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Hitler miniseries better than average

Sunday, May 18, 2003

To be successful, a miniseries must tell a cohesive story. In tonight's first part of CBS's four-hour "Hitler: The Rise of Evil," the program plays more like a series of vignettes than a complete story. On-screen titles - "Vienna, 1905" - appear frequently as the story jumps from year to year as Hitler's rise and inevitable goosestep into infamy accelerates. It's like a Cliff's Notes of Hitler history.

TV Review
"Hitler: The Rise of Evil"
When: 9 tonight and Tuesday on CBS.
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Juliana Margulies, Matthew Modine, Liev Schreiber.

But even in these short successive scenes, writers John Pielmeier and G. Ross Parker and director Christian Duguay ("Joan of Arc") establish the film's primary characters. The development is sufficient to give the miniseries more heft in its concluding two hours Tuesday.

"Rise of Evil" ultimately turns out to be a better-than-average miniseries, even if it's not the story CBS originally planned to tell.

When it was announced, "Rise of Evil" was to be based on "Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris," a biography by Ian Kershaw about Hitler's early life and the conditions in Germany that allowed his Nazi party to gain power.

Some anti-defamation groups, concerned about any portrayal of Hitler that could be perceived as sympathetic, protested CBS's plan. Perhaps as a result of that, or of the usual TV development process, the miniseries skimps on Hitler's childhood - brief glimpses are seen during the opening credits tonight - and concentrates on his adult life from 1920-34.

Though concern about sympathetic portrayals of Hitler are understandable, a fictionalized account chronicling how he grew from an innocent child to a monstrous mass murderer would be interesting. "Rise of Evil" pins his hatred of Jews, at least in part, on criticism of his art by a Jewish instructor when Hitler was a teenager. Surely there was more to it than that.

With "Rise of Evil," no one need worry about a sympathetic portrayal of the miniseries' lead character. Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League was expected to release a statement of praise for the miniseries. Hitler is depicted as a rageaholic screamer, a petty control freak with a paranoid streak.

Hitler idealizes his teenage niece Geli (Jena Malone), and the film suggests he may have sexually abused her. He definitely locks her in a gilded cage. Later, Hitler takes up with Eva Braun (Zoe Telford) and treats her in a similar fashion.

As Hitler, British actor Robert Carlyle turns in a riveting, spitting nails performance. Carlyle's Hitler is so unwavering in his beliefs, so cocksure, it's less difficult to understand how so many followed such a little man.

In addition to chronicling Hitler's rise, the film follows other characters in his orbit, including publisher Ernst Hanfstaengl (Liev Schreiber) and his wife, Helene (Juliana Margulies); journalist Fritz Gerlich (Matthew Modine); and the head of the SA storm troopers, Ernst Rohm (Peter Stormare).

Stockard Channing appears in the briefest of flashbacks as Hitler's mother, and Peter O'Toole has a few scenes as Germany's President Hindenburg.

Though I'd rarely encourage filmmakers to add exposition, "Rise to Evil" would benefit from a few lines of dialogue that explain Germany's government structure of the era. Some effort is made to explain how politics played in the late '20s and early '30s, but an American audience could benefit from greater clarity on this front.

The political landscape and economic conditions that allowed Hitler to gain power are depicted to a degree, but even in a four-hour mini-series, there's not enough time to delve into this in much depth.

A second controversy surrounding "Rise of Evil" came to light a few weeks ago, when, in a TV Guide interview, executive producer Ed Gernon compared fear in Germany before the rise of Hitler to fear in the United States after 9/11.

The New York Post implied Gernon was comparing President Bush to Hitler, a stretch on the part of the Post, but perhaps not a leap. The film does contain a few unsettling scenes that echo the current climate, including the arrest of the journalist Gerlich. The Nazis say he is in protective custody, but they refuse to charge him with any crime (shades of prisoners at Guantanamo after 9/11).

After the burning of the Reichstag - essentially Germany's Capitol building - Hitler, now Germany's chancellor, demands concessions to civil liberties from Hindenburg.

"A national monument has been destroyed, our democracy is under attack," Hitler says. "If we're to wage war on these foreign invaders, certain civil rights must be suspended."

That scene, no doubt, will fan the fears of some in present-day America. Others will recognize it's a scene set in another time and another place that's only superficially analogous to current events.

Regardless of its politics, "Rise of Evil" moves at a propulsive pace, particularly in its second night. It doesn't offer a detailed history lesson, but in broad strokes it gives an engrossing view of the big picture.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Postquestions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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