There were nights, CBS Television president and CEO Leslie Moonves remembered, “when I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling and asking myself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Will it open old wounds? Are we creating more anti-Semitism?'”
Moonves had good cause for sleepless introspection. Since announcing last July that CBS would air a prime-time four-hour miniseries on the early life of Adolf Hitler, media critics and Jewish spokesmen have had a field day.
They feared that the early Hitler would be “humanized” into a sympathetic figure as an abused child and misunderstood artist or as a German Rocky who overcame tremendous odds, and even that the film might trigger pogrom-like outbursts. Moonves, much of whose grandparents’ family in Poland perished in the Holocaust, even took flak from his own relatives.
Now, with “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” broadcasting Sunday, May 18 and Tuesday, May 20 at 9 p.m. during the ratings sweeps period, the CBS chief is breathing easier.
After previewing tapes of the film, a half-dozen Holocaust scholars and prominent rabbis have generally given it thumbs up, with most appraisals ranging from the positive to the enthusiastic.
Some of the turnaround can be credited to an entirely new script and complete revision of the original project, starting with the metamorphosis of the title from (a “misspoken”) “Young Hitler” to “Hitler: The Early Years,” “Hitler,” “Hitler: The Origin of Evil” and finally to the present title.
The earlier critical volleys and advice from Jewish leaders consulted by the producers apparently gave a substantial push to the fundamental revisions.
In its final form, the film briefly touches on young Hitler’s brutal and domineering father, his troubled adolescence, his rootless existence in Vienna as a failed artist and his enthusiastic soldiering in World War I.
But the bulk of the film deals with Hitler’s career from a Munich beerhall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his own hands.
In stark statistics and pictures, an epilogue summarizes the utter devastation wrought by the Führer on Europe and the Jewish people.
“I think any fears in the Jewish community that the film would glorify Hitler have been allayed,” said noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. “It successfully narrates Hitler’s rise to power and shows clearly how those who tried to manipulate him were instead manipulated by him.
“Historians may have some trouble with interpretation, as they always do, and with some composite figures, but, in general, the film deals well with a part of Hitler’s life that people need to know,” said Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Study of Ethics and the Holocaust at the University of Judaism.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, warmly applauded the film.
“It delivers a very powerful message, especially to young people, how many times Hitler could have been stopped in the early years, how potent evil is and how fragile democracy is,” he said.
A similar theme was emphasized by Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who counts the Moonves family among his congregants. Fields, who had voiced strong objections to the initial script, noted that the final film “raises significant lessons for us today about the dangers to democracy of political and religious fanaticism, from whatever source.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, praised the film and acknowledged that his earlier fears about the project had been unjustified. However, he would have liked to have seen the presence of a more substantial Jewish character and strongly urged a sequel which would take the Hitler story to its end in 1945.
“There are now youngsters who know nothing about World War II and the Holocaust, who didn’t see ‘Schindler’s List,’ and who need to know,” Hier said.
Rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin, an early adviser on the project, described the film as “very powerful, which gives dimension to Hitler but does not soften him. In no way does it downplay the depth of his anti-Semitism.”
All of the cited experts gave much of the credit for the effectiveness of the film to Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, whose portrayal of Hitler, Foxman said, is “frighteningly brilliant.”
One dissenting view came from philosophy professor John K. Roth, director of the newly formed Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College. While acknowledging the complexity of the subject and the overall usefulness of the film, Roth felt that Hitler, perhaps to avoid any sympathy for him, came across as “too histrionic and crazed, and insufficiently nuanced and ambiguous.”
The danger in such a portrayal is that “it plays into the stereotype of Hitler as a crazy man and that viewers will say ‘I now understand who he was.’ It might be better to live with some ambiguity and to admit that we don’t really understand Hitler.”
Elie Wiesel, who has long been disenchanted with “dramatic” interpretations of the Holocaust and the Hitler era, had a lengthy critical exchange with Moonves. Wiesel viewed the tape quite recently but could not be reached for his evaluation.
Two aspects of Hitler that the film does not explain, and which, indeed, may be beyond explanation, are his charisma and almost hypnotic effect on his followers, especially women, and what triggered his murderous hatred of Jews.
On the first point, Berenbaum cites an exemplar, if not an understanding, of Hitler’s magnetism, by quoting from the autobiography of Albert Speer, an urbane and sophisticated architect and later Hitler’s armaments minister.
Out of curiosity, Speer went to hear Hitler speak in 1930 and, on the way, saw some posters of the Führer, which Speer viewed as Chaplinesque caricatures.
But, Speer wrote, “Three hours later [after hearing Hitler speak] I left the beer garden a changed person. I saw the same posters … but I looked at them with different eyes. A blown-up picture of Adolf Hitler in a martial pose, which I had regarded with a touch of amusement on the way in, had suddenly lost all its ridiculousness.”
The roots and launching point of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism continue to baffle the experts. Theories abound — a brighter Jewish classmate in school, a Jewish doctor who performed a mastectomy on Hitler’s beloved mother, the poisonous anti-Semitism of Vienna, or simply the oratorical success of his anti-Jewish tirades — but a definitive answer may never be found.
Almost as interesting as the miniseries itself is the exemplar of “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” on the vagaries of filmmaking, especially when the subject retains its hold on the sensitivities and unhealed wounds of millions.
The project was first presented to Moonves about 18 months ago by Peter Sussman, CEO of the Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis Entertainment Group.
“The Nazi era and the Holocaust have generally been dramatized from the perspective of the victim,” Sussman said. “We thought it would be interesting to approach that evil and horror in another way.”
Moonves greenlighted the project, with CBS putting up around 60 percent of the $20 million plus price tag. “In remembering the Holocaust, as we always must, I thought it important to find out what steps led up to the making of this monster [Hitler]. Not to pay any attention to that would be like sticking our head in the sand,” Moonves said.
The first script, by G. Ross Parker, was, by now-general agreement, pretty much a bust.
“It was a really simplistic treatment,” Fields said, “with different kinds of psychological interpretations and with little feel for the context and climate of the time.”
A new writer, John Pielmeier, was brought in and shooting started in early January in Prague.
Then in early April, with the film almost completed, a mini-disaster struck.
In an interview, co-executive producer Ed Gernon, a key player, pointing to the timeliness of the film, seemed to draw an analogy between the Germans’ fear and acquiescence that led to Hitler’s dictatorship with similar emotions among the American people in the run-up to the war in Iraq.
The interview was published at the height of the war and denounced, among others, by the New York Post, which claimed that Gernon had equated President Bush with Hitler.
Alliance Atlantis and CBS called Gernon’s remarks “insensitive and outright wrong” and fired him instantly. Sussman declined to discuss the incident.
During the broadcast of the film, there will be a number of public service announcements on tolerance, with guidance from the Anti- Defamation League, and CBS said it will make donations to one or more Holocaust education funds. Moonves stated that solicitation of advertisers was proceeding normally. A comprehensive study guide for high school teachers and students has been developed as a companion piece to the film.
Plans also call for the film to be sold across the world, “certainly in Europe and Israel,” Sussman said, and will be available in video and DVD format.
As for all the preceding controversy, Moonves remains unfazed.
“All of that should help the ratings,” he said hopefully. “I think the public will be curious.”
For more information, visit www.cbs.com/specials/rise_of_evil .