FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty

A David L. Wolper production.; executive producer Mel Stuart; produced and directed by Jack Kaufman; narration written by Alan Landsburg, based on the book by William L. Shirer; narration spoken by Richard Basehart; music composed and conducted by Lalo Schifrin. DVD, B&W, 154 min., 1968. A Warner Bros. Archive release.

Originally shown over three nights on March 6, 7, and 9, 1968, David L. Wolper’s small-screen précis of William L. Shirer’s magisterial true-crime book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is a portal not just into theretofore unseen Nazi footage but also to an age, unimaginable now, when a stern black-and-white documentary, neither slicked up nor dumbed down, could be allotted copious prime-time space on a major television network (well, on ABC—then a very weak sister to the big boy powerhouses of NBC and CBS). It is a riveting work, a cinematic history lesson that belongs on the select list of required viewing on the topic that has spawned more archival ruminations than any other event in twentieth-century history.

The pedigree of David L. Wolper, who helped define the high-profile television documentary special with nuggets such as The Race for Space (1959), The Making of the President 1960 (1963), and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau series (1967-1968) for National Geographic, guaranteed a project that would be first-class all the way. Best known for coproducing the mega-hit miniseries Roots (1977), Wolper was a lifelong proponent of “event TV,” a category from which documentaries were not excluded. To do honor to the source material, not to say the subject matter, he recruited a lineup of A-list talent. Executive producer Mel Stuart, later to gain renown for directing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), oversaw the project. Another long-time Wolper collaborator, documentarian Jack Kaufman, produced and directed. Alan Landsburg, the prolific producer-director-writer, winnowed writer William L. Shirer’s 1100-plus page tome into three television hours of fact-filled, straight-ahead exposition. Lalo Schifrin, TV’s hottest theme music composer on the strength of his still hot Mission Impossible score, contributed a brassy, percussion-heavy soundtrack: Wagner meets Vegas. Actor Richard Basehart, best known as the captain of the undersea supersub Nautilus in Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom on the Sea (1964-1968), provides the baritonal narration. Underwritten by the flush Xerox Corporation, the production was two-and-a-half years in the making at a cost of $750,000.

Nazidom abiding by a classic three-act structure, the dramatic breaks are preordained: Part I: The Rise to Power (postwar destitution and Weimar chaos); Part II: Road to War (ruthless power grabbing, Allied dithering, Nazi blitzkriegs); and Part III: Götterdämmerung (carnage, collapse, genocide). The tableaux of the concentration camp at Dachau, looking antiseptic and serene, brackets the film, an apt bookend.

The 1968 dateline means that the Third Reich was very much alive in the memories of many viewers; the narration assumes an intimacy with events that for us are now remote history. “The dark age that began and ended within the lifetime of this generation,” says the narrator, sparking the synapses of the wartime demo. Of course, the real mind-blowing is done by the man we cannot take our eyes from, and the film takes the time to showcase his performance. “This is what it was like to be German in 1934 and hear Adolph Hitler speak,” says the narrator, and, without subtitles, which are hardly necessary, the sound-on-film image of the orator holding his audience spellbound, and not just the one in Nuremberg, unspools for nearly ninety seconds. It is hard to imagine so long an unsubtitled monologue happening in prime time today.

The featured talking heads are also but a single degree of separation from the star of the show. Shot on film, the interviews with men who were up close and personal with Hitler tend to be stiffly presentational, the eyewitnesses to history more ill at ease and camera-shy than the practiced commentaries and confessionals familiar to viewers of PBS docs or reality TV. Hitler’s factotum and press liaison, the hale and hearty Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, a party guy in both senses of the term, reminisces happily about palling around with Hitler during their salad days in Munich. When the future führer was feeling blue, Hanfstaengl would lift his spirits by playing him “Russian Lullaby,” a tune composed by Irving Berlin. Putzi obligingly sits at his piano and thumps out a few bars. Former Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg recalls a terrifying ride up to Berchtesgaden to meet with a frothing-mad Hitler in the month before Austria was gobbled up by the Reich, the camera following his course along the winding road to Hitler’s mountain retreat. Still committed to the Great Man theory of talking heads, the documentary spotlights prominent actors on the stage of world events: Hanfstaengl, Schuschnigg, Otto Stasser, an early Nazi Party zealot whose brother Gregor was butchered during the Night of the Long Knives; and industrialist Hjalmar Schacht, still persuaded that a devil’s bargain with the Nazis was a better deal than consorting with the communists. None seem particularly abashed or repentant. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich hit the airwaves before the “history from the bottom up” impulse began to inform the documentary tradition, a shift propelled along and certified by Thames Television’s The World at War series (1973-1974). Thus, no ex-brownshirt waxes nostalgic about the heady days of Jew bashing on the streets of Berlin and no frumpy hausfrau remembers her first giddy glimpse of the führer.

The singular exception to the Great Men bias is the testimony of Rudy Waxman, whose recitation of horrors is authority aplenty. “My mother was gassed in Auschwitz,” he says in tight close-up. “My brother was shot in Mauthausen. My father was beaten to death in Hanover, in my presence, thirty days before the end of the war.” Having not yet entered the American lexicon, the word “Holocaust” is not used in the film—and the destruction of the European Jews, which in the years since has come to be the central event of WWII, is not privileged in the way it would be in a contemporary overview. More interestingly, neither is the American role in defeating Nazism—there are no scenes of the arsenal of democracy rallying to crush the Nazi menace and no jingoistic cheerleading. Strikingly too, for a film made in the frigid center of the Cold War, the Soviet Union is given due credit for its role in bleeding the Nazis dry.

As ever in Third Reich territory, however, the interviews are basically B-roll. Crisp or grainy, blurry or focused, archival footage comprises the money shots of the Nazi-centric documentary. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich offers a rich tapestry of fascinating fascism in sharp, black- and-white 35mm—no “World War II in color” concessions here. Some of the footage is familiar and oft-unspooled: the newsreels of the boycott of Jewish business in Berlin on April 1, 1933, with the iconic shots of boisterous brownshirts riding on a truck, shouting, “Deutsche! Kauft nicht bei Juden!” (“Germans! Don’t buy from Jews!”); the close-up of a crude skull-and-crossbones sign warning “Achtung Juden”; the night-for-night shots of the book burning bonfire from May 10, 1933, the perfect visual metaphor for the conflagrations to come; and the hypnotic long shots of the 1934 Nuremberg rally from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will [1935]). A lot of the material, however, was new to eyes at the time (home movies from Berchtesgaden featuring Eva Braun; shots of Goering and Goebbels distributing Christmas gifts to little blonde boys and girls as Father Christmas beams; and clips from Goebbel’s daft costume spectacular Kohlberg [1945], directed by Veit Harlan). Much of the footage is not the usual wallpaper of Hitler highlight reels that swirls forever on the History Channel.

“Like tourists in hell, they took pictures,” marvels the narrator, and the filmmakers estimated that about half of the archival footage had never before been seen on American television. Executive producer Mel Stuart, who had cut his teeth on Nazi footage as a film researcher for NBC’s The Twisted Cross (1956), culled material from the “unbelievable collection” of captured Nazi newsreel material brought back to America at the end of World War II and stored at the National Archives facility at Suitland, MD—a collection returned to Germany in 1963, a cinematic repatriation Stuart still laments. Following in Stuart’s tracks, director Jack Kaufman sifted through the material in Germany. “For two and a half weeks I locked myself in a castle on the Rhine and was enthralled at what seemed like endless miles of official Nazi film that I’m sure has never before been seen on television,” he told Variety in 1968.

The documentary version is given the necessary imprimatur on camera from the source author. William L. Shirer was on the ground in Berlin covering the Nazis in the 1930s, first for the Hearst wire service and then for CBS, as one of the legendary band of journalistic brothers later immortalized as “Murrow’s boys.” Ironically, Shirer’s outlook on the German people—whom he came to loathe—was as genetically based as the Nazis’ own master-race theories. He saw the Nazis not as gangsters usurping freedom from a German demos but rather as a pure expression of the German volk, a force rising up from the darkest collective unconscious of a people who gave the madness an open-mouthed kiss and got just what they deserved from saturation Allied bombing. Following the moral trajectory of Shirer’s book, Landsburg’s narration is terse, the tone judgmental. “They are entrapped, yet they are enraptured,” the narrator says of a nation of coconspirators. In the spring of 1942, with most of central Europe under the Nazi jackboot, führer and volk are melded as one mind, one body. “A blood bond has been formed between a militant messiah and his people.” Shot after shot of rapturous crowds, arms upright, swaying in orgasmic unity, underscores the point.

In his on-camera comments, Shirer is monotonic and stodgy at first—no wonder he didn’t follow Murrow and the other telegenic boys into the new medium—but when he lights up his pipe, takes off his jacket, and talks off script, he becomes more relaxed and engaging. “Millions worship [Hitler] as a German messiah,” he says, and then adds on a personal note: “I’ve seen women swoon at the mere sight of him.” As an eyewitness to history, Shirer had a ringside seat at the Nuremberg rallies, at Goebbels’s bizarre press briefings, and, his biggest scoop, at the surrender of the French in 1940, when they were forced to sign the capitulation papers in the same railroad car in which the defeated Germans had signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918. (The story of Shirer’s sojourn in the belly of the beast has recently been told in a fascinating new biography by Steve Wick, The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich).

As is characteristic of the bare-bones Warner Archive Collection releases, no wraparound material supplements the main attraction—no latter-day publicity and no present-day commentary track. When I contacted producer Stuart—still very much alert and active at age eighty-four—the reemergence on DVD of one of his proudest achievements was news to him. “I didn’t know it was coming out,” he said, and then asked for information on its availability (Note to Warners: send the guy a comp, for God’s sake).

In his 1968 interview with Variety, director Kaufman sensed that The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich would have a long shelf life. “As an historical document of how one man completely subjugated so many millions, its impact over the years will grow rather than lessen,” he predicted. “It is actual history we recorded, that will repose in every museum and be shown in school rooms long after we’re gone. History never dies.” He was right about history, but wrong about the venues—not schools or museums but living rooms and laptops.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of several books.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine