World War II ended 70 years ago, but its hold over the collective consciousness is such that in TV, it always seems to be springtime for Hitler. Yet the way that material is handled should give students of history pause, especially as commercial pressures reshape the landscape for nonfiction programming.
This month delivers a trio of programs that trade off the Nazi regime, starting with “Hunting Hitler,” an eight-part series that recently premiered on History. Built around once-classified documents, it pursues the question of whether Adolf Hitler might have somehow escaped his bunker and fled to South America, coming close to trivializing its subject by treating the aftermath of the Holocaust as if it were just another cold case.
History might not know much about history anymore, but Nazis are an accessory that never goes out of style. In what constitutes fortunate timing, the lower-profile Smithsonian Channel counters that bloated production with a mercifully spare one, “The Day Hitler Died,” which premieres on Nov. 16. The one-hour special draws extensively on interviews conducted by Nuremberg judge and Navy lawyer Capt. Michael Musmanno with Hitler aides and military staff, seeking to determine conclusively that Hitler did indeed take his own life. That grainy footage — which was rediscovered in 2013 — paints a methodical portrait of the Nazi leader’s final days, including his growing madness, grave concern about falling into Allied hands and eventual suicide.
Those nonfiction accounts are joined by a fictionalized one, which in its own way could be every bit as illuminating: Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” adapted from a novel by the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, imagines an early-1960s America that lost the war and has been living under divided German and Japanese rule, while mounting a counter-insurgency on U.S. soil. If nothing else, the show should be required viewing for any politician who tends to be too cavalier in using Nazi analogies or referencing totalitarianism to describe policies with which they disagree.
Viewed together, these programs reinforce a sense that while TV remains fascinated with history, the assumption lingers that straightforward presentations of such fare won’t appeal to the demographics that advertisers covet. Small wonder that History has been on the leading edge of those cable networks that feel compelled to stretch confining brands that are deemed too stodgy in an effort to reel in younger viewers.
In that vein, documentarians are warily looking for the next shoe to drop at National Geographic Channel under the control of Fox, in the wake of layoffs that included reported cuts in the department responsible for maintaining the network’s editorial standards.
Even “The Day Hitler Died,” produced for Smithsonian and ITV, makes somewhat unnecessary use of subtle reenactments to augment its archival footage. Then again, that’s a relatively modest device compared to the hybrid genre of mixing extensive dramatic recreations with experts, a style championed by Stephen David Entertainment on projects like History’s “The World Wars” and AMC’s “The Making of the Mob,” which might as well be called “’Boardwalk Empire’ On a Budget.”
Small wonder that more sober presentations of history have largely been confined to territory that lives beyond the tyranny associated with advertising, from HBO’s documentaries to the rarefied air of Ken Burns’ PBS productions. Then again, fretting about those declining standards seems almost quaint, given how far the scale has slid.
Despite the explosion of programming options, historical fare faces considerable pressure to make noise and get noticed, even if that means bastardizing topics that call for a more delicate approach. That explains something like “Hunting Hitler,” and means pushing the boundaries not only in how material is presented but the sort of outlandish claims that are advanced, under the heading “Could this be true?”
In the FXX comedy “Man Seeking Woman,” the mopey, love-struck protagonist is prone to bizarre flights of fancy, such as his understandable horror upon learning that his ex-girlfriend is dating Hitler. Yes, actually Hitler. Nobody else appears to mind much, despite the couple’s vast age gap (she’s in her 20s; he’s 136).
Granted, some find such Hitler-related humor to be in questionable taste, but that tongue-in-cheek treatment seems preferable to something like “Hunting Hitler,” which figuratively digs him up in a transparent pursuit of ratings. Put another way, going to the Hitler well too often brings to mind something Jon Stewart said back in his “Daily Show” days, in a piece that showcased politicians bandying about comparisons to Hitler or Nazis too freely: “Please stop calling people Hitler when you disagree with them. It demeans you. It demeans your opponent. And to be honest, it demeans Hitler.”