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Hitler's Rise to Evil

May 9, 2009 | by

Four questions for Peter Sussman, executive producer of the Emmy-nominated mini-series Hitler: the Rise to Evil.

Peter Sussman is CEO of the Entertainment Group for Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. His credits as executive producer include Joan of Arc, Nuremberg, Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, the mini-series Haven and the award-winning feature film The Quarrel, based on the celebrated Yiddish short story by Chaim Grade entitled My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner.

He is also the executive producer of the recent, controversial mini-series Hitler: The Rise to Evil, which was recently nominated for two Emmy Awards, including best mini-series. Over the last 10 years, there has been a proliferation of Holocaust films. Do you think these movies cheapen the Holocaust?

Peter Sussman

Sussman: For some people it does. Perhaps to the scholars, to the Elie Wiesels, and certainly to the victims. It's hard to stand in their shoes. No one can imagine what it was like. But I think that the price of "cheapening" it is outweighed by the contribution these films make to education.

When we were doing the Nuremberg mini-series, I was shocked to find out how many people in America still either don't know about the Holocaust, or don't believe in it. It's remarkable. You've got to be living in a bubble.

No one ever answered the question: How did Hitler get there in the first place?

There's a ton of work out there, especially in film, on Hitler, the Nazis, and the incredible stories that came from the Holocaust. But when you think about it, all that body of work, including Schindler's List, The Pianist, and films contributed by our company Atlantis Alliance -- Sunshine, The Quarrel, Haven, Nuremberg -- all that work is post-1938. All these stories flowed from the behavior of Hitler and the Nazis. No one ever answered the question: How did they even get here in the first place?

I saw it as this giant jigsaw puzzle, with a missing piece right in the middle, and this was our chance to contribute that piece. So when my partner Ed Gernon suggested the idea of doing a movie on Hitler, I zeroed in on his rise to power, the period 1889-1934.

Hitler: The Rise to Evil was also different on another front, which was crystallized during a meeting I had with a woman named Sara bloomfield who runs the Holocaust Museum in Washington. She was observing that just about all their methods for educating or presenting the evil of the Holocaust was from the victim's perspective.

What's intriguing about our film, she said, is that you're approaching this from the other side of the wall -- from the perspective of the perpetrators.

As one Jewish scholar said to me when we discussed this very subject: We always run the risk of being "Holocausted out." Every time another film gets made showing the Jews as victims of the Holocaust, unfortunately, a lot of the world says: Okay, we get it! Enough! We know! It was awful! We agree, but don't beat us to death.

This film was another way to expose the world to the evils of the Holocaust. Your film begins and ends with the quote from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing." Do you believe that Hitler could only have achieved what he did with the complicity of the German people?

Sussman: Complicity, from our research, contributed substantially to his ability to get the power.

Unfortunately there were a great many Germans who did nothing, and by the time they realized that they should have done something, it was too late. We are all probably guilty, on some level, of that kind of behavior. We tend to focus on ourselves more because of the pressures and demands of everyday life. At what point in time should one stand up, or is one guilty for not standing up -- those are complex issues.

Then there were people like Ernst Hanfstaengl (Hitler's foreign press secretary) who represented the significant body of Germans who move more toward the area of actual guilt -- those who really didn't care what Hitler stood for. All he cared about was the fact that he saw a power in Hitler that he wanted to hook his wagon onto. He was out for himself.

His guilt, of course, lies in the fact that he was willing to do exploit the situation for personal gain, even at the expense of having to embrace an anti-Semitic platform. Obviously they were far more guilty than the ones who "did nothing."

There were those who literally did nothing, and there were the Hanfstaengls who had a chance to do something -- more of a chance than others -- and still did nothing.

On the opposite spectrum, you have someone like Fritz Gerlich, the journalist who risked -- and eventually sacrificed -- his life for writing and speaking out against Hitler. He was not the only journalist who wrote and spoke out against Hitler. But, it is surprising to me that someone like Gerlich is not better known.

In fact, three quarters of the information we got on Gerlich, including that the Nazis sent his wife his broken, bloodstained eyeglasses, came from German books that we had translated. That's how little information there is generally known on Gerlich.

When we discovered him, I loved that he wasn't Jewish. I felt that his cause would resonate better with a broader audience by him not being Jewish. Otherwise, you run the risk of people saying, "Yes, of course the Jews are going to speak out." Did your own views on evil change in the process of making the film?

Sussman: Making the film didn't change my views on the subject, but it did cement them. I believe evil lurks around us all the time, and that it only takes a certain combination of events or people to make it go from danger to dangerous.

I think it's what's not seen or done sometimes that is more dangerous than what is seen or done.

We'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn't show that Hitler was human.

In fact, some of the criticism we took on the film in the early stage was, "Don't you run the risk of making Hitler human?" And my answer was, "I hope so."

We'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn't show that he was human. He wasn't born with a sign on him saying: "Evil." And he didn't have claws and fanged teeth and breathe fire. He lived and walked among us.

If we think of evil as an aberration, or Hitler as non-human, it's very easy to put it in a little container by itself and push it away. What I think is important is that there are other possible Hitlers out there. You mentioned that the film initially received a lot of criticism and was perceived as rather controversial. Do you think the criticisms were valid, and how did you handle it?

Sussman: I think it is appropriate for groups and organizations whose mandate is to try and prevent events that would negatively influence their cause. So I was never critical of the communications I received from various Jewish organizations asking me not to make the film, or to be careful. My own personal thought was: Trust us. Don't worry. We know what we're doing. We're experienced. We're as committed as you are to these issues.

I also knew that at the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was the final product. We absorbed the comments, keeping track of all those who had communicated to us. And once I had an assembly of the footage -- not the finished film, but enough to allow someone to get a sense of the tone and the direction of the film -- I met one-by-one with 15 leaders and scholars in the American Jewish community.

Please do me a favor. Let me know whether you think I've lost my mind.

They included Abraham Foxman from the Anti-Defamation League, Elie Wiesel, and Rabbi Marvin Hier in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance. I am also good friends with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in New York who I went to first when I had about three quarters of the film. I said, "Joseph, you've got to do me a favor. I need someone who I can trust, and won't run to the press if I've done something wrong here. Watch the film that I have so far, and please let me know whether you think I've lost my mind."

I always believed we were doing the right thing. At the same time, you lie in bed at night, and you say to yourself: "Am I too progressive? Am I too stupid? Am I missing something here? I really don't think we're doing the wrong thing, and yet I've got some pretty hardened views, from people with great knowledge and more experience that I in this arena of anti-Semitism."

Joseph watched the cut of the film and his reaction was: "Staggering. Peter, you have nothing to worry about."

Frankly, I was hoping that of those 15 people that I had sought out or had spoken against us, that I'd have 10 of the 15 supporting the film, or at least saying: "Look, I wish you hadn't made it, but I don't believe it contributes negatively, so I'm neutral."

In the end, across the board, top to bottom, every single one not only had no problem with the film, but almost all of them thought the film made an extremely positive contribution to their causes.

We were committed to being truthful, as best we could within the medium and the timeframe allowed. We thought that whatever messages were appropriate or necessary would result if we did the work properly and truthfully.

We just wanted to tell the story about how Hitler came to power. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League said it well. He said the film shows us how fragile democracy is.

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