The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, BBC Two | TV reviews, news & interviews
The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, BBC Two
Laurence Rees's new Nazi doc finds just enough new angles to keep things interesting
So, another programme about Hitler and the Nazis. They mock the Brits all over Europe for our obsession with this subject. During the summer, I worked on a project with Italian associates who found this intense interest roundly bemusing. They subscribed particularly to the old joke that to create the British market’s most successful ever book, it would need to include cats certainly but, most of all, Nazis. So is there anything left for historical writer and documentary maker Laurence Rees to say in his new three-part series?
The answer is, “A little, yes”. Having created the gripping The Nazis: A Warning From, History 15 years ago, and Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution in 2005, if anyone's the man for the job, it is he. The ground has been well raked over but then the subject is always fertile, an archetypal example, without parallel, of societal folly and ultimate wrongness on the grandest scale.
By the end of the first episode its protagonist has gone from embittered failing Viennese art student to a national leader
Backed up by “historical consultant” Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, possibly the world’s leading authority on the Nazis, Rees sets out his case that this weird, awkward, dysfunctional man developed “a level of charismatic attraction that is almost without parallel in history”. By this Rees doesn’t mean that Hitler hypnotized the German people in a Marvel comic-style cosmic episode, but that Hitler’s own strange foibles of character melded disastrously with the circumstances of the times and the deep-rooted needs and desires of the German people. Then, once his profile reached a tipping point with his public, Hitler was expert in building it into a national cult until eventually, as is made clear from footage of the Deutsche Christen movement parading through Münster with Nazi flags featuring crucifixes, it reached a messianic pitch.
What’s relentlessly striking is what a freak Hitler was, even taken in the context of militaristic post-Bismarck German society and the demented Bavarian-flavoured fashions of the time. He jerks and rants on podiums, shrieking like the worst sort of work-place bully, exhibiting melodramatic gestures that recall the more deranged excesses of silent cinema, as well as a twitchiness that’s all his own. “I destroyed all the other parties – they are all gone,” he shrieks in a hideous strangled gargle; he viley smears the Jewish people from the very start, and he repeatedly avoids stating any hard policy in favour of harsh theatrical vagueness. The results of all this unpleasantness include a pig-tailed schoolgirl collapsing tearful in his presence as if he were Paul McCartney circa 1963, parts of the German church proclaiming him “the embodiment of the eternal will of God”, and the previously dubious Josef Goebbels writing in his diary, “Adolf Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple.”
Such material is intercut with a few contemporary dissenting voices who saw him for the emotionally dead, dullard clunker he was, alongside the sinister rise of his infrastructure of terror. A quote from a Hitler Youth recalls that they were told that if their teachers hadn’t quite got with the new programme, they should feel free to “smack them in the mouth”.
By the end of the first episode of The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, its protagonist has gone from embittered failing Viennese art student to a national leader who could claim, unquestioned and with a straight face, that his government will last a thousand years. Such lunacy is still gob-smacking. We all know what’s coming but Rees throws in just enough revelatory fairy dust to keep us Brits returning for the next two.
Watch a brief trailer for The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Documentary about a vigilante in action is riveting and deeply discomfiting
Toby Jones shines in a fantasy football drama that happens to be true
New technology brings revelations from Cambodia's astounding mega-city
Manchester's detective duo are as disaster-prone as ever
David Morrissey puts his foot down, but the script barely passes its MOT
On this evidence, there's still plenty of life in Lord Fellowes's beloved national institution
Heroics in Helmand as Tony Grounds's drama gets the series treatment
Sean Bean joins the FBI and Guillermo del Toro does vampires: latest US drama
Martin Sixsmith pursues the harrowing story of Catholic children born out of wedlock
Jack Thorne's latest is a gripping whodunit set in the English countryside
Anodyne biog sanitises showbusiness legend
Gripping final episode, but is the very existence of 'The Village' threatened?