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Touches of evil

Going back to the drawing board, CBS seeks to add context to a TV movie about Hitler after controversy shelved the first draft. Many eyes are watching.

March 09, 2003|Howard Rosenberg | Times Staff Writer

Prague — "Get me Hitler."

Those haunting words -- spoken gravely by Peter O'Toole as aging German leader Paul von Hindenburg in a bitterly contested CBS drama nearing completion here -- signify a transfer of power to someone who would become one of history's epic fiends.

Seven decades after Hindenburg reluctantly named him chancellor, Adolf Hitler arrives at center stage again in this much-revised two-part story that has been attacked since its inception by those fearing it would soften a monster, driving renascent anti-Semitism.

A gentler depiction of Hitler would be especially ironic here, where the names of 80,000 Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia appear on the walls of Pinkas Synagogue in Prague's former Jewish quarter, a short walk from the Intercontinental Hotel where the cast and crew are housed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Second Reich -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about a coming CBS miniseries on Hitler incorrectly stated that Germany's Second Reich came after World War I. Germany's Second Reich began in 1871 and was toppled in World War I.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 16, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Second Reich -- An article in last Sunday's Calendar about a coming CBS miniseries on Hitler incorrectly stated that Germany's Second Reich came after World War I. Germany's Second Reich began in 1871 and was toppled in World War I.

Pressure on them is as high as wintry temperatures are low. At stake here are the reputations of CBS and Alliance Atlantis, the production company behind this closely watched work headed for the May ratings sweeps, when viewers will learn if it's something to applaud or merely a network mishap upgraded from a disaster.

"I hope it will sit on the shelves of history forever," Peter Sussman, one of its executive producers, proclaimed grandly last year, as if speaking of the cosmos. Actually, "Hitler: The Early Years," as it was initially called, lived only a moment in time before wilting under the heat of scrutiny and being uprooted for this new, still-untitled story being produced in an old movie studio on the edge of Prague, with Scotsman Robert Carlyle ("Trainspotting," "The Full Monty") as the adult Hitler.

This is Carlyle's second go at der Fuhrer and also at facing controversy over him. He took the CBS role, ironically, only eight weeks after protests from Jewish activists in the U.S. ended plans for a four-hour BBC production in which he was to play Hitler. That endeavor, which also would have focused significantly on a young Hitler, died when the BBC's partner, Fox, withdrew.

The CBS project has its own revolving door.

Out is G. Ross Parker, who wrote the first draft that drew such scorn.

Out are respected British historian Ian Kershaw and his scholarly acclaimed biography, "Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris," that was advertised as the basis for Parker's draft but proved difficult to translate as drama because it was laden with academicspeak and light on anecdotes. "I have absolutely nothing to do with the miniseries," Kershaw affirmed from his home in Sheffield, declining further comment.

Out, CBS and the producers stress, is the first story's young Adolf for whom compassion was possible before he darkened into the archvillain who later would wage war on much of the human race, including the estimated 13 million who perished in Nazi death camps.

In are playwright-screenwriter John Pielmeier ("Agnes of God") and his script that is said to dwell less on the young Hitler and more on his path to genocide.

In, still, is a segment on his childhood.

In is Hitler the lifetime demon and "dullard with a big ego," as executive producer Ed Gernon ("Joan of Arc," "The Matthew Shepard Story") now calls him. "He's not terribly cunning," Gernon, 37, said inside this studio's laser-focused universe sealed off from Prague's bitter cold and the globe's fixation on terrorism and likely war with Iraq. "What he is, is awfully sure he's destined for something great that's bigger than all men, and that somehow he's above the law."

In, especially, Gernon emphasized, is the German political, social and economic environment in which the "sociopathic, antisocial, delusional" Hitler flourished. "It is not about Hitler at all, in a strange way," Gernon added about the drama referred to as "Hitler: The Origins of Evil" for now. "It's about the society around Hitler."

In, unofficially, is Rabbi Harvey Fields of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. One of his congregants just happens to be CBS President and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, who asked him to vet Pielmeier's shooting script and provide notes.

And? Fields reports that Part 1 is now "much stronger" than an earlier Pielmeier draft, which he found lacking in the "historical context" that Gernon says is the production's main focus. Fields said he passed on to Moonves the same criticism of Part 2.

"He's had some very good points to make, and I trust him implicitly," Moonves said in Los Angeles. The result? "I don't know if [the story] accomplishes everything we want, but we will be looking at it shortly."

In, also, by the way, are public service announcements promoting tolerance that CBS says will be run before and during the production, and a planned network donation to a Jewish Holocaust charity, which some may read as an expression of guilt for spending any time at all on "Hitler: The Early Years."

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