It's Springtime for Hitler on ABC. The May ratings sweeps have started, and as part of the quest for viewers, ABC is trotting out the old Nazis again. Television networks take turns trotting them out; two years ago it was NBC's turn ("Holocaust"), last year it was CBS' ("The Bunker"--remake of a remake, yet) and this year, ABC resounds with the pitter-patter of little goosesteps.
The network's two-part, five-hour adaptation of Albert Speer's memoir, "Inside the Third Reich," airs Sunday at 8 p.m. and Monday at 9 p.m. on Channel 7. It is a totally unnecessary, lugubrious bore.
Opening credit sequences on both nights end with atrocity footage from the Nazi death camps. The film is not about the Holocaust, per se, but about the Hitler regime from the perspective of Hitler's architect. The scenes have been included either to grab viewer attention quickly--a tawdry touch, to be sure--or to serve as erstwhile justification for taking five more hours of television time to tell a story that has been told over and over again.
The story of the Holocaust should be told over and over, but to use it as cheap sanction for a new Nazi pageant doesn't seem particularly honorable. When NBC did "Holocaust" (ironically or not, directed by Marvin Chomsky, who also directed "Reich"), there seemed a clearly evident higher purpose than just the satisfaction of apparently unquenchable morbid curiosity about the Hitler years. "Inside the Third Reich" is not a work of art but an act of commerce; what it boils down to is five hours of "All Der Fu hrer's Men," a treasure trove of backstage gossip four decades old.
Who cares about the maneuvering and politicking that went on among Goebbels, Borman, Goering, and the other lice that gravitated to Hitler? The portrait of Hitler himself offers little that could be considered new or of value, and as played by Derek Jacobi, Adolf looks and sounds a great deal like some whackadoodie out of "The Benny Hill Show"--especially when Jacobi revs up and tosses a good old-fashioned Hit fit. There are lots of those.
The Dutch actor Rutger Hauer is fairly compelling as Speer, which is an accomplishment considering the equivocations in the screenplay about Speer's moral character. As depicted here, he was an ambitious zombie who looked the other way so many times he must have suffered from continual whiplash. You have to scour Speer's book to find references to his wife, Margarete, but she is turned into a big deal for the film (which was produced and written by E. Jack Neuman). This would be worth objecting to except that the part is played by Blythe Danner, a fascinating and thoughtful actress who can turn simplistics into complexity, and does it here.
Mrs. Speer is forever saying the equivalent of "But, Albert . . ." and Albert is forever saying the equivalent of "Now, Margarete . . ." Every now and then they see a Jew beaten or bullied in the street; Hauer affects a blank look apparently meant to convey guilt, and then he goes back to the business of designing fittingly dreadful and appalling Nazi architecture. One segment of the film, early in part two, is at least visually impressive. Through a process called Introvision, Hauer and Jacobi appear to be touring the oppressively enormous Reich Chancellery that Speer designed for his favorite megalomaniac; the actors were projected onto still photographs of the actual interiors.
The film begins with perfunctory scenes of the child Albert, featuring John Gielgud as his father, then flashes ahead to college days, with Trevor Howard rock-solid as Speer's mentor, a grizzled professor. Years later, after Speer has joined the Nazi party, the professor tells him, "Suddenly, we have nothing more to say to each other." Hitler is appointed chancellor, Speer attends a book burning presided over by Goebbels (Ian Holm), becomes one of Hitler's favorites, designs godawful clodhopper buildings, and, near the end, considers bumping the Fu hrer off with poison gas, but can't quite get it together.
It's a long, long trudge from baby Albert to Hitler's last days in the bunker and his shrieks about leaving only a scorched earth behind ("Kill the cows! Kill all the cows!").
When you put together an all-star Reich, you risk committing some ludicrous miscasting. Viveca Lindfors pops up early, twitteringly all-consuming as usual, to play a fortune teller; Elke Sommer is preposterous as Mrs. Goebbels; and Stephen Collins sees the role of propagandist Karl Hanke as the chance to do a bad imitation of a panting puppy. But the one that takes the cake is a cameo by Mort Sahl, as a '60s stand-up satirist somehow teleported back into Nazi Germany and doing anti-Hitler shtick that gets him beaten to half a pulp in the street.
Speer mentions this "cabaret humorist" in his book (he is "Werner Fink" in the book, "Werner Finck" in the movie), but only in passing, and while the film has Speer and wife sitting in Finck's audience one night, Speer wrote that "His arrest took place . . . just the day before I meant to attend his show as proof that I was not offended." What he meant to do in real life got done for him in the film.
In his book, Speer at least conceded he was guilty of crimes "so overwhelming that by comparison, any human excuse pales to insignificance." In the film, he is portrayed as rather unwitting, an upper-class chump thrown in by fate with the beasts and the jackals (it's sort of "One Flew Over the Vulture's Nest"). These are people who poisoned the bloodstream of a century, trivialized here into mere bitches and backbiters, the boys in the Bund.
But the film does have a classy veneer, and some of the performances will probably be nominated for Emmys, and it looks like a lamentably safe bet to log hefty ratings--sigh. These programs are submitted for screening without commercials, and I couldn't help wondering if there'll be ads for Volkswagen interrupting the show, or maybe a local spot for The Old Country and its stein-swinging clientele.
I also kept hearing one repeating word as the hours and the Fu hrer and the somber music droned on. The word was, "Enough. Enough. Enough."