Sunday, 20 March 2016
First viewed : 4 September 1978
A bit of a switch in tone here as we consider the first US mini-series to feature here. Holocaust was directed by Marvin J Chomsky, fresh from the success of Roots and had an original screenplay by Gerald Green though he later novelised it.
It centered on three families, the Weiss's , a Jewish family headed by a doctor and about to be shredded , the Helms's, a well to do German family connected to them by marriage but indifferent to their fate and the Dorfs, a lower middle class German family whose fortunes rise with the Nazis . They are all fictional but the anti-hero Erik Dorf ( Michael Moriarty ) hob-nobs with historical figures such as Eichmann , Hoss and Himmler as he becomes an important cog in the killing machine. The series begins in the mid-thirties with the Nazi regime slowly turning the screw on the German Jewish population while Dorf an unemployed young lawyer with a fiercely ambitious wife ( Deborah Norton ) gets taken on by the most scary Nazi of all , Heydrich ( David Warner ).
The series had an impressive cast. James Woods played the Weiss's eldest son Karl who marries Inga Helms ( Meryl Streep just as she was about to go stellar ). Fritz Weaver played the Weiss patriarch Josef while Rosemary Harris played his wife Berta whose refusal to believe the worst costs the family dear. Apart from Moriarty, all the Nazis are played by top British actors and are uniformly excellent as well as historically accurate from Warner as the self-loathing Heydrich, to Ian Holm as the absurdly fastidious Himmler, David Daker as the obscenely efficient Hoss and Tom Bell as the slimy Eichmann.
Taken as a whole it was pretty gripping with the star performance coming from Moriarty in a startling transformation from the self-pitying loser at the beginning to a dead-eyed fanatic who comes to believe his own euphemistic justifications for the slaughter. His high forehead, weak chin and bloodless voice made him a perfect fit for the sort of creep who rose to power in Hitler's Germany. He won an Emmy for it and continues to act to this day but, partly through drink, never quite hit the heights in his subsequent career.
There were weaknesses though. I never quite believed in Joseph Bottoms as the youngest Weiss son Rudi who becomes a partisan wandering around Europe at will and his presence at both the Babi Yar massacre and the Sobibor breakout seemed a contrivance. His romance with a young Czech Jew ( Tovah Feldshuh ) was both incredible and inappropriate. While Streep's acting was top notch it was hard to have much sympathy for her character particularly after a nonsensical plot line where she engineers being placed in the same prison camp as Karl. Another Brit who did well was Tony Haygarth as the low-ranking Nazi who exploits her situation but his eventual fate was left undisclosed . It also seemed very rushed at the end with Germany's collapse seemingly happening overnight.