This four part, eight hour miniseries turns the fate of a family of German Jews into a sprawling drama that covers all the bases of the holocaust horror. It was strong stuff and a big Emmy winner, boosting the careers of James Woods and Michael Moriarty. His warped charisma as a psychotic Nazi is so good that he’s consistently more interesting than the courageous victims. As for Meryl Streep, she became an instant star — everybody remembered her from this. Although it’s been called ‘The Holocaust for Dummies,’ it’s a quality show. Looking from today’s perspective, after forty years of Political Correctness adjustments, I’m not sure any two viewers will react in quite the same way.
CBS Television Studio / Paramount
1978 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 7 hours, 36 min. / Street Date September 24, 2019 / 43.19
Starring: James Woods, Meryl Streep, Michael Moriarty, Joseph Bottoms, Rosemary Harris, Fritz Weaver, Tovah Feldshuh, Deborah Norton, George Rose, Robert Stephens, Sam Wanamaker, David Warner David Warner, Charles Korvin, Tom Bell, T.P. McKenna, Ian Holm, George Pravda, Nigel Hawthorne.
Cinematography: Brian West
Film Editors: Robert M. Reitano, Stephen A. Rotter, Alan Heim, Craig McKay, Brian Smedley-Aston
Production Design: Wilfrid Shingleton
Original Music: Morton Gould
Written by Gerald Green
Produced by Robert Berger
Directed by Marvin Chomsky
ABC’s 1977 miniseries Roots made TV history, distilling a core American history lesson into just under ten hours of must-see TV. That success surely helped propel the next year’s NBC presentation of Holocaust, an almost eight-hour account of the murder of millions of European Jews during WW2. Judging by the media reaction and editorial features of the day, Americans in general knew even less about the Holocaust than then they did about slavery. Although well-informed folk might refer to the miniseries as ‘The Holocaust for Dummies,’ there’s no denying that it helped spread the word through a culture that at the time knew everything about Charlie’s Angels but precious little about the historical reality of slavery or the reasons why a warring nation saw fit to exterminate six million human beings. Not that things have changed that much.
Holocaust the miniseries would remain controversial, as pundits debated the merits and pitfalls of turning the darker corners of the human condition into network TV entertainment. I’d argue that any serious treatment of the theme is justified, if it helps educate people. The generation that fought WW2 has by now all but passed away into history. The general population is now even less interested in anything outside of their immediate sphere of self-interest. This show may not be perfect, but it made a positive impact in the year of Saturday Night Fever.
We also knew this series as a career springboard for three very different actors. James Woods had been gaining traction in modest TV and film parts (The Way We Were, Night Moves); his role as a suffering artist put him on a path to his breakout role in The Onion Field. Michael Moriarty had made a big splash opposite Robert De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly, but he gravitated toward weird characters that audiences couldn’t get behind, as in Report to the Commissioner. Moriarty has always been respected, even if his filmography has seen highs and lows. The show was marked Meryl Streep’s big entry into the public consciousness. Streep had a small part in Julia of the previous year, but after Holocaust she went directly from one showcase part to another.
The entire eight hours of Holocaust were written by Gerald Green (His Majesty O’Keefe) and directed by one of Roots’ directors, TV veteran Marvin J. Chomsky. Filmed in Germany and Austria, it is efficiently designed by the great Wilfred Shingleton (The Innocents, The Fearless Vampire Killers). If not lavishly appointed, key scenes and settings are more than adequate in size and scope.
As had Roots, the miniseries tells its story through the experience of a family. Berliners Dr. Josef Weiss and his wife Berta (Fritz Weaver of Fail-Safe & Rosemary Harris of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) celebrate the wedding of their son Karl (James Woods) to the Christian Inga Helms (Meryl Streep), even as some relatives & guests object to the mixing of religions in the looming shadow of Nazi politics. Across town, unsuccessful law graduate Erik Dorf (Michael Moriarty) is encouraged by his wife Marta (Deborah Norton) to relieve their poverty by joining the Nazi party. Erik is hired by Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner of Time After Time), the powerful and feared Nazi security chief. Erik has a talent for framing outrageously immoral and criminal policies in language that makes the abominable sound legitimate. He is soon helping Heydrich gain control over a looming policy of mass extermination — which needs to be carried out on a gigantic scale, yet remain unpublicized.
Berta and Josef balk at leaving Germany until it is too late — legal protections for Jews are stripped away until emigrating is impossible. Josef and his neighbor Franz Lowry (George Rose of A New Leaf) are deported to Poland, their country of origin; the rest of the family must remain behind. Berta’s hope that things will improve soon fades. After Kristallnacht, Karl is arrested and put in Buchenwald. His brother Rudi (Joseph Bottoms of The Black Hole) runs away. In Prague he links up with Helena Slomova (Tovah Feldshuh of Daniel) and they eventually join anti-Nazi guerillas that must live and fight in the forest. Karl’s sister Anna (Blanche Baker) stays at home and becomes frantic about the tightening restrictions and street hate campaigns. Attacked by Nazi street thugs, she is left in a catatonic state. Inga takes her to a clinic for the mentally disturbed, which she doesn’t realize is following new Nazi guidelines for the disposal of undesirables that ‘can’t contribute to society.’
The Weiss family is broken up but manages to keep in loose contact. Inga communicates with Karl the only way she can, by trading sexual favors to Heinz Müller (Tony Haygarth), a Buchenwald guard who was previously a family friend. Heinz’s intervention saves Karl, and effects his eventual transfer to Theresienstadt, a camp maintained as a showcase for the Red Cross and neutral observers. But Karl resents Inga just the same. Later on she will ask Heinz to denounce her so she can enter Theresienstadt to be with her husband.
Erik Dorf had once been Josef Weiss’s patient. He sent Weiss away when the doctor begged for help. While Dorf is researching ‘factory’ methods for mass murder, Josef finds himself in the Warsaw Ghetto with his brother Moses (Sam Wanamaker of Give Us this Day). They eventually help lead the Warsaw uprising. But sooner than later the surviving Weisses end up in Auschwitz, the extermination camp. Karl’s involvement in making a secret artistic record of the truth of concentration camps is found out. Josef and Franz work are for a while spared because they are working on road gangs.
Erik Dorf’s unemotional efficiency earns him the hatred of other Nazi officers, bureaucratic monsters that resent his power as Heydrich’s favored agent. Dorf teams with Adolf Eichmann (Tom Bell of The L-Shaped Room) to formulate the gas chamber/crematoria system to replace mass shooting and other less efficient methods of killing. After Heydrich is assassinated in Prague, Dorf’s position becomes difficult under SS General Kaltenbrunner (Hans Meyer). Caught in the mental trap of his own evil, Erik would go insane if not for the Lady Macbeth-like coaching of his vicious wife Marta. Erik’s own Uncle Kurt Dorf (Robert Stephens of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), an engineer building roads to serve the Polish death camps, needles Erik with the truth of his crimes. The only ‘positive’ note sees Rudi, now on his own, taken to the camp Sobibor, where he links up with Russian and Jewish prisoners to overcome the guards and break out.
Although it earned its share of praise and bushels of Emmy Awards for acting (Moriarty, Streep), directing (Chomsky) and numerous technical categories, Holocaust didn’t escape the ire of critical voices, including some Jewish scholars. Starting with the blanket charge of trivializing a near-sacred subject, the complaints vary from the moral crime of making money from the plight of the Jews, to specific sticking points. A case can certainly be made that the movie minimizes and beautifies the horror. The misery and squalor of the living conditions isn’t communicated, and even the concentration camp clothing looks reasonably clean. The cast continues to look attractive, even when starving or broken in body. Convenient plot machinations allow for the scattered characters to keep in touch, meet in odd circumstances, and enjoy brief reunions. Finally, three out of four chapters affect upbeat, hopeful conclusions. In other words, the horror is tempered for commercial considerations — the makers (and the sponsors) don’t want the show to so revolt viewers that they tune out.
The series was noted for its frankness in showing the methods of killing in Auschwitz and elsewhere. Network disclaimer text cards primed audiences to expect extreme content not previously depicted on American TV screens. Mass shootings in pits, and the process of gassing women and children are shown in repetitive detail that now might seem unnecessary. Some may see these scenes as educationally honest, while others might call them exploitative — for good and bad reasons.
The show’s general quality can be seen in the fine performances and Chomsky’s respectful direction. Only in the last episode are there too many noble speeches about human dignity, spoken by victims that would likely be too brutalized to express anything coherent. Some clunker dialogue does occur when characters (the trio of artist-prisoners, for example) have to do too much explaining. We can better imagine that they’d pass the hours saying as little as possible — less chance that way to spill the beans or offend a guard.
James Woods and Meryl Streep achieve bold character statements, while Michael Moriarty’s outwardly inert, inwardly screaming performance is one of the best portrayals of psychotic villainy ever. Moriarty’s Erik Dorf begins as a blank slate, a man who really believes in nothing. He becomes a zealot for Heydrich simply because he needs a job. Dorf finds a purpose, approval and status… but maintaining the evil Nazi lies takes a toll on his mind. The moment he’s confronted by accusers he can’t intimidate or ignore, he short-circuits.
Woods and Moriarty certainly benefitted from the show, but Holocaust can be said to have launched Meryl Streep as a world class actress and major personality. The IMDB at present credits her with 21 Oscar nominations and three wins. (When Holocaust was broadcast, my late friend Robert S. Birchard proudly told us that he was related, that Meryl was a second cousin he saw at family reunions. You couldn’t tell it by looking at Bob!)
Also making vivid appearances are T.P. McKenna as another Nazi chieftan, Ian Holm as Heinrich Himmler, and George Pravda as James Woods’ fellow artist-prisoner in Theresienstadt. The venerated Marius Goring plays Berta’s father, a bookseller.
The miniseries finishes in the plus column for social responsibility, if only for its educational value. In 1978 the most explicit films of the death camps had still been widely shown only in excerpts. Holocaust helped break down a ‘bad taste’ taboo, opening a floodgate of declassified army film, and encouraging new documentaries.
The miniseries is made in the spirit of liberal filmmaking that sought to expose viewers to progressive thinking on (blanket term) ‘vital social problems.’ The best defense for Holocaust might be in the old liberal phrase, once used to explain some of the movies of Sidney Poitier: It was the story that the public was ready for at the time, as in, ‘a bluntly honest movie about American blacks would have been rejected and become counterproductive.’ Excepting a mawkish moment or two, Holocaust certainly works well enough for me. I can see camp survivors raising an eyebrow at a couple of reunion scenes: even in concentration camps, ‘getting together’ for emotionally satisfying scenes is possible. And would Jews be offended by the subtle suggestion that Meryl Streep’s gentile wife is the one to make the most noble sacrifice, purposely denouncing herself to be with her husband? As for borderline hokey scenes, I’m a little wary about director Chomsky’s handling of Inga and Karl’s final separation: Inga bursts forth to chase a truck, collapsing in the dust in a manner similar to Anna Magnani in the profound classic Rome, Open City.
Everybody will have their own opinion as to what the right approach to a subject this seriou should be… mere ‘respectfulness’ isn’t enough. As with other movies about Nazi Germany, the villains are sometimes more interesting than the sad victims, if only because characters ‘doing things’ get more attention than those that must passively endure. We’re fascinated by how such a pack of human vermin can maintain a functioning hierarchy. The emphasis on various horrid mechanisms for mass killing seems unhealthy as well — we think as much about the ‘processing problem’ as we do about the cosmic scope of the evil involved.
There are moments in Holocaust when I was thinking, will people react to this with the same sobriety that I did? Even Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List has accumulated its share of naysayers. I personally gravitate toward Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. That story of a lone musician’s survival against all odds avoids conventional sentimentality altogether.
CBS Television Studio / Paramount’s Blu-ray of Holocaust is copyrighted to the original production company, Titus. The transfer looks quite good, with most scenes having decent color and contrast, although overall the production definitely has a TV movie feel. For a TV presentation from 41 years ago, it looks fine.
The original show was of course telecast in the 1:33 TV aspect ratio, but it must have been framed with the possibility of theatrical showings, for the entire eight hours play well formatted at 1:78 widescreen. The package incorrectly states 4×3. Only occasionally does a shot feel too tight in the widescreen ratio. The running time falls a few minutes short of the original but I’m guessing that the disc has skipped the original chapter re-cap montages seen on the network broadcast.
There aren’t any extras, but the show does carry English subs. There are other worthy, historically important TV movie productions that could use some attention. I would hope that rights holders are finding a way to remaster the 3-hour 1976 miniseries Helter Skelter. With TV movies, one never knows if anything better than a 2″ video master has been preserved.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Miniseries: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 1, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson