Essays: The search for Hitler |
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The search for Hitler

AS MY bench-mate Robert Brustein pointed out on BBC-2’s promising new Real Time, no television service can be all bad that produces in a single week what the American networks couldn’t come up with in four years — namely, four dramas like The Adventures of Don Quixote (BBC-1), Peter Terson's Shakespeare or Bust (BBC-1), the Keith Dewhurst ‘Edwardians’ episode on Lloyd George (BBC-2) and the LWT simulation of The Death of Adolf Hitler.

Whereat Peter Porter and Benedict Nightingale drew their toecaps distractedly through the studio sawdust, grunting begrudgingly that there was nothing really startling about all this and clearly implying that if Brustein ran around with a straw in his mouth marvelling that hot water came out of taps instead of from off the stove there would soon be people trying to sell him gold bricks. All were agreed, however, that ‘Lloyd George’ was the best piece.

To the creations of Dewhurst, Terson and Cervantes I’ll pay critical attention when rerun time comes. For the moment it seems more important to attempt an extended analysis of ‘The Death of Adolf Hitler’ and try to puzzle out why a play which was not especially convincing should nevertheless he so disturbing, to the point where at least one viewer ended the evening by assuring his wife that after the destruction of the television set he would make no further territorial claims in the living-room — or Lebensraum as we used to call it during the good old days in Bavaria.

The ‘Hitler’ play, far from giving away prizes or generating glutinous consolation, was attempting to transmit the form and pressure of an historical event which is paired with the Stalinist catastrophe at the centre of twentieth-century experience.

Even in a production like this, whose unimpeachable aim was plainly to spread enlightenment through the dramatic form, the simple requirements of exposition and theatrical intelligibility imposed heavy distortions on the facts and transposed — and in crucial instances capsized — the psychological forces that were operating among the Nazi leadership right through the 12 years actually completed of the thousand it was planned to run. To take the key example, Hitler himself came out of the play looking human. And although it is true that Hitler was human (and consequently a far more unstable moral problem than the mutants and robots who carried out the most horrible of his orders) it’s by no means true that he looked human during the late stages of the war.

As an actor, the brilliant Frank Finlay can do absolutely anything except behave like a bad actor — which is the way Hitler behaved. Hitler really did, for example, hurl himself to the floor and chuck tantrums. Eschewing such phantasmagoric paroxysms, Finlay contented himself with mere demented rant, doing a technically fascinating job of shaping and pointing the long speeches provided for him by Vincent Tilsley, who had obviously soaked himself in Hitler’s table talk, perhaps to the irreversible detriment of his own prose style.

Hitler’s psychology was made comprehensible, graspable and to a certain degree sympathetic. Early in the play Dr Karl Gebhardt showed up, having traversed the forests of flame and rubble planted by the Russian guns in order to show Hitler photographs of his medical experiments on Jews and request promotion to head of the Red Cross. It was a paradox of this production that such farcical moments rang truer than the main action if you were in a position to test them against the facts — later on, for example, the wounded Ritter von Greim attempted to salute from the horizontal position, and Hanna Reitsch (who used to fly her Fiesler Storch through the fire-lanes of the Russian artillery and land it on the road near the Chancellery) had an orgasm of adoration at Hitler’s feet.

Things like this actually went on, and a truly veracious account of the last days in the bunker would have been composed of nothing but contextless excesses, the disjointed fragments of an exploded design. Here, such moments were a kind of light relief, sprinklings of farce on the heaving surface of an ersatz tragedy. The tragic mode irresistibly obtruded, since there was no consistent way of presenting the farcical reality in any terms except the humorous. Hence Hitler was given a psychological ambivalence he did not actually possess. Afraid of Gebhardt’s photographs, he ran and vomited. ‘As you know, Leader,’ said Himmler, referring to the Final Solution, ‘most of our work was completed last year.’

None knew it better, but for dramatic purposes it was thought opportune to present Himmler as the blood-lusting monster and Hitler as the man with an irrepressible regressive inclination to scruple. In fact Himmler couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and Hitler personally ordered the July conspirators to be hanged with piano wire and filmed strangling. To present Hitler as having greater moral stature than Himmler is historically meaningless, no matter how necessary to the drama’s plot. Hitler simply had more personality, in an utterly amoral context which both men shared and neither could transcend.

Hitler’s sex-life (featuring Caroline Mortimer — far too beautiful but accurately dense — as Eva Braun) was authentically shown to he as kinky as a very old dancing pump. It’s questionable, though, whether the fact of Hitler’s being a kook was any more central to the psychology of megalomania than the fact of Mussolini’s being a ram. Hitler’s reluctance to shed his uniform was practically the play’s leitmotiv.

The doomed Goebbels children played a board game called ‘Kill the Jews,’ which rang false, and would have rung false even if it had been true. The idea that the mass of mankind can be continually re-educated in the facts of Nazi atrocity seems to me wrong-headed, for the simple reason that the actuality was unimaginable even to the men who perpetrated it. It’s an almost uncrackable philosophical conundrum, but inescapably true, that the madness which inspired the holocaust was essentially trivial. Himmler, for example, and at a time when the Nazi economy was already well on the road to ruin, spent lorry-loads of Deutschmarks looking for scientific proof that the Japanese were Aryans.

So a hoard-game called ‘Kill the Jews’ would certainly be representative — but of what? Most people know the name Auschwitz. The general run of the intelligentsia has probably heard of Treblinka, Maidanek, Ravensbrueck. But the rest of it — the vast reality, the concentrated universe of suffering — has gone into a limbo that no ordinary play will ever reanimate. I respect the intention, but it is still an unimaginative intention. It presumes to simplify the labyrinth, analyse the cataclysm.

Hitler called Keitel and Jodl a double act. Exposition — he would have made all those jokes ages ago. ‘It really is a most unmemorable face.’ he told Bormann (played with exemplary creepiness by Ed Devereaux). ‘— that will probably be the saving of you.’ A gag for our times. On such desperations of informativeness and relevance did the play lose all the distancing strangeness it would have needed in order to evoke the permanent immediacy of the events.

Rex Firkin’s direction made excellent use of the Führer-bunker’s compartmentalised layout. The claustrophobia weighed down, the action revved up. and all concerned worked with great skill. But the way things were would not come back. Perhaps luckily. To adapt the precociously delphic lines of the young Auden, it all falls forward on the tide / Of history that never sleeps or dies / And held one moment, burns the hand.

The Observer, 14th January 1973