The four-hour, two-night miniseries Hitler: The Rise of Evil begins and ends with Edmund Burke’s Bartlett’s-familiar quotation ”The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Burke’s apercu, however, is idiotically inappropriate here for a couple of reasons. First, it obviously took Adolf Hitler for evil to flourish in Germany; and second, a lot of ”good men” are seen in this TV movie doing as much as they can to prevent the dictator’s evil, most of them murdered by Hitler for their efforts. Invoking Burke seems to undermine the very premise of this production.
Not that it requires a philosopher to topple this wobbly, poorly organized telefilm. Hitler, as portrayed with bugged-out eyes by The Full Monty’s Robert Carlyle, utters lines that are, variously, cliche (”The wheels of history have turned!”), inadvertently funny (”Take a letter, Hess”), and anachronistically appalling (to the head of the storm troopers: ”Thanks for stopping by”).
This project was first announced as Hitler: The Early Years. Is it possible the producers looked at The WB’s Smallville and figured, hey, if they can do it with Superman…? Nah, TV producers would never be that cynical, would they? At any rate, immediate protests arose that the mass killer might be portrayed as a misunderstood, sensitive youth gone bad. This resulted in a hasty rewrite that turns the boyhood section into little more than a barely-over-the-credits montage (one assumes Stockard Channing wouldn’t have signed on as Hitler’s mother had she known her role would be reduced to a few lines like ”He’s so sensitive”). This Rise of Evil, though, renders the grown tyrant a yammering bore who bullies a fearful populace to do his bidding. Charlie Chaplin presented a more convincing portrait of malevolent charm in The Great Dictator.
But then, Chaplin was a genius who directed himself. Carlyle is, by comparison, a pawn: a decent actor manipulated by the lurching script credited to John Pielmeier and G. Ross Parker, and directed by Christian Duguay (Joan of Arc). When you resort to having your villain beat a dog to prove he’s evil, or when you feed Matthew Modine (playing a newspaperman) Twilight Zone lines like: ”He’s not human; he’s studied people in order to appear human,” one wonders if the producers thought they had to win over PETA or sci-fi fans to bolster their case against a man who slaughtered millions. To turn Hitler into, as one character describes him here, ”a cartoon” — to deny Hitler’s humanity — is, as the critic Clive James once wrote, a mistake: ”There is no point in trying to dodge the fact that he had real charisma. He made a genuine appeal to the dark places in human nature.”
You can’t make a good piece of art about Hitler without being afraid of him — of the undeniable allure he exerted to coerce people to follow him, and to enslave others, into the hell he created on earth. What you cannot fear, however, is the artistic responsibility to render that allure vivid and convincing, lest you be accused of making Hitler ”sympathetic.” This is the trap into which The Rise of Evil falls, weightlessly. By the second night, the script is resorting to therapy jargon to explain why Modine’s newspaper warnings aren’t diminishing Hitler’s growing army: ”People don’t want the real news — they don’t want to be depressed.” Julianna Margulies and Liev Schreiber have a soapy subplot about their crumbling marriage — she’s a Hitler supporter; he’s skeptical but weak. The artful, young Jena Malone (Donnie Darko), almost unrecognizable in crinkly blond hair, serves briefly as Hitler’s ideal of Aryan hubba hubba — until Eva Braun (Zoe Telford) comes hip-wiggling up to der Fuhrer at a Nazi rally.
Most pointlessly of all, this Rise stops abruptly at the mid-1930s. Yet knowing that the historical worst is yet to come, the producers run long closing text notes about concentration camps and gas chambers. It’s as if they thought, Well, we’re obviously such hacks we can’t tell this story visually, so we’ll save the really horrific stuff for some prose that will make us look solemn and thoughtful. As Matthew Modine’s character might have put it, ”Viewers don’t want to be depressed.”
The only thing necessary for the triumph of bad TV is for mediocre programming to do nothing — for our emotions, or for our enlightenment.