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The 'Fatherland' Rises : The Third Reich springs to life in the HBO film of Robert Harris' 'what if 'bestseller, set to air in November

June 07, 1994|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PRAGUE — Call it, if you will, the "Schindler's List" Effect: a dramatic reversal that sees the return to European city streets of films featuring Nazi uniforms and regalia. Red banners with swastikas, SS officers in ankle-length leather coats, jackbooted German soldiers goose-stepping in formation--they're all back after many years' absence.

The critical and financial success of Steven Spielberg's Holocaust film, set in Poland during the Nazi occupation of World War II, has made the difference; no sooner had the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed a limousine-load of Oscars on "Schindler's List" than shooting started here on another film with an overlapping theme.

It is "Fatherland," based on Robert Harris' bestseller and now adapted for TV by HBO on a $6.6-million budget. The pay-cable network expects to show it in November.

The book poses intriguing questions: What if Hitler had not lost in 1945, but had established a Nazi super-state in Central Europe, encompassing Paris to the west and St. Petersburg and Moscow to the east?

What if he had managed to cover up the wholesale slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust? And what if this expanded German state, having co-existed uneasily with the United States for 20 years after World War II, now shifted from a state of "cold war" toward a trade treaty with the United States?

In "Fatherland," which is set in Berlin in 1964, Rutger Hauer is Xavier March, a homicide investigator with the city's police force. Because this is a fictional Berlin still dominated by the Third Reich, March and all his colleagues are Nazi Party members who wear armbands with swastikas.

Miranda Richardson is an American journalist who is in Berlin to cover the first visit since the war of a U.S. President--who in this story is Joseph Kennedy, father of the real President John F. Kennedy. The couple conspire to uncover the darkest secrets of Nazism and avert any moves toward detente between the United States and Germany.

"I'm sure 'Schindler's List' has enhanced the interest of the public at large," says Frederick Muller, producer of "Fatherland." "I think people might be curious now to see what might have happened had Hitler won the war."

"The networks and studios were shying away from World War II stories," adds Ilene Kahn, an independent producer and former HBO vice president, now overseeing "Fatherland" for the cable channel. "There was a shibboleth that they didn't work, that everyone was tired of miniseries like 'Winds of War' and 'War and Remembrance.' There was a trend away from developing those stories. But 'Schindler's List' turned that upside down.

"Now I think there's a whole new generation who are interested. My children were blown away by 'Schindler's List.' They hadn't seen too many Holocaust-related stories--and they're Jewish. So, yes, I think we can get people intrigued."

Certainly they can if the citizens of Prague and visitors to the city during filming are any indicator. "Fatherland" has caused an extraordinary buzz around this city--in part because it is such a highly visible production. An enormous Nazi rally was staged one night on a hill overlooking Prague, with spotlights illuminating the sky and thousands of extras chanting Hitler's name.

Then the Penta Hotel, a 1960s building where many cast and crew members are staying, was bedecked in Nazi colors for some specific scenes. For older Prague citizens, it must have reawakened unhappy memories of the days when the Czech Republic was invaded by Nazi Germany.

"One morning we woke up and looked out the window," recalls Kahn, "and outside there were red banners with swastikas three stories high. I have to admit, it was a shock seeing them there like that. The hotel didn't close down and although guests got a note through the doors of their rooms saying there was a filming crew and apologizing for the inconvenience, no one was prepared for what the film actually was. In the lobby there were a lot of uncomfortable people."

"The ones who were really scandalized were the Germans," says Muller. "They didn't like this one bit. Then there was an Englishman at the hotel who was rude to me about it. And one Czech woman living nearby was worried that it was a real neo-Nazi rally. She came to the hotel to find out what was happening. She was so worried that we had to show her the lights and cameras to prove it was a film."

The filmmakers did interviews on Prague radio stations to assure people that "Fatherland" was fiction. But not everyone was easily persuaded. While production designer Penny Haddonfield was adjusting a Nazi flag for a street scene, a man approached her and spat at her.

"You can see how it happens," says producer Muller. "Feelings still run high around here. It's understandable."

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