TV's obsession with Hitlerism gets cosier and cosier. Who won the bloody war anyway, asks Paul Stump
As Megadeth once sagely observed, 'Peace sells... but who's buying?' In a week when the Sunday Telegraph launches two DVDs about 'Horrible History' which manage to urbanely traduce the unthinkable sufferings of two world wars, TV's obsessive and forensic reexamination of the burned and bloodied corpse of Nazism (is TV history the new Reich'n'Roll?) scored two more contributions, Hitler's Holocaust and Inside Out, which with the Nuremberg trials having apparently morphed with Judge John Deed on BBC2, means brown shirts may yet be this Christmas's must-haves.
There's a get-out clause for the doltish commissioning editors responsible; the national curriculum's history syllabus, which makes the study of the Great Tyranny compulsory. And given the well-merited encomia for Lawrence Rees's The Nazis - A Warning From History, they've a winning template. Nazis make great TV. Don't they? Unacknowledged, of course, are these copycat shows' cynical indulgence of gut responses to the black-and-white simplicities of the issues, the voyeuristic necrophilia attendant on their monstrousness, and the irresistible need for rationalisation.
Ron Rosenbaum's book, Explaining Hitler (1992) examines attempts to do just that (ditto their varying degrees of futility) needs a TV adaptation. But little Nazi TV goes beyond the Riefenstahl-and-stock-footage ritual of torchlit processions, puce-faced Hitlerian rants etc, seemingly commissioned only on the condition that they use Siegfried's Funeral Music from Wagner's Götterdämmerung as background to burning tanks, a routed Wehrmacht, blasted Berliners. Praise to Meades's Jerry Building, on the Reich's ghastly architecture (2004); Michael Wood's Hitler's Search for the Holy Grail (1999), on the mythological obsessions of German culture and history; and Channel 4's The Last Nazi Secret (2004) on Himmer's occult obsessions as to the mystical origins of the 'master race'. This last is a seam as yet relatively unmined on TV; oddly, given the sicko entertainment value of the borderline-unbelievable, I'm-mad-me eye-rolling of the Reich's spiritual inheritance. Thus, Alan Baker's jolly pop-history potboiler Invisible Eagle (2000), which links Nazi takes on Hollow Earth and World Ice theories to building flying saucers, seems a natural for Five or Discovery. But the man himself, the brand Hitler is on the box more now than if Final Victory had been his.
Of course, publishing is also chronically addicted to the pornography of Reich enormities. But here one finds serious and novel studies. On Hitler's Mountain, by Irmgard Hunt (2006), a beautiful but creepy memoir of a childhood spent beneath the Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, holds for TV the potential for visual poetry and a fresh, unclichéd consideration of the quotidian minutiae of 1933-1945. Brigitte Hamann's doorstopper biography of Winifred Wagner (2004), the English orphan who married via Wagner's son Siegfried into his mind-bogglingly dysfunctional family, took over the Bayreuth Festival on the death of her husband and then almost married the Führer, is too bizarre for anything but a documentary treatment. Why nothing on the abominations that were Nazi-approved literature, painting and music?
And so to Hitler's Holocaust. The former is sacerdotal in approach, but is once again hobbled by the fact that it all seems so, well, commonplace.
Now how can you say that about systematic mass murder? By watching too much TV about it, that's how, and of course inured indifference to systematic mass murder came to characterise Nazism. The soundtrack hardly helped. Ex-German jazz-rocker Klaus Doldinger's score is all quivery minor-key string samples, chattering parade-ground snares, a timpanist's grumbles. Armando Iannucci commented in his Tate Britain Lecture last week that the use of Henryk Gorécki's Third Symphony, including a setting of words scrawled on an Auschwitz cell wall, was a 'tasteless' adumbration to a documentary on the camp. This is arguable - as arguable as Adorno's comment that poetry was 'impossible after Auschwitz'. I'd add that, per Adorno, few fields of documentary TV call for less music - or for more original and daring choices - than the coverage of this obscene historical anomaly. Of course the curse of ambient soundtracking now demeans almost all documentary and often diminishes its subjects. Furthermore, how often, for example, do we hear Jewish ritual prayers, or the mournful clonk of the cembalom when seeing the camps' barbed wire? No, the music is almost always that of the European culture that enabled the Holocaust.
For a programme billed as exploring anti-semitism before and during the Holocaust, it was startling that centuries of intermittent hatreds, from the inflammatory Christian woodcuts of Luther's time through the wicked Jews of Grimm's tales, to the big-hootered caricatures of Julius Streicher's stooge cartoonists in Der Stürmer were glossed in about 10 minutes. Leftish German philosemitism was scarcely mentioned. The Nuremberg Laws and the sheer obviousness of Nazi intentions from 1933 onwards got short shrift - quick, on to Kristallnacht, tinkling glass, bloodstains, are you taking notes at the back there? Even - and this is a terrible admission - the testimonies of the survivors seemed hackneyed. Anyone who has read Primo Levi or Paul Fussell's anti-Nazi memoirs, or the fictions of Heller and Pynchon, or seen Elem Klimov's Soviet war movie Come and See knows how mindwarpingly surreal suffering and war can be. These men and women saw an awful lot more than they are allowed to say here. Despite the consulting role allotted to one of the Holocaust's greatest scholars, Dr Yehuda Bauer, I expect Part 2 to be little better - watchable, but, like a dry coursework textbook, unmemorable and never to be revisited.
Any TV about World War II, especially that dealing with the atrocity of Hitlerism, can't be easy to make. Even Martin Gilbert's monumental, dignified and unforgiving literary tabulation of the Holocaust appears, ultimately, a puny footnote to a cosmic crime; as with all totalitarian regimes, posthumous studies are dependent on the fluidity of facts due to files burned, memories wiped or rewritten, lies told. The historiography is evanescent; to ever try to offer an authoritative snapshot should only be done with the greatest of care and scholastic rigour. So try fitting all that into a couple of hours. The point is, if one is going to do so on TV, make sure it is done with heart, soul, intelligence and above all invention. Nazism should never be rendered routine. Hitler's Holocaust, a decade ago, would have been exceptional. Now, sadly, it isn't; and this cannot be good for anyone, except those who would repeat the crimes.
Black history, it's now voiced abroad, is due to be added to the national curriculum, which might bring a few obligations that will stem this televisual tide of Teutonism. I, for one, would welcome something about 14th century Benin than another hour-long reminder that (duh) Himmler was a vicious, ugly, mass-murdering son of a bitch. But I ain't holding my breath.
And, with biopics of Speer and Goebbels rumoured, it only remains for TV drama departments to jump on the bandwagon - and it will. Here's a prediction for two 'major BBC series'.
One. The Mitford 'gels' and their dalliances with the Nazis (Rosamund Pike as Unity, perhaps?) , with lots of champagne, snobbery, plummy starlets getting their kits off in SS boudoirs.
Two. Ribbentrop's tenure as Nazi ambassador to London with lots of champagne, snobbery, plummy starlets getting their kits off upstairs at Simpsons and the Savoy. Memo to commissioning editors; these are my ideas. Including, no, especially the Rosamund Pike bit.