I was a teenage Nazi

Pure Unadulterated Inhumanity, Take One!

Dead men don’t have halitosis and non-descended testicles. Dead men aren’t hypochondriacs. Dead men don’t wear uniforms. Yet here he is. And not just any dead man. Here is Adolf Hitler. You might know him, the TV voice-over intones through the living-room speakers of North America, from such spectaculars as the Second World War and the mass slaughter of some 11 million people. But you’ve never seen him like this ...

His unmistakable voice, soon to soar over tens of thousands with promises of eternal Aryan tomorrows, is pitched higher and sometimes squeaks embarrassingly. He’s shorter than the 1.7 meters he grew up to. (Later, the image-savvy Hitler wore platform shoes to appear taller than his National Socialist supporting actors.) His upper lip is only starting to sprout thin, straight, hard hairs, a moustache in an almost laughable early stage, like two fast finger swipes of greasepaint or feces.

It’s lunchtime, and dead men apparently get hungry. “I’m not accustomed to such excellent pastry,” reads a supposedly ravenous young Adolf, in Prague, in February 2003, as his script flutters in the late-winter wind.
Sixty-four years to the month after the last Nazi invasion of the Czech lands, he’s back. Not to once again spread the good news of totalitarianism like raspberry preserves on a Linzertorte. He’s here for a television movie, a Portrait of the Despot as a Young Man.

Hitler: The Origins of Evil, directed by Christian Duguay (the current release Extreme Ops, 1999’s Prague-filmed Joan of Arc), is – or will be – a four-hour miniseries about the Fuhrer-to-be’s troubled teen- and young-adulthood, slated to air in the United States and Canada in May 2003. Prague is standing in for the less-picturesque Linz, Vienna, Munich, and Berlin – cities that no longer look much like they did in the protagonist’s day, having been so damaged during the protagonist’s war. Lights, camera, cue the Wagner.

The origin of The Origin of Evil came in a corporate boardroom in the upper echelons of the North American Entertainment Monolith. American CBS and Canadian Atlantis Alliance are producing this large question mark of a movie. According to The Los Angeles Times – which obtained an early draft of the well-guarded script – the film opens with a 12-year-old Hitler, “imperious and moody,” playing cowboys and Indians with friends home on the range in Linz. It ends with Hitler’s ascension to the German chancellorship following the 1933 Enabling Act, which invested him with the powers of dictatorship. Unfilmed and unmentioned are World War II, the Final Solution, the increasing insanity and paranoia, the Last Ten Days (themselves the subject of a few movies of varying quality).

Far from the chilly set on Kampa, the movie – or rather, the idea of the movie, since no one’s seen a final draft of the script, let alone a portion of the production – has triggered a strong response, most of it negative. Jewish activists and organizations worry that the movie will humanize Hitler; will distance him from or make excuses for the terror he wrought; will misinform an already undereducated public about the true nature of Hitler, the pure and unadulterated inhumanity.

“Why the need or the desire to make this monster human?” Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, asked in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece “The judgment of history is that he was evil, that he was responsible for millions of deaths. Why trivialize that judgment of history by focusing on his childhood and adolescence? Why do we need to know when he dated, how he dated? We’ll find out he’s a bed-wetter. We know who he is. We know what he did. What are we going to learn?”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, contends that separating the man from his future actions, and from his life’s historical implications, is dishonest, and dangerous. “It’s telling only half of a terrible story,” Hier told The New York Times. “Teenagers may watch the young Hitler and say he just needed some more guidance and attention, he wasn’t that bad, if only he [had] had a better home life. It creates a kind of sympathy and new attitude to Hitler.”

If the film does trivialize Hitler’s evil, it won’t be for lack of a respectable source. The Origins of Evil is based on Sir Ian Kershaw’s first volume of his two-part biographical opus, Hitler 1889-1936 Hubris, a masterwork of research written by one of the most respected scholars on the subject. (A heavy masterwork, at 845 pages, large enough to rest a TV on; it’s not hard to see why Foxman and Hier are concerned that whatever dangerous ideas it contains are more likely to spread in four hours on the tube.) Kershaw has not made any public comment on the movie. To read or to watch is a moral judgment, the Nuremberg trial of the armchair historian.

G. Ross Parker’s and John Pielmeier’s teleplay, at least the draft obtained by the L.A. Times, portrays Hitler as an “angry and sullen youth.” It shows him as a struggling young artist and intelligent opportunist. It also shows his early relationships with Jews to be mostly friendly (especially his relationship with his mother’s Jewish doctor), or at least not much different from his relationships with non-Jews – save for his hatred of his father (who himself might have been
half-Jewish through an errant grandmother).

The producers have parried in a kind of world war of spin. “Evil is not obvious, and I think it’s important to never forget how this kind of evil manifested itself,” Alliance-Atlantis Group CEO Peter Sussman, who is Jewish, said in a company statement. “People say, ‘You might make him more human.’ He was human. We forget [that] at the end of the day he
was a human being. I don’t mean he was a good guy. He was a bad guy.”

“I still believe we should deal with all historic subjects,” CBS chief Leslie Moonves, also a Jew with relatives who were Holocaust survivors, said in the same statement. “Should we put our heads in the sand? At no point will Hitler be shown as a nice guy. In this day and age you wonder where he came from. We are not taking this subject lightly.”
The implication being, neither should the audience – that Origins of Evil is as much Ian Kershaw as Christian Duguay, as much history as it is dramatization.

The Youthful Face of Genocide

Importing paving stones to Prague is like ... well ... like importing beer to Prague. Yet here they are – square meter after square meter of squishy, rubberized pseudo paving stones. Great sheets of the stuff, unfurled from large rolls that look like huge snakes sleeping unsoundly.

It’s 1914 and World War I is declared at the tip of Kampa. Shopkeepers hawk their wares and tethered horses snort impatiently into the freezing afternoon. Everything is done up in Österreichisches Deutsch: There’s the Krankenhaus, the Kunst & Bauglaserei, the Tabakhaus. ... The quaint Malá Strana street of Všehrdova is renamed Kaiserstraße and Prannerstraße. Wherever the movie goes – inside in Hostivař, outside at Hlavní nádraží – Prague as such disappears.

Nearly 100 Czech extras playing Austrians are shuffled into tightly organized insanity. Men hold their hats and women tug their windblown skirts as they run in mock fear around the snowy square. The young Hitler is not among them; Origins of Evil star Robert Carlyle – best known for playing violent psychos in The Beach and Trainspotting – is scarcely seen on set. Asked how it feels as a Czech to be playing an Austrian in a film about Hitler’s youth, Jiří, 26 and red-eyed from partying at the Roxy the previous night, says, “It’s all about the money I make.” He twirls his prop rifle. “I think that’s all in the past.”

“It’s only a movie,” says Janda, 35, a self-described professional extra. “People don’t take it so seriously. My friend told me to show up, that they were handing out extra parts, and so I went and here I am. No thinking. It’s work, how I pay my rent.” His only criticism of the film is when the makers chose to shoot. “They should have filmed in July,” Janda says, stuffing raw hands into his pockets, then withdrawing them for a slug of slivovice from a proffered hip flask. “No one wants to have a war in the winter.”

Czech actors often find themselves playing Nazi extras in non-speaking roles in North American films. So do Slovaks and Hungarians and Poles and other cheap thespian labor from nations once oppressed by the Third Reich. Nazism is their niche industry. If they have any English dialogue, it is invariably delivered in a Kissenger-esque accent, mangling their Anglicized w’s into v’s. But usually they are wordless, faceless troops.

Playing the heavy, even playing the walk-on heavy, doesn’t faze them at all. “Most of the time I play Nazis, like [in] the last [Bruce] Willis movie [Hart’s War],” says Honza, 28. “Or sometimes I play Russians, sometimes terrorists.” It’s a living.

On my second day on set I get inadvertently drunk – too many dips in the flask trying to ward off the inevitable flu. At lunch I stagger among the trailers looking for some food to sop up all the alcohol sloshing around my empty stomach. The lunch line looks like a World War I lunch line, and I lack the appropriate uniform to get my rations. I try to persuade a willing extra to ask for a double portion. Tomáš, 31 (and, ironically, a waiter), whom I’d met on my previous visit, takes care of me.

We sit on the ground holding our soup bowls on our knees and I ask Tomáš him about working on the movie. “I’m hungry and they feed me,” he says. “I make good money, 1,500 Kč per day for standing around.” Will he watch the miniseries, on video or DVD? (It isn’t scheduled to air in the Czech Republic.) Tomáš shrugs as he stands up and heads for the row of port-a-pots, haphazardly lined with propped-up prop rifles. “I never see the movies” he is an extra in, he says.
The Prime-Time Putsch

CBS and Alliance Atlantis believe that The Origins of Evil will fill a gap in Nazi-themed movies. “Almost every event that flowed from the behavior and conduct of the Nazis has been covered by film and TV,” the producers assert in a press statement. “[Dramatizing] the seeds from which all this began, how these horrible events happened, has never been done.”
This is prime, or rather prime-time, propaganda. Contrary to its makers’ claim, The Origin of Evil is not the first Hollywood treatment of Hitler’s youth; it’s just that nobody saw the other one. Max, written and directed by Menn Meyjes and starring John Cusack and Noah Rodgers, concerns a (fictional) Jewish art dealer who loses an arm in the Great War. In postwar Vienna he meets and takes pity on a socially hopeless young art student named Adolf Hitler and encourages his painfully inept painting. During its production, Max engendered much the same kind of criticism as The Origin of Evil; after screening at a few film festivals last year, it was dumped into limited U.S. distribution in December and quickly disappeared.

Roger Ebert, probably the world’s best-known film critic, praised Max in a Chicago Sun-Times review that anticipated the controversy it would likely generate if it ever achieved wide release. “Hitler was human ...,” Ebert wrote. “To dehumanize him is to fall under the spell which elevated him into the Fuhrer, a mythical being who transfixed Germans and obscured the silly little man with the mustache. To ponder Hitler’s early years with the knowledge of his later ones is to understand how life can play cosmic tricks with tragic results.”

Origin faces another, more medium-specific problem: advertising. Nothing gets on TV for free. Paid ads are what keep television televising. Robert Dornhelm, director of an acclaimed 2001 TV movie about Anne Frank, told the LA Times, “We had a hard enough time selling advertising on Anne Frank. NutraSweet bought the second hour entirely, and the rest was cosmetic companies and weight loss. The irony of it was beyond words. I can’t imagine how you’d sell Hitler.” Maybe the Panasonic Beard and Moustache Trimmer ER389K ($29.95)?

Clearly, America’s second-rated network believes someone will pay to fill the breaks in the action of the formative years of infamy’s greatest monster – and, by extension, that many, many people will watch, without associating CBS and its programming with war and genocide. If you liked Origin of Evil, you might also like Hack, “a redemption story about a cop (David Morse) who fell from grace and is now working as a taxi driver, Fridays at 9 p.m.” Maybe.

This notion of downsizing the previous century’s greatest evil to a promotional device for the new shows – a true banality of evil – may help explain some of the opposition to the miniseries. Another problem, it seems, is that Origin aspires to fact – the fact of a Hitler who perhaps was made rather than emerging as a fully formed maniac. Nobody worries about satirizing Hitler a la The Producers (1968); laughing at him doesn’t require looking at him any differently. (Besides, Nazism, in isolation anyway, verges on self-parody.) Reality is more difficult. Reality is too multifarious, too nuanced, almost too interpretable.

Interpretation is at the heart of the complaints. There’s the fear of tattooing Hitler onto youth consciousness (in a medium that caters to youth) as another misunderstood rebel. (God knows he pisses off the parents.) Then there’s modern psychological apologetics: the events of youth excusing the actions of adulthood, a familiar trope of the television viewer weaned on serial-killer docudramas and prescription-drug infotainment. Origin of Evil transposes a modern idea of maturation onto a world in which men were men when they were old enough to hold a gun. Thanks or no thanks in large part to the exigencies of show business, the American viewing public, much of it in all demographics composed of veterans of self-medication, has learned to identify personal failure with early trauma. And Hitler is one big personal failure.
Does the physical abuse by Hitler’s father or his mother’s psychological molestation explain the crimes against humanity their son perpetrated in his adult years? Was Hitler “maladjusted” (no doubt due to his high level of intelligence)? Did he “lack proper motivation and direction”? Was the murder of millions a cry for help? The pop diagnosticians and weekend psychopharmacologists trained in the talk-show speak of the self-help industry will flip through the prescription pads on their recliners’ armrests, scratching out a regimen that would have altered history, Ritalin that would have prevented Auschwitz. This is the quintessential Hollywood Story, the celebrity whose personal failings spring from terrible upbringings. Cue the montage of fallen (and repentant) stars and swell the Love Death of Tristan and Isolde.

Hitler’s youth, transformed into myth, was a rich source for the Reich’s chosen filmmakers. They made him an impoverished and neglected youth when he was not, when he was a privileged aspiring artist with aristocratic pretensions. They sought to make him an everyman when he was largely unknown to himself. While Origin plays, cinematic propagandists Kurt Gerron, Veit Harland, Fritz Hippler, Erich Waschneck and Leni Riefenstahl (herself the subject of an upcoming project set to star Jodie Foster) sit raptly in judgment, shackled to the edges of their seats in that great screening room in the sky. This film might be a revision of revisionism – that is, fact. It might also be pure spectacle – kitsch, a gorgeous German word. The propagandists still have empty seats in their screening room.

At home, the stereotypical North American channel surfer’s Pavlov response kicked in long ago. The average viewer of above-average sanctimony and sub-average attention span – the imaginary, faceless audience that network television programs for – reached for the remote and is now watching something more potentially inflammatory than anything infamy would produce: a twenty-something sitcom, a floor-wax or tooth-whitening infomercial, a Very, Very Special Episode following up something only Very Special last week.

In this must-see schedule, Hitler, especially young Hitler, probably can’t match the hype. This reality show is much less real than anything else in prime time. If you didn’t take your Ritalin, you’ll have no problem fast-forwarding. Hold the double-arrowed button down long enough, a decade or so past the end of the fourth hour of The Origin of Evil, and you’ll find the lost episode.

Last scene: Hitler, not Robert Carlyle-young but mid-50s and looking older, is 15 meters beneath the Reichskanzlei, in the enormous underground headquarters of his enormous army, his Third Reich that would reign for 1,000 years. He has a gun in his mouth and a finger on the trigger. He is sweating and very obviously deranged. The dolly rolls and the camera zooms in for a close-up. His finger twitches. He pulls the trigger. Silence. Fade to black.

In the screening room of history the interminable credits roll the names of the people he put to death. Those credits, rolled continuously, would take months to finish. Finally the exhausted film reel flaps around like a tattered flag and piles onto the projection room floor as the screen is deloused into pure white.

What ever happened to Little Adolf? They grow up so fast, don’t they?

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