Hitler: The Rise Of Evil
Hitler: The Rise of Evil is a Canadian television miniseries in two parts, directed by Christian Duguay and produced by Alliance Atlantis. It stars Robert Carlyle in the lead role and explores Adolf Hitler's rise and his early consolidation of power during the years after the First World War and focuses on how the embittered, politically fragmented and economically buffeted state of German society following the war made that ascent possible. The film also focuses on Ernst Hanfstaengl's influence on Hitler's rise to power. The miniseries, which premiered simultaneously in May 2003 on CBC in Canada and CBS in the United States, received two Emmy Awards, for Art Direction and Sound Editing, while Peter O'Toole was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Hitler: The Rise of Evil
Executive producer Ed Gernon was fired for comparing the climate of fear that led to the rise of Hitler's Nazism to U.S. President George W. Bush's war on terrorism. CBS was prompted to act by a New York Post article that claimed Gernon's comment as an indicator of anti-Americanism in Hollywood.
Arguably, the biggest challenge of any biographical effort about Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) is the negotiation of the huge cultural and ideological baggage associated with the infamous German leader. Indeed, no other historical figure is surrounded by such an aura of pure evilness, that it truly reaches mythical proportions.
In addition, to question such an extreme moral posture is often considered taboo by society at large, and as a consequence, Hitler is rarely presented in popular media as a regular human being. That is, even though most historians and academics would agree that Nazism was the clear product of powerful and ancestral social and cultural forces, the image of Hitler as evil incarnated is immovable. Thus, it should not be surprising that Hitler: The Rise of Evil is a lavish TV mini series that relies on historical inaccuracies to further demonize Hitler.
However, it is important to note that, by wrongly reducing history to an issue of moral duality between good and evil, all the social, cultural, and ideological complexities that led to the rise of Nazism in Germany are completely ignored in favor of the persona of Hitler. And still, even though scholastic history books are allowed to do so, any attempt by the popular media to reevaluate the historical position of Hitler, avoiding the moral demonization of his character, is likely to find controversy and a strong opposition.
Quite the contrary, Hitler was well known for his devotion to his dogs. However, these opening scenes are shot in such a way that they present the young Hitler as an evil entity of uncanny nature, who appears to use some kind of supernatural powers to kill his own father. For a moment here, one is no longer sure if Hitler: The Rise of Evil is a biographical flick, or merely another entry in The Omen franchise.
Only in his wildest speculation could Nietzsche have foreseen the uses and abuses to which history would be put in its age of technical reproducibility, and Marx could scarcely have imagined the farce-potential formed by the convergence of history and television. Were that they were here with us to witness the culture industry's latest self-aggrandizing attempt to Say Something Important. They could have made plenty of hay of Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Farcical indeed (even if unintentionally so) and abusive in any number of ways, the two-part series also offers plenty of fuel for the effort to continue Karl's musings on base/superstructure and re-hash Friedrich's principle of eternal recurrence. The Hitler Story We have known at least since The Great Dictator that one can use Hitler to make a hit, and the Fuehrer's allure (before, during, and after the Third Reich) has been grappled with through the years by such able practitioners of pen- and/or camera craft as Brecht, Tabori, Syberberg, Delillo, and Mel Brooks, to name but a few. Whether comic or deadpan, creative works have as often sidestepped the psychological-realist pretense of traditional historical fiction when it comes to this particular man as they have tried to explain who Hitler was. Ironically, charting the chilling labyrinth of Hitler's psyche has been a task largely left to historians (of all kinds), and since no one actually reads the academic stuff, the History Channel (which my grad school roommate dubbed The Hitler Channel) has provided society at large a convenient and compelling thumbnail that I will call The Hitler Story. It goes like this: Hitler was a nasty and hateful guy, and he especially hated the Jews. He was crazy, but he was also a genius. He had the power to mesmerize people, and he used his evil gifts to line up an entire nation in lock-step behind him and march them into destruction. Anyone who resisted his charismatic pull was run out of the country, tossed in jail, or shot on the spot. That's about it. CBS allotted Alliance and Duguay four hours of air to tell their tale. The series's Web site flaunts its scholar-consultants and claims the film focuses "closely on how the embittered, politically fragmented and economically buffeted German society after World War I made that ascent possible." But what do they really make of their chance to challenge and enlighten the sweeps-week audience? Did they add something new to The Hitler Story, or is their "television event of the season!" just more of the same? Night 1 Segment 1: Strength, Determination, Purity, and a Naked Blonde Fasten your seatbelts. It's time to go from Linz, 1899, to the Western Front, 1918, in seventeen minutes. Before the opening credits even conclude, we've seen young "Adi" beaten by his father (who cites Parsifal as the embodiment of the above-mentioned virtues) and doted on by Mutti Clara (Stockard Channing). Even as a boy, Hitler has that look in his eye (Duguay is liberal with his close-ups right from the outset), and the score's generous helpings of creepy, low-register strings (Normand Corbeil) prod us into visceral acknowledgment of the presence of evil. One telling scene begins with an extreme close-up of young Adolf's fork as it pierces the skin of that classic German phallic symbol, a sausage. The next thing we know, papa is collapsing in his death throes as a steely Adi turns back to his plate rather than help. Nothing if not determined, a juvenile Hitler castigates his breast-cancer-stricken mother for doing "anything to ruin my career." He makes it to the art academy nonetheless, but as we see (in full view--good way to stop the accidental viewer from changing channels), Hitler folds in the face of the figure-drawing model's blond-braided, bare glory. Life is hard for a budding artist with minimal talent, a castrating father, and a smothering mother, it would appear. (It is Vienna, after all, so the writers take the opportunity to play Freud.) Already penniless, Hitler is told by his teacher that the people in his paintings "have no life to them." (Get it? He's a sociopath.) His existential dilemma and economic plight make his mind fertile ground for anti-Semitic conspiracy theory--he happens along to a Karl Luegar speech in one scene--and he's soon off to Germany, then to the trenches to fight for his people. During the war we "learn" that Hitler is manipulative, cruel (he beats his dog), and obsessively anti-Semitic. Segment 2: Emergency Hitler finally meets a man he can look up to, a certain Captain Roehm (Peter Stormare), who rolls in with a Freikorps detachment as the scene opens to gun down some reds and restore German order and pride. (The score in this sequence is disturbingly heroic.) Hired as an informant by the army after the Bavarian Soviet is bloodily dispatched, Hitler informs a superior officer that the Jews should and (crucially) could be got rid of. Duguay frames Carlyle's face tightly and shoots him from below as he poses the ominous question, "Can you imagine a world without them?" Again, the strings are there to underscore the point. In the next shot, Roehm looks on with interest, and Hitler has begun to catch others' interest as well. The crowds for his beer-hall speeches are growing, and journalist Fritz Gerlich (our Good German for the evening, played by Matthew Modine) is in the seats for one particularly fiery session. The TV audience of course knows what the beer-hall audience doesn't, but we are encouraged to sympathize (empathize?) with them as they are swept away by the gifted orator. Duguay reaches into his bag of tricks to take us to that emotional place: he uses a dizzying, ER-style, 360-degree tracking shot to whirl us around Hitler as he delivers a rousing bit about purifying the nation. No shock, then, that nurse Carol Hathaway enters the story in the next sequence. Julianna Margulies plays Helene Hanfstaengl, and she and her husband, Ernst (Liev Schreiber), later introduce Hitler to his first deep pockets. Segment 3: "One Big Political Brawl" More beer-hall bluster, and Duguay starts quoting Riefenstahl here with the occasional low camera angle and nifty bit of mass-leader choreography. We spend some time in Friedrich Hollaender's Tingel-Tangel cabaret (he and Hanfstaengl were school pals), but we get more insight into Blandine Ebinger/Nicole Marischka's bustier than into leftist satire. Hollaender does note that he's going to see Hitler because he "needs new material," and Hanfstaengl, curious, tags along. Hanfstaengl becomes smitten, and the alliance of capitalism and fascism is struck. As Hitler leads the crowd in repeated cheers of "we will triumph," we're treated to another dramatic swoop of the camera. (This one hurtles over the heads of the crowd right into the Fuehrer's face). The next day, Hanfstaengl's piano rendition of Wagner jerks a tear from Adolf, and the businessman explains to the corporal the importance of rich backers. Gerlich is warming up to Hitler as well, or at least finding him a fascinating contributor to the "big political brawl" that should yield Germany a new leader and a new sense of direction. Segment 4: "I Think It's Very Hypnotic" Hitler shows up in his best Lederhosen for a society dinner at the Hanfstaengls. He alienates a baron whose father was Jewish but wins new supporters, among them another captain (Goering, played by Chris Larkin). Hitler takes the warm reception as an opportunity to reveal his new party symbol. With the swastika poster stretched across his midsection, he turns to Frau Hanfstaengl and asks her opinion. She scans the artist's work (but only that? Margulies's eye movements and facial expressions are expertly ambivalent here) and characterizes what she sees as "very hypnotic." It looks like she's an easy mark for Adolf--her dress and shawl mark her pre-existing preference for red and black. More beer-hall oratory follows, and Hitler maneuvers Anton Drexler out of, and himself into, control of the party. It is 1921. Segment 5: Hitler Was a Crumby Guy Remember the post-war German inflation? It has only now come to the writers' minds, and they "teach" us about it by having Hitler snarl something about wheelbarrows not being large enough to haul all the money it takes to buy a loaf of bread. Commissar von Kahr orders Hitler to desist, so Hitler visits the influential Gerlich on Hanfstaengl's advice. Be careful: there are so many people trying to trip Hitler up at this point that you might start to get behind him. Just to make sure you don't, Duguay works in a shot/countershot sequence with Gerlich and Hitler that culminates in an unappetizing close-up of Adolf as he simultaneously spews anti-Semitic vitriol and tea-cake crumbs. He hates the Jews, he spits when he speaks about how he hates them, and he talks with his mouth full. Bad, very bad. But that doesn't stop those Germans from turning out in ever-larger numbers. At segment's end, 8,000 pack the Circus Krone to scream along about racial victory, and Duguays give us the most Triumph-like sequence we have yet seen. Segment 6: Is That a Gun to Your Head or Are You Just Happy to See Me? The Putsch goes down (figuratively, then literally). Hitler has brought Kahr et al. to heel and dreams of an advance on Berlin, but Luedendorff's bumbling (apparently much more than the comparatively minuscule degree of public support) hampers the operation. On the run from the police, Hitler seeks refuge at the Hanfstaengl home. He and Helene have an oddly erotic face-to-face (far from his pocket, his gun is pressed to his temple), and Carlyle's collapse is a touch too pathetic. (Granted, it's hard to play Hitler and not overact). But of course, Hitler is not an honorable guy, so he doesn't take the honorable way out. Having revealed his feelings to Helene in his inimitable way, he is hustled off by the Schupos to stand trial for treason. Segment 7: Trial and Error Unreconstructed nationalists have feelings, too, and Gerlich gets downright distraught after witnessing the eruption of support for Hitler in the very court that should be extinguishing the rabid neophyte's budding political career. "He's not human; he's studied people to appear human," Gerlich tells his wife, Sophie (Patrizia Netzer). Convicted for his role in the putsch, the monster seems (not for the last time, of course) boxed in when he really has everything and everyone just where he wants them. There is a pattern developing here. Hitler's psychological-emotional tentacles of attraction grip most occupants of every social space he enters (the beer-hall, the old money dining room, the court). He brings people under his sway with near-magical aplomb. It's The Hitler Story redux, and it does little to expose the intricacies of aestheticized Nazi politics. Night 2 Segment 1: "Come Closer" Hitler spends time in Landsberg (a Weimar-era version of the country club jail), where he pens Mein Kampf and pines for Helene Hanfstaengl (as we see upon their reunion). But there is a new woman in Hitler's life: Geli (his half-sister's daughter, played by Jena Malone) fits the Aryan ideal to her last golden lock, and the impotence that defined Hitler's encounter with the Germania-like figure model is a distant memory here. "Uncle Dolf" controls Geli's movements obsessively and (as we see in a scene where he orders her to walk increasingly rapid, smaller circles around him) to great libidinal effect. As she pants and pleads, we listen to the strains of Wagner that fill Adolf's head. That's what Hitler finds sexy. Sick, sick, sick. Segment 2: "He's a Monster" The party re-unites under Hitler's forceful hand, Luedendorff is set out on the curb, and Roehm marches off in a huff. These opening segments stress Hitler's (dare I say) degeneracy--bemoaning her stifling life under uncle Dolf's wing, Geli tells their driver, "You have no idea what he [Hitler] asks of me"--but in their favor it can be said that the filmmakers also start to reveal him as a tactician. This is positive because it sheds at least some light on the complicated flow of economic and political capital that the Nazis, led by Hitler, exploited. The narrated time is briefer in night 2, and Duguay seems to take the opportunity to relax in this segment, laying off camera and editing acrobatics in an effort to consider calmly some of the political twists and turns of the republic's stabilization phase. The big loser here is Roehm, who is told by Hitler that "the wheels of history have turned," and left the SA as the collective odd man out. Segment 3: Come to the Cabaret, Old Chum Hanfstaengl senses Hitler and Helene's intensifying mutual interest, and Helene dives into Nazi politics as a hostess/fundraiser. Duguay takes Herr Hanfstaengl back to Hollaender's cabaret, where Hollaender informs his old friend that the cabaret doesn't "serve your kind anymore." The cabaret song (a satire of anti-Semitism) becomes the underlying soundtrack for a montage of Hitler's campaigns in the late 1920s. As electoral success increases, so does Hitler's tyrannical rule over Geli. Gerlich, meanwhile, is chafing under his publisher's ban on Hitler reporting. In the midst of all this, we're shown a 2- to 3-second shot of a front-page story on the 1929 stock market crash. Remember the Depression? Remember Weimar's terminal unemployment crisis? I hope so, because that is all you will see of it here. Geli, stifled under Hitler's thumb, is driven to suicide and Eva Braun steps in to fill the Aryan Maiden role. Segments 4-5: "How Would I Answer to God?" It is February, 1932, and Hitler is finally a German citizen. He has all sorts of relationship problems, though: Geli is gone, Roehm is bristling under Hitler's comparatively diplomatic political strategy, and Hindenburg's distaste for the "Bohemian corporal" (conveyed with just the right amount of grizzle and gruff by Peter O'Toole) is keeping Hitler's hands off the prize. He can neither beat the Generalfeldmarschall in the presidential election nor force his way into the chancellor's chair. He is not helped by Gerlich, now a Vernunftrepublikaner who defies the boss's wishes and starts to scrutinize Hitler in the Muenchener Neueste Nachrichten. Eva is now the main decoration in the Eagle's Nest, and Angela's warnings to Hitler's new girlfriend only produce a confrontation. As the torchlight procession marches past his window singing the "Horst Wessel Lied" on the evening he appoints Hitler chancellor, Hindenburg is left to contemplate what to say when he meets his maker. By this point, the movie as a movie has become a great deal more watchable: Carlyle's Hitler has become more character than caricature, the supporting cast (Schreiber and Stormare in particular) is consistently hitting the right notes, and the Gerlich storyline is threatening to become an engaging examination of politics and media. It doesn't, and indeed the screenplay's untamable voyeuristic and pop-psychoanalytic impulses continue to compromise the film's didactic potential. The silliness of the earlier Angela/Eva standoff sets the stage for another gratuitous, overwrought scene of twisted eroticism that puts Hitler's face in Eva's lap just before he makes the call to arrange the meeting with Papen, which finally sets the Fuehrer on the path to the chancellorship. Segment 6: "Certain Civil Rights Must Be Suspended" Hindenburg's wish to leave his country in capable hands is fulfilled, albeit not in the way he had hoped. According to the Fuehrer, the Generalfeldmarschall is a "stupid old fool" just like Papa Hitler. The brownshirted bloc has held the Reichstag hostage long enough to force the latest castrating father to succumb, and the engineered Reichstag fire gives Hitler his pretext for the Enabling Act. With Hitler's Kroll Opera speech, Duguay gets his chance to show us in one fell swoop how the Nazis picked democracy and civil rights apart in Germany. Camera angles and movement put us back in Riefenstahl territory here, but Duguay allows plenty of grumbling in the assembled parliamentary ranks and intercuts the speech with Gerlich's final editorial meeting at Der Gerade Weg to show us how serious and horrible this historical moment is. Gerlich is put out of commission by Roehm's boot, and Goering leads a stirring rendition of "Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles" to get the unruly representatives on board. When all else fails, give ham-fisted patriotism a try--a maxim with which we are all too familiar these days. Segment 7: "Just outside the Village of Dachau" Our story closes (could it have been otherwise?) with the Holocaust. Hitler brings his gun to bear on Roehm (raised in the moment before he enters Roehm's room, the barrel looks just like the index and middle fingers Hitler extends when orating), and the blood of the Nazis' enemies (including that of Gerlich, now the last Good German standing) flows as Hitler tightens his absolute grip. The Tingel-Tangel is shut down, a