set up a money-making scam to produce a sure-fire flop musical called Springtime for Hitler. But when the show hits Broadway, it becomes a huge hit. Of course, The Producers is currently a smash on Broadway.

In Monty Python, John Cleese plays Mr. Hilter, who is running as the National Socialist candidate in the North Minehead by-election in Somerset. The cornerstone of Hilter's platform? He wants to annex Poland. At one point during the sketch, the phone rings. It's that nice Mr. McGoering from the Bell and Compasses. He says he's found a place where you can hire bombers by the hour.

Hitler has made cameo appearances in many episodes of The Simpsons. In one, Bart is making collect calls to locales all over the world. The scene opens with a phone ringing in a car. Adolf Hitler walks up to the vehicle, muttering. As he reaches the car, the phone stops ringing. Hitler curses the phone, saying, "Ach, das facken phone ist ein . . . nuisance phone!" A man then rides past Hitler on a bicycle, greeting him with a wave and a cheerful, "Buenos noches, mein Führer."


Related items on this website:

  Hitler index
  Swastikas for Sweeps
  Hitler' Saga Has All Eyes on CBS
  Hitler's artwork and influence on display at US College
  Dutch outrage at statue of kneeling Adolf Hitler
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