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You Vill Vatch! 

Or, maybe you won’t: Hitler: The Rise of Evil

Thursday, May 15 2003
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Photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS
What’s a Nazi movie without fake German accents? Nothing much, say I. But with German accents, the thicker the better, well, that’s a different story.

Take one of my favorite World War II movies, The Young Lions, starring Marlon Brando as a blond Nazi lieutenant destined to be shot to death by a Jewish New Yorker played by Montgomery Clift. There’s a fantastic scene in the film when, stuck in the North African desert fighting for Rommel, Brando and his commanding officer (Maximilian Schell) flee the Allies on a shared motorcycle. Both men are exhausted to the point of insanity, literally falling asleep at the wheel, and they yammer at each other to stay awake. Any nonsense that enters their heads will do, and it’s the German accents (Brando’s a brilliant fake, Schell’s presumably authentic) that keep the dialogue singing. The scene is both realistic and a little bit over the top, which may be the only effective way to deal with the madness of the Third Reich on celluloid.

Unfortunately, the makers of the forthcoming miniseries “event” Hitler: The Rise of Evil (CBS, May 18 and 20) take a predictably earnest approach to the subject, and avoid the “Ve have vays of making you talk” method of impersonating Nazis onscreen. Given that the film is about the most chilling dictator in history, this is understandable, but it dooms this biopic/history to stylistic stiffness. As Hitler, Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) sounds more like an English soccer hooligan than a führer, and, with his pinched, narrow face and simmering rage, he looks like one, too. In fact, he looks like a soccer hooligan whose team hasn’t won a game in 14 years, so in a way it works. Talk about angry! Nietzsche’s description of the anti-Semitic rabble as “worm-eaten physiological casualties . . . insatiable in [their] eruptions against the happy” fits perfectly.

Honor-bound to present the full historical picture (this is CBS, home of Dan Rather and self-important journalism, after all), the film tries to cover all the bases. It starts by spending about five minutes on Adolf the boy (nasty father who beat him, loving mother who died early), lingers another two minutes on adolescence (when he fails to get into art school), and then slips into adulthood, with Hitler, already a fully-fledged anti-Semite — the film fudges the question of when he actually became one — joining Germany’s army for the start of World War I. By this point, one of the film’s stars (Stockard Channing, believe it or not, as the mother) has already come and gone, and the scenes go by so fast you may think you’re watching a preview.

But from the end of the war, when Hitler moves into politics, Rise of Evil steadies itself and picks up narrative steam. We meet the main players: Fritz Gerlich (Matthew Modine), a German journalist who, after initially being attracted to Hitler’s nationalist message, becomes the main opposition voice to Hitler in the media; Helene and Ernst Hanfstaengl (Julianna Margulies and Liev Schreiber), an enigmatic aristocratic couple whose flirtation with National Socialism is meant to suggest the corruption of Germany’s upper class; and Ernst Röhm (Peter Stormare), the head of the Nazi Storm Troopers, who was both a guarantor of Hitler’s safety and a thorn in his side until Hitler had him shot in 1936. Of the aforementioned, only Stormare, last seen doing something nasty to Tom Cruise’s eyes in Minority Report, really distinguishes himself, but Zoe Telford (as Eva Braun) and Jena Malone (as Hitler’s put-upon niece) effectively portray the women in the dictator’s life. And Peter O’Toole provides a nice star turn as the dying President Hindenburg, the last symbol of the old order that had to be overturned for the Nazi Party to triumph.


Photo by Caroline Mardon/CBS

The trouble with Rise of Evil isn’t with the acting; it’s simply never quite clear whether writers John Pielmeier and G. Ross Parker, and director Christian Duguay, want this to be a real movie or a cinematic Cliffs Notes guide to Hitler, the Nazi Party and the rise of fascism, up to 1936. The story is introduced by a quotation from Edmund Burke — “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” — but what it demonstrates is that several good men indeed tried to stop Hitler, but that, short of a bullet between the eyes, nothing was going to have the desired effect. Attempting to outmaneuver him politically, as Germany’s prime minister, Gustav Von Kahr, did, was useless, because even when the plan succeeded, Hitler simply called in his storm troopers and rectified the situation through violence. Unfortunately in this case, good men don’t assassinate people.

The best thing about Carlyle’s performance is the way in which he conveys Hitler’s terrifying will. In one of the most memorable scenes, he is shown returning to Nazi headquarters after a spell in jail that has left him vulnerable to a hostile takeover from within. In his absence, the young Joseph Goebbels (Justin Salinger) has proved himself to be an almost equally adept rabble-rouser and demagogue, but Hitler disarms him with terrifying ease. “And you must be the young man who so desperately wants me out of the party,” he says to his future information minister, meeting him for the first time — and one look from the Führer is enough to convince the upstart that, in terms of leadership skills and the will to power, he’s way out of his league. Hitler strides around the Nazi HQ, whipping the stragglers into shape. “In this struggle, there are only two possible outcomes,” he screams. “Either the enemy passes over our body, or we pass over theirs.” Within minutes, even Goebbels is saying, “Sieg Heil.”

Max, another recent movie to take on the subject of the young Hitler, made the bold claim that if the fledgling artist had only been a better painter he might never have bothered to become a führer at all. As history, this may have been a stretch, but as a fresh angle on the subject it was superb. Australian actor Noah Taylor portrayed the demon from Linz as the kind of ranting, malicious, failed artist you might still find holding court in a grimy bohemian coffeehouse today. And his German accent was pretty good, too. If you can only stomach one new movie about Hitler, I’d suggest renting this one on video.

 

TV reviewers here (myself included) are forever touting BBC America comedy imports like The Office and Da Ali G Show with the implicit message often being that, because it’s British, the comedy’s going to be sharper, funnier and generally more sophisticated than anything produced in L.A. In other words, it’s your moral duty as a sophisticated postmodernist American consumer to lap it up pronto. Well, fair enough. But I’ve been amused to notice, reading the English reviews of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is far superior to Ali G and at least the equal of The Office, that some of the Brits don’t quite seem to get it. (Seinfeld, incidentally, was a flop in Her Majesty’s realm.)

Curb Your Enthusiasm is an instruction I don’t find hard to obey,” sniffed Thomas Sutcliffe in the Independent. “It is funny and distinctive in its laugh-track-free inconsequentiality, but I can’t quite shift the feeling that it’s a hobby for a man who has made his billion elsewhere.” Jonathan Bernstein in the Guardian was more positive, noting that although Seinfeld and Larry Sanders had television audiences in Britain that pretty much consisted of “people with their own television columns,” Curb should be “a better fit for flinty British sensibilities.”

Andrew Billen shared his apparent insider knowledge in The New Statesman: “In Hollywood circles everyone is asking if Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy at all or another form of reality television comparable to the damaging self-exposures of The Osbournes or The Anna Nicole Show.” One does wonder what Hollywood circles he hangs out in, but Billen goes on to praise Curb warmly, as do several other critics. Still, you get the sense that the humor doesn’t entirely translate. Which just goes to show that sophistication, comedic or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily reside solely on the other side of the pond.

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