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Whence the hate?

May 16, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

He's a weird cherub with an odd little face at age 10, obviously quite disturbed. Later he acquires a demented teen sneer, much like Elvis' lip curl, before decades of scheming, ranting, erupting like a volcano, savaging Jews, seducing the upper classes, energizing beer hall rowdies and deploying brownshirt bullies as foreplay for World War II.

So this was Adolf Hitler.

"Hitler: The Rise of Evil" is neither as awful as some of its critics maintain nor as good or profound as CBS and its Alliance Atlantis producers promised while gingerly guiding this crippled two-part project through minefields of suspicion and anger, leading to a metamorphosis worthy of Kafka.

When the dust settled months ago, the story's course had veered sharply, making a casualty of original screenwriter G. Ross Parker, who was booted after his first draft was blasted as soft on Hitler. Another casualty, much later, was executive producer Ed Gernon, fired by Canadian company Alliance Atlantis in a cowardly act bearing the DNA of CBS, after he was attacked for publicly suggesting a connection between the fear and acquiescence in Germany that boosted Hitler and the climate in the U.S. propelling an invasion of Iraq.

The patriotism police's outrage shook Gernon's bosses. When he was lambasted as disloyal by a storm trooper writing in the New York Post, the smear was in and deemed bad for business. And business (as Gernon's subsequent near-erasure from an otherwise expansive network press kit affirms) is what CBS and "The Rise of Evil" are essentially about, platitudes aside.

Shot mostly in Prague under French Canadian director Christian Duguay, it's fine looking and atmospheric thanks largely to Pierre Gill's camera work and Marek Dobrowolski's production design. And very arresting, too, even when struggling to decode the intricate politics that Hitler bends to his advantage. This is anything but a tedious history lecture.

Yet what a missed opportunity, for instead of showing Hitler's evolution from early childhood as originally planned -- a concept some Jews loudly prejudged as inherently anti-Semitic but one that would have broken important ground on film -- the story is stunted by focusing mainly on his serpentine journey to power.

It's a worthy approach but one lacking the scope and dimension of what was first envisioned for this historical flashback, before protesters spooked the Chicken Littles at CBS and before Parker's draft, based on a praised new Hitler biography by scholar Ian Kershaw, was put to the flame like books on a bonfire.

Although pint-sized for the role, that good actor Robert Carlyle is the commanding, seething, ominously glowering force you'd expect from history's arch villain. But Carlyle is barred from probing beneath this surface by a script mostly from John Pielmeier (who replaced Parker) that supposes that Hitler had no major shaping influences, that he began life as a monster and his humanity got snipped when his umbilical cord did. If he was no more than a sociopathic force of nature heeding only twisted inner voices from infancy, as this account implies, there's nothing to be gained from more than a token glance at his formative years, nor much to explore.

Except why gates swung open, one at a time, to clear his path to leadership.

What it takes for Hitler to flourish here is his own shrewdness and a defeated people at once intimidated by him and welcoming at a time of social crisis: Meet Germany, its economy in tatters, its resentment high, its callow democracy and aging leadership buckling under the tonnage of a harsh peace treaty prescribed by the victors of World War I. Just the ticket was a charismatic screamer bearing handy scapegoats, a blueprint for glory and a brutal enforcer in Ernst Rohm (Peter Stormare) and his SA gang.

"The Rise of Evil" evokes philosopher Edmund Burke's observation about evil prevailing when good men do nothing. But it fails to fulfill its promise to demonstrate that Hitler could have been stopped, at any point in his pirouette on the head of a pin, if reasonable Germans had said no to him instead of capitulating.

He does receive a light sentence after his failed 1923 rebellion in Munich, and is treated royally inside Landsberg prison, where he is able to write "Mein Kampf." But an early champion, publisher Ernst Hanfstaengl (Liev Schreiber), ultimately becomes disillusioned. And the story's crescendoing moral voice is someone who resists this wave of adulation and awe with passion. He's Fritz Gerlich (Matthew Modine), a prominent German journalist who crusades against Hitler without bringing him down, and who pays dearly for the effort.

By 1934, when "The Rise of Evil" ends, Austrian-born Hitler is nearly in control, only a few Sieg Heils from dominating most of Europe and imposing death camps on millions.

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