To nobody’s surprise, CBS’ “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” made a lot of people very nervous before the Eye web even ran a single promo. But upon close and fair inspection, this mini has its compelling moments; despite a lead performance from Robert Carlyle that borders on cartoon overplay, there’s still enough that’s inherently watchable due to our fascination with the subject. Whatever the general public thinks of Hollywood’s attempts to personalize Der Fuhrer — last year’s bigscreen “Max” was a bust — this intense study of a monster in the making is gripping enough and hardly worth all the fuss preceding it.
The uproar was loud. Canadian production company Alliance Atlantis fired one of its top execs after he likened the nation’s acceptance of the Bush administration’s preemptive strike on Iraq to the climate of fear that allowed Hitler to prosper. As for other outcry, Jewish groups had expressed skepticism early on, though the Anti-Defamation League finally offered its approval. And this isn’t the movie CBS and Alliance Atlantis envisioned way back when; originally developed as “Hitler: The Early Years,” a rewrite was ordered after experts were brought in to supervise.
To be sure, this is not “Holocaust” revisited. There is no uprising, no images of Kristallnacht, no concentration camp construction, no personal stories of survival. “Hitler” is strictly about Germany up to the Final Solution, a time in which several factions were taking root to little effect until Hitler emerged. In fact, the consequences of Hitler’s climb are completely avoided; a lengthy epilogue in which all atrocities are described is the only account of the massive horror, a point sure to be hammered home by critics who wanted to see a different movie.
But Carlyle is the whole show, unflinching in his intensity. He’s in almost every frame, and he transforms from a ragamuffin fringe feeder with bad clothes and a mussy exterior to a bug-eyed, razor-sharp robot with every hair in place and every button fastened. With only smiles for children, Carlyle gets so deeply into the role it’s hard to take a mental break during the broadcast since every speech he gives and every decision he makes screams out for attention. It’s overboard as much as it’s passionate.
As for the populist reaction to Hitler, mini exhibits a lack of historical context. Never is it explained with imagery or dialogue how Germany’s parties so easily handed Hitler the reins after the death of President Paul Hindenburg (Peter O’Toole). Knowing what his proposals included, how could a country be as blindsided as portrayed here? And, although this is specifically not about the containment of Jews, there is almost no tale of the masses whatsoever. Best shot is a crumbling marriage subplot between early sympathizer Ernst Hanfstaengl (Liev Schreiber) and American-born wife Helene (Julianna Marguiles).
Supporting cast is well-anchored by Schreiber, who’s at first onboard with enthusiasm but eventually loses curiosity — and his wife to the cause — as Hitler gains power. Matthew Modine is fine as Fritz Gerlich, a thorn in Hitler’s side, a hyperactive reporter who, until his execution, always has a notepad and pen on hand to detail Hitler’s ascendancy. O’Toole’s part is brief and over-the-top, but he’s so vital here that any sense of gimmickry should be overlooked. Stockard Channing shows up early on night one as a young Hitler’s cancer-stricken mother living in Linz, Austria.
Director Christian Duguay and writers John Pielmeier and G. Ross Parker have done a nice job with what we now take for granted as Nazi iconography but at some point must have been discussed in a very businesslike fashion: the creation of the swastika-emblazoned flag, the importance of Stormtroopers, the moustache. On the other end of the spectrum, Hitler’s love interests are awkwardly depicted, from the short appearance of Eva Braun (Zoe Telford) as a breathy blonde who comes on to him during a rally to Geli Raubal (Jena Malone), his niece on whom Hitler had a serious crush until her suicide as he became Germany’s chancellor in 1932.
Prague stands in for a cold, repressed Munich, and some solid work from d.p. Pierre Gill and production designer Marek Dobrowolski adds to an overall look and feel that enhances the narrative.