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Focus : Reversal of History : HBO'S 'FATHERLAND' PICTURES A WORLD IN WHICH HITLER WON AND KEPT THE HOLOCAUST A SECRET

November 20, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HBO's new original movie, "Fatherland," poses some rather big "what ifs."

"What if" the Germans had beat the Allied forces on D-day, June 6, 1944? "What if" the Allies lost the momentum that day and Germany won the war and control of Europe?

"I think in a project like this, there's one thing that you can get you really interested in at the expense of something else," says Ron Hutchinson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser. "Clearly, that 'what if' thing is so strong. One knows that really it was a close-run thing, D-day, and Eisenhower had in his pocket a three-line resignation speech. He was ready to pull back. God knows what would have happened. Because we have written the history as we won, it's never quite as obvious to us that it could have switched the other way."

In "Fatherland," based on Robert Harris' novel, the Germans did win the war. In fact, all of Europe is now called Germania. Set in 1964, the film noir thriller finds Joseph Kennedy--the father of John, Robert and Ted Kennedy--the new President of the United States. Adolf Hitler is alive and well and about to celebrate his 75th birthday. And the Fuehrer is making overtures to Kennedy to end the Cold War.

For the past 20 years, though, the Third Reich has managed to keep the Holocaust a secret. But the secret could be revealed when a noble SS detective, Xavier March (Rutger Hauer), and a visiting American journalist, Charlie Maguire (Miranda Richardson), acquire information that could topple Hitler and his totalitarian regime. But the Gestapo is hot on their trail and the two have just one hour to expose the truth to President Kennedy before the leaders renew the relationship between the countries.

"This is kind of a flip side of a Holocaust movie," says producer Ilene Kahn. "But it's in your face about the same issues. In the end, the movie speaks to the neo-Nazis and the people who would lead you to believe that the Holocaust didn't exist."

"Fatherland" was shot in Prague earlier this year, after the release and subsequent success of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."

The production elicited interesting reactions from people while shooting in Prague. Kahn recalls how tourists staying at the downtown hotel in which the cast and crew were at freaking out at the sight of a big swastika and propaganda banners adorning the buildings across the street.

"But somehow the Czech residents weren't shocked by it," she says. "I would say for me, waking up and looking out my window, it was a pretty chilling sight to see."

The film's surreal production design contributes much to the film. "What Prague offered, because it wasn't destroyed in World War II, was the old buildings, plus all the buildings built post-war," Kahn says. "Because our film takes place in 1964, we wanted the contrast of the '60s buildings against the old buildings that looked like (Nazi architect) Albert Speer's buildings. We used a special-effects' house that really used Albert Speer's drawings to create these very outsized domes, which was really what Hitler wanted. He wanted the architecture to dominate the people. There were plans to build them when the war ended."

More than a political thriller, "Fatherland" also explores the tragic relationship between March and his young son, who has been taught to believe everything the government says.

"I think the heart of the movie is about this man and his relationship with his son," Hutchinson says. "I guess decency can only be passed down one person at a time."

"What makes this movie really resonate for me," says Kahn, "and takes it even further out of the realm of Nazis, is that (it says) you can fill a child with anything. That should be a warning. You can fill children with whatever you choose. This is our line to immortality, so you better be careful what you put in their heads."

Hauer's March, though, may be one of the few sympathetic Nazis ever depicted on screen. "I guess it seems to be that we have sort of fallen into a funny gap," Hauer explains. "When it comes to portraying characters--once they work for the bad guys they can't be normal people. I think it's really interesting to take on the whole thing because it's all fiction."

His big challenge, Hauer says, was "if we could make them into real people that you can go along with and make a situation, so you can sort of believe what's going on. This world is less obvious than in the real Nazi world."

Before working on the script, Hutchinson read several German autobiographies written in the '30s and '40s. "It's quite clear that it wasn't, like, overnight you woke up and the devil was in charge. It was that you made these tiny little adjustments. I think that roads to the camps started with things like Jews being denied permission to use public phones. All of those things are baby steps on the way to the horror. It's just so hard to know which tiny step is the one you make the big battle on."

The most difficult aspect of adapting the novel, Hutchinson says, was that "you can do so much in a novel that you can't do in a screenplay. The biggest problem is to keep the audience with us so that they are not yelling from the second minute, 'Wait a minute. It's all about the Holocaust. We know what the big secret is.' I think you can't watch a movie watching characters struggle to find the secret, if you know the secret, because they look dumb. I think the biggest technical writing problem was to assure the audience that we knew that they knew what it was all about."

"Fatherland" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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