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Hitler Biopic: 'Important Film'

"Hitler: The Rise of Evil" fulfills its mission: taking viewers on a grim guided tour through an era gone mad. And it's a trip well worth taking.

What more to say about this CBS miniseries (airing 9 p.m. EDT Sunday and Tuesday)? The usual vocabulary of TV reviews — "gripping," "entertaining," "excellent" — seems jarringly out of place applied to such a drama.

Consider its dicey goal: to bring into America's homes a biopic of modern times' most infamous tyrant, and give him his due, yet avoid the dramatic misstep of ascribing even a trace of glamour or moral conflict to his villainy.

Mission accomplished. This film treads the straight-and-narrow, somberly tracking the conditions that enable Hitler to seize control — in particular, the social turmoil of Germany after World War I, where his rabid blend of nationalism and bigotry win growing favor.

Here is a visionary blowhard selling a bold new tomorrow as he blames the Jewish race for the world's shortcomings — even his own as an artist ("Jews run the galleries," the young Hitler rants, "they won't buy my paintings"). And as he turns circumstances to his awful advantage, the film's depiction of him unearths nothing whatsoever to condone, much less admire.

Robert Carlyle plays Hitler as twitchy, wild-eyed and ruthlessly shrewd. Known for such films as "The Full Monty" and "Angela's Ashes," the Scottish-born actor is able to reconcile this despot's magnetism and depravity. Watching him, we see all too easily how Hitler succeeded.

"People don't want the real news," says Fritz Gerlich (Matthew Modine), a real-life Munich journalist who, trying to expose the Hitler scourge, battles public indifference. "They don't want to hear about anything they might have to do something about."

Julianna Margulies ("ER") and Liev Schreiber play Helene and Ernst Hanfstaengl, an aristocratic married couple who, at first in a flourish of radical chic, reach out to Hitler, then fall under his virulent spell.

(It is the real-life Ernst, according to the film, who assists Hitler not unlike a current-day political consultant by proposing that he "might consider a more distinctive look" as well as adopt a recognizable symbol — thus the trademark mustache and swastika.)

Ernst first hears about Hitler from his Jewish friend Friedrich Hollander (Harvey Friedman), a real-life composer and owner of a cabaret where, in the early 1920s, musical numbers satirizing Fascism and the Nazi party are the rage. Friedrich invites Ernst to join him at a beer hall to hear Hitler speak, derisively explaining, "I need new material."

"The Rise of Evil" ends at Hitler's height, when, in 1934, he solidified his grip on Germany and proclaimed the beginning of the 1,000-Year Reich.

A postscript reminds us that his campaign for world domination would end in defeat and his life in suicide. But after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, that is cold comfort, all the more so considering the film's main theme: Evil, and those who indulge it, seem to never go out of fashion.

The film, therefore, is less an exercise in Hitler-bashing than a call for soul-searching: Would we let a latter-day Hitler gain a foothold in the here and now?

Stockard Channing plays Hitler's over-devoted mother. Jena Malone is the daughter of his half-sister who becomes his unwilling companion. And Peter O'Toole does a cameo as German President Hindenburg, from whom Hitler wangles the No. 2 position of chancellor in 1933, thus sealing his ascent.

The film was directed by Christian Duguay ("Joan of Arc").

And the list of credits must also include Ed Gernon. One of the film's executive producers, he was recently quoted in TV Guide, where he said that fear was behind the German public's acceptance of Hitler's policies. Then he made the mistake of likening that fear to the atmosphere in the United States today.

For that, he was denounced by a New York newspaper. Then his views were jointly condemned by CBS and the production company he worked for. Then he lost his job.

Thus was Gernon's point confirmed more forcefully than he might have imagined. And, though comparatively slight, his punishment is underscored by that of Fritz Gerlich, who, imprisoned at Dachau prison near the film's conclusion, implores his wife to "urge others to speak out, even when what they have to say is not popular."

It becomes one more reason to watch this important film.

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