Friday, March 16, 2018

The Titillating Attraction of Evil

Hitler's Circle of Evil (2017)
10 one hour episodes

Netflix is currently streaming a ten episode series depicting the history of National Socialism in Germany from the shock of Germany's defeat in World War I, through the formation of the Nazis and their failed beer hall putsch (November 8, 1923), their subsequent electoral rise during the Great Depression, their establishment of a police-state around Hitler's cult of personality, the re-militarization of the Rhineland (March 7, 1936),  the Austrian Anschluss (March 12, 1938), the invasion of the Sudetenland (October 1938), the annexation of Czechoslovakia (March 15, 1939), and on through the years of World War Two.  As the title suggests, the story is told through the lens of Hitler's inner circle of rivals.

The core conceit of this documentary is that from beginning to end, the driving force of Hitler's team of rivals was self-promotion and competition for Hitler's favor. That is surely a gross caricature, but it lends a coherence to the drama.  The series mixes archival footage with cheesy set pieces.  The actors for the set pieces reflect a low budget affair. They are unconvincing and miscast. But it does not matter: the set pieces are abstract illustrations for the background narration. The music and tone of narration are overwrought in service of the central theme: the Machiavellian scheming for power among Hitler's inner circle.

The story is narrated by several scholars of mixed background. There is Frank McDonough a historian on the Third Reich at Liverpool's John-Moores University, Emma Craigie, a novelist who researched the last days of Helga Goebbles who was killed by her parents in Hitler's bunker at the end of the war, a German military historian, Soenke Neitzel, who has written extensively about the mindset of German soldiers during World War 2, Thomas Weber a history professor at the University of Aberdeen who has written several popular books on World War 2, a journalist and writer with a flair for the dramatic, Guy Walters, a retired old coot with a flair for the melo-dramatic, Michael Lynch, a biographer of Goebbles, Cardiff University professor Toby Thacker, and the still dashing Richard Overy, University of Exeter. There are contributions from others; amazingly, the film credits do not include the talking head experts, although they are identified as the story rolls along.

"This is the inside story of Hitler's henchmen, the jealousies, power struggles, and falling sycophants that will create a monster and fuel the most brutal horrors of the Third Reich," intones the narrator. It's a detailed and instructive exercise. We hear the echoes of this era in the Trump administration--the favoring of extreme personalities over experience and competence, the impetuousness, the use of propaganda and lies to further political ends; but it's also clear why, Timothy Snyder notwithstanding, America today is nothing like Nazi Germany in the 30's.  The GOP does not have a military wing. No agency and no person has the power to build up a paramilitary army of thugs like Ernst Roehm's Brownshirts (the SA) which numbered 3 million by 1934, more than four percent of the population, or a criminal police and intelligence force like Himmler's SS, which numbered another 240,000 by the mid-30's.  It's reassuring.

It's also a little like watching Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous. There is something creepy and voyeuristic about the tone and presentation. "They would not have thought that they were doing anything immoral," said one commenter. And it's true. The Nazis thought they were paragons of the new man and a new society; they thought they were striking a patriotic (and virtuous) blow for the Aryan race. There is a quiver of excitement in Michael Lynch's voice. We are attracted to Hitler and his henchmen, the same way we are attracted to Al Capone. We may be watching the architects of "the most brutal horrors of the Third Reich," but there is something titillating about the presentation.  It's just like the press and 63 million voters found Donald Trump titillating in 2016. It's just like the German people found this cast of characters titillating in real life from 1933-45.  Therein lies the lesson.

The series was produced by Headgear Films in England and released world-wide in several languages.  Here is executive producer Phil Hunt talking about movie producing in general.  They produce about 30 films a year.  

You can view the trailer HERE.

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