April 15, 2020

What I've been watching: March, 2020

Shows I’ve Watched:

Shows I’ve Bought:
The Occult History of the Third Reich
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
The Ernie Kovacs Show
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Somehow or other our Sunday night viewing had settled into a pattern of a documentary on the Third Reich and an episode of a Sherlock Holmes story. The fact that this has been going on for a number of months serves as a testimony not only to the number of documentaries about the Nazis—they’re legion—but the number of series built around Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone, Ronald Howard, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, and now Jeremy Brett.

The fascination with Nazis started with two superb movies: Downfall, starring Bruno Ganz in what has to be the definitive portrayal of Adolf Hitler; and Conspiracy, the disturbing movie on the 1942 Wannsee Conference at which the Final Solution was drawn up, with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci. That was followed by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, her account of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, one of the greatest cinematic pieces of propaganda ever made, which captures Hitler at his most mesmerizing. There were series such as Architects of Darkness, which included some incredible home movies of Hitler, some taken by Eva Braun, and did well to explain how and why Hitler became Hitler. One of the most fascinating was an extremely interesting, but very odd, documentary series called The Occult History of the Third Reich, which traced Nazism from a grotesque goulash of Germanic folklore, the Völkisch movement, Aryanism, Eugenics, antisemitism, paganism, and mysticism, and how Heinrich Himmler hoped to convert the SS into a new religion. After watching those, I'd defy anyone to not be fascinated with the subject.

Although the supply of Nazi documentaries seems to be limitless, and probably is, after a bit it tends to get a bit repetitive, which made it a perfect time to segue to the three-hour adaptation of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, produced by the great David L. Wolper, which aired on ABC in 1968 in three one-hour episodes shown on consecutive nights. The fact that a network would spend three prime time hours on a black-and-white documentary about World War II says much not only about the quality of the program, but how television has changed since then.

Were it not for the fact that the legacy of the Third Reich goes beyond horrifying, I'd be tempted to refer to the hierarchy of the Nazi party as a motley group of colorful misfits, but that's a little too Runyonesque for what was essentially a band of gangsters. There was Julius Streicher, (publisher of the virulently antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer); Josef Goebbels (who understood, better than today’s politicians, how to use the mass media); Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe (whose disastrous advise to Hitler may have saved England during the Battle of Britain); Himmler (who emerges as one of the most interesting, as well as disturbing, of the Nazis); Albert Speer (a brilliant organizer who might have won the war for Germany if Hitler had given him control); and that's just the supporting cast, because any documentary about the Third Reich is going to have Adolf Hitler as the star.

Inside the Third Reich (the television series) isn't necessarily the definitive account—you couldn’t possibly do that in three hours, and it doesn’t even begin to get into the things, such as the Völkisch movement, that made Germany so susceptible to Hitler. Shirer has often been accused of a bias against the German nation and its people, and I think that's an accusation that is not without merit. What the series does, however, it does exceptionally well. We get footage of Hitler and the Nazis that is startlingly clear, quite unlike some of the grainy footage we’ve become used to seeing over the years. We see interviews with some people very close to Hitler and other members of the hierarchy (and several appearances by Shirer himself). It's all set against the backdrop of a pulsating, discordant score by Lalo Schifrin in which one can hear traces of his music for Mission: Impossible, and framed with a dignified narration by Richard Basehart.

I don’t pretend that a review of the documentary is a review of the book; as I said, you can’t cover a book of over 1,200 pages in such a short time. But as television goes, informed and enriched by multiple viewpoints and areas of interest, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich serves as a fitting epitaph to a time in history when the leaders of a modern nation tried to reinvent it into a Medieval killer state. And it reminds us, as events in the Middle East in recent years have shown, that there are those out there who would love to reboot the whole thing.

t  t  t

The Third Reich is probably one of the few topics that could make a series on crime and punishment look lighthearted by comparison, but while Sherlock Holmes is the detective story par excellence, much of the charm and insight comes from the inner workings of the main character himself, Sherlock Holmes, and in the case of television, that of the actor playing him.

The Holmes routine began with the series of movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and while they weren’t exactly true to the canon established by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—as far as I know, Holmes never took on the Nazis or flew to Washington, D.C.—they were true to the spirit of the character, often using the bones of other Holmes stories to tell their tales. Most important, they were fun. Ronald Howard (son of Leslie) starred in a single-season half-hour series that was kind of lightweight, but again, fun. Douglas Wilmer’s take, from 1965-66. casts Holmes as serious, sarcastic and determined, with an arrogance that is both bracing and fully justified. Dr. Watson, played Nigel Stock, is still a boob, but more bumptious than stupid—after all, the man is an M.D. Fewer than a dozen of his episodes still exist, but they're terrific. Wilmer only played Holmes for one season; when it came back in 1968, Peter Cushing took over the role, with Stock continuing on as Watson.

That leaves only the definitive Holmes, Jeremy Brett. (Yes, I know there are other movies and series that are perfectly adequate, even excellent. I liked Robert Downey Jr. myself. And while Benedict Cumberbatch is fun—a word that always works well with Holmes—I prefer my Sherlocks as period pieces, or at least in that spirit. Besides, there's only so much room here.) Where was I? Yes, Brett—who played Holmes from 1984-94 and is everything you'd want Holmes to be. He's quirky, quick-witted, self-assured, occasionally tortured, frequently arrogant, and virtually always right. He's also surprisingly nimble, of body as well as mind, and I bring that up because it points out how important the physical portrayal of Holmes can be. That physicality projects not only his determination, but the rapidity of his mind; and his body language establishes that, for the criminal, he truly is a dangerous man.

Brett is aided, in this first season, by David Burke as Watson. This is a Watson who is very smart indeed; not at the level of Holmes, of course, but he's learned well from his compatriot, and each episode contains a bit in which Watson demonstrates how he's picked up on the art of observation, often listing the very same clues that Holmes has seen. The difference, of course, is that Watson fails to come to the same—that is, the correct—conclusion, and the cutting retort from Holmes can sometimes be painful, to us as well as to Watson, who is the most loyal of friends. Holmes is always quick to temper his remarks, though, and there's no doubt that when he compliments Watson, it is no mere flattery. Their chemistry is great.

Throw in literate, even elegant, scripts (many by John Hawkesworth) and period details that create a perfect atmosphere, and you've got just the thing to cleanse the palate after an hour with the Third Reich. TV  


  1. What's the Ernie Kovacs Show that you bought? The only Ernie Kovacs DVDs that I know of are the ones that Shout Factory put out & the set that was made up of the compiliation series that were originally broadcast on public TV in the late 1970s.

    1. It's a bit of a fudge; as I explained in the January edition, I'm not always buying DVDs, but thanks to places like YouTube, I am frequently discovering new shows. The Kovacs shows I've discovered (and you'll read more about them next month) are from his 1956 show that was rerun in the 1990s, and is now at a terrific YouTube channel called "Free the Kinescopes!" I've got those Shout Factor sets, as well as the one the did on Edie Adams, and they're terrific!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!