Paramount // 1978 // 449 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // June 11th, 2008
A story of hope in a time of despair.
In 1978, NBC aired Holocaust, a five-part miniseries featuring a stable of well-regarded actors who brought to life one of the worst atrocities humankind has committed. Telling the stories of fictional Jewish and Nazi families, Holocaust is a bit dated today but is nevertheless a powerful work, and it's not hard to see why the miniseries was nominated for 15 Emmys. (It won 8, including Best Limited Series.) Thirty years after its airing, Paramount has released the series on DVD in an "anniversary edition." Have they done this landmark production justice?
The Weiss family is celebrating the marriage of their oldest child, Karl (James Woods, Shark), to Inga Helms (Meryl Streep, Evening) in mid-1930s Germany. The Weisses are a Jewish family from Berlin, and the Helmses are Christians. But when the Nazi Party steps up their oppression of the Jews, the two families find themselves at odds; Karl is arrested and imprisoned in Buchenwald, while Inga's brother, Hans (Michael Beck), joins the German army. Eventually, Karl's defiant brother Rudi (Joseph Bottoms) runs away and falls in with a group of partisans, while his parents, Joseph (Fritz Weaver) and Merta (Rosemary Harris, Spider-Man) are sent to the Warsaw ghetto. Meanwhile, a young lawyer named Erik Dorf (Michael Moriarty, Law and Order), in an effort to get ahead in the world, joins the Nazi party and, under the tutelage of SS Chief Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner, Titanic), begins to rise in the party ranks, much to the approval and support of his wife, Marta (Deborah Norton), and distress of his uncle, Kurt (Robert Stephens, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes).
(Spoilers to follow) To be honest, I had never heard of the miniseries Holocaust until it turned up on a list of available DVDs for the judges here to review. As it originally aired in 1978, I was not alive to see it then, and I was unable to find very many other reviews of the miniseries itself, which meant I was in the rare position (for me, at least) of going into Holocaust cold. What I found with this miniseries was a strongly acted and, for the most part, well-written work.
Gerald Green wrote Holocaust, and he is to be commended for his ability to tell so many stories here in a way that is easy to follow and is almost always compelling. There are a lot of characters in Holocaust, and the viewer gets to know them all well by the end credits of part five. And even though the story generally follows one set of characters for extended periods of time (Inga and Dorf, for example, are absent for very long stretches of the narrative), the pacing is generally good, especially considering the 10-year period of time the miniseries covers.
The greatest strength of Holocaust is its characters. They are the reason why this seven-and-a-half-hour miniseries remains a fascinating viewing experience from beginning to end. While watching Holocaust, it occurred to me that the miniseries would make a great educational tool. While certainly not as graphic as Schindler's List, it should go without saying that material of this kind contains very disturbing content, so not every school may want (or be able) to show this, but I think a program like Holocaust, while fictional, would ably communicate to students what people of all ages (including young people like themselves) had to go through during the Holocaust. And while some students might be averse to Holocaust because of its age, I think many would come around after becoming caught up in the struggles of the Weiss family.
Going hand in hand with the strong character work in Holocaust is its near-universally solid acting. I could sing the praises of just about every actor in Holocaust, but there are a few I would like to discuss in depth. The first is Fritz Weaver, who plays Joseph, patriarch of the Weiss family. Weaver has a wonderful speaking voice that he uses to great effect in Holocaust. His tone is nearly always soft, but with it comes the dignity, caring, and grace one would expect from the cultured, good-natured physician that is his character. Through all of the ordeals he and his family are put through, Joseph never loses hope, and he retains his strong personality until the end.
Next is Michael Moriarty as Dorf. In the first scenes I saw with Moriarty's character, I was unimpressed with what I was watching; I thought the actor's delivery was too bland and emotionless. But the more I watched his character, and how he transformed from a struggling young lawyer to ruthless, death-dealing martinet, I realized that Moriarty's portrayal is actually perfect in its coldness and distance. Even when Dorf is interacting with his wife and children, he doesn't seem to be completely engaging with his family. It's downright horrifying to watch as Dorf coolly explains to other Party members how to euphemistically phrase atrocities against the Jews to hide the truth behind the Party's actions. As the miniseries moves toward the end of the war, Dorf calmly explains to his wife Marta (Deborah Norton, no slouch herself as a Lady Macbeth who never stops believing in the rightness of her husband's actions) that the Germans will not win. Later, he explains to his colleagues that the "Final Solution" must continue despite Germany's losing position -- because easing up or ceasing the Party's treatment of Jews would be tantamount to an admitting that what they were doing was wrong. Finally, there is a terrific scene where Dorf melts down while vehemently stating that the concentration camps should be left standing as monuments to what the Nazis did. Moriarty plays the scene so well that it's hard to tell that his character is faltering initially; the actor gives us his character's breakdown in a slow, gradual fashion.
I'm a little biased here, as I'm a great admirer of the 1970 Billy Wilder film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but I feel that I have to say something about Robert Stephens as Dorf's uncle Kurt. Kurt works as a civilian engineer, supervising the construction of roads in Germany -- roads that are built by slave labor. Although Kurt is not a heels-clicking, Führer-saluting Nazi, he is well aware of what people like his nephew are doing to the Jews, and because of his involvement in the road building, he is far from innocent himself. Kurt's character basically provides a voice of opposition for the Dorf storyline, but for the most part, the scenes with Kurt work, and that is largely due to Stephens' performance. The actor's seemingly perpetually rueful and conflicted face says more than any line of dialogue ever could, and the mournful expression he gives as he leaves the Dorfs' home at the end of war (having just been angrily told off by Marta and her children for daring suggest that Erik was a monster) is one of several lingering images from this miniseries for me.
Paramount's DVD presentation of Holocaust is quite bad. The sound is tinny and inconsistent (and there are no subtitles of any kind), and the image quality is not very good at all. There's a lot of fuzziness in shots, and the image seems out of focus at times. To add insult to injury, there are absolutely no extras. Zero. This DVD is completely barebones. I realize that a commentary for a seven-and-a-half-hour miniseries is a bit much, but given the caliber of the talent involved in this production, a nice retrospective featurette could have been cobbled together. Even better, the studio could have put on some historical/documentary featurettes to further educate the viewer about the subject. Alas, for this "anniversary edition," we get none of that. Also, in eensy-weensy size type on the back of the case, a vague message reads, "May be edited from its original network version." What may or may not have been edited out, I have no idea.
I understand that making international productions featuring actors speaking the language of their characters is a relative novelty in mainstream film and television even today, but that doesn't excuse Holocaust for having every single character not only speak English, but also apparently letting each actor use what (more or less) seems to be his/her native accent. Thus, we get Michael Moriarty's American accent even though his character is German, and his own uncle Kurt speaks with the British accent native to his portrayer, Robert Stephens. One can still watch Holocaust and be affected by it even with this annoyance, but there is an unmistakable element of authenticity that comes from having actors use the language of their character in film and television productions.
In addition, I do have some issues with Green's screenplay. While Green does an excellent job telling multiple storylines, he sometimes has them intersect a bit too much to be entirely believable. I have no doubt that many friends and relatives reunited with each other in unexpected places during the Holocaust, but in this miniseries the interconnecting of characters sometimes smacks more of contrivance than authenticity and good storytelling, as when Joseph lands on one of the road work details supervised by Kurt Dorf, or when Rudi and Inga run into each other at the end of the war.
Another, more specific problem I had with the script comes when Rudi and his soon-to-be-wife Helena (Tovah Feldshuh) save the life of Inga's brother Hans, who repays them by turning them into the Nazis. Left alone, this would have been a powerful moment in the miniseries that shows just how cruel the Nazis could be. But Green ruins it by having Rudi swear an oath of revenge on Hans, who is promptly blown up in an attack mere seconds after Rudi's vow. It's meant to be ironic, but it feels so heavy-handed that it's unintentionally comical. There are other examples of this sort of writing in the miniseries, but this scene is the most glaring.
Even with a better transfer, Holocaust could probably not be considered a visually stunning work. All of the camerawork is functional in nature, and the cinematography itself is as bland as any television programming I've seen from that time period.
Holocaust, despite its foibles, is undeniably powerful and moving, and it is made so by strong performances and a mostly sturdy script that holds the multiple threads of the plot together. For anyone who hasn't seen it, this is at least worth renting. For those who would wish to own it, just know going in that you're getting a DVD that looks and sounds mediocre at best, and has absolutely no special features of any kind.
Not guilty due to the quality of the content, but shame on Paramount for giving this miniseries such a shoddy DVD presentation.
Review content copyright © 2008 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 449 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated