In politics, there’s an unwritten rule that whoever first evokes Hitler should lose the argument. The same really ought to apply to television, as the channel still known as History – for reasons that remain increasingly elusive and hard to justify – trots out “Hunting Hitler,” an eight-part series devoted to newly released documents that supposedly raise possibilities the Nazi leader escaped Germany, as opposed to dying in a bunker. Seriously, guys, what’s next, “Hitlernado?”
The series is derived from 700 pages of FBI material, declassified in 2014, indicating that the bureau continued to probe the question of whether Adolf Hitler might have actually survived World War II, fleeing to Argentina. And obviously, that’s a tantalizing line of inquiry, having spurred conspiracy theories for decades.
“Hunting Hitler,” however, proceeds to trivialize the topic by treating it like any other reality show – TNT’s “Cold Justice,” only with the mother of all 70-year-old cold cases, one that incidentally involves a perpetrator of mass genocide.
Seeking a patina of respectability, the producers enlist CIA veteran Bob Baer, who provided the basis for the movie “Syriana,” and still seems to be dining out on the fact that George Clooney played him. At least Baer sounds relatively sober, insisting he has no agenda except to “For once and all, settle this damn thing.”
After that, though, “Hunting Hitler” becomes just another silly reality show, with a crack team of investigators that almost instantly flits off to Argentina, chasing down leads that, in the first hour, add up to a whole lot of nothing. In fact, if viewers were to take a shot of alcohol every time someone uses a phrase like, “There could have been … ” or, “There’s a chance that Hitler might have come here … ” or, “If there was in fact a bunker …,” they would be plastered by the second or third commercial break.
Desperate to create a sense of suspense, the team keeps talking to Argentinians who look at them like they’re crazy, while employing high-tech gizmos like “ground-penetrating radar” – intended to unearth evidence of a secret bunker – that might as well be Monty Python’s machine that goes “bing.” There are also plenty of references to the search for Osama bin Laden, which really isn’t directly analogous to what’s transpiring here.
Baer keeps reminding the audience how deadly serious this all is, saying at one point, “It’s not a movie. This is a real investigation.” Perhaps so, but it’s dressed up in a manner that makes it hard to distinguish from any number of series on channels like A&E or Investigation Discovery, while cynically trading off Hitler’s name, which harbors enough interest to potentially make this a ratings success. (History notes that the program will air in more than 180 countries.)
In more pragmatic terms, based on the opener, it’s simply hard to imagine how the producers can possibly wring another seven hours out of this hunt. Because while the teased moments will include a future episode that involves diving for evidence of a U-boat that could have ferried Nazis out of Germany, “Hunting Hitler” begins taking on water long before that.