In 1977, ABC's miniseries Roots made TV history, distilling a big American history lesson into just under ten hours of must-see TV. That precedent surely helped ignite the next year's CBS presentation of Holocaust, an almost eight-hour account of the murder of millions of European Jews during WW2. Judging by the news and editorial features of the day, Americans in general knew even less about the Holocaust than then they did about slavery. 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. This show may not be perfect, but it made a positive, educational impact.
We also knew this series as a career springboard for three great actors. James Woods had been gaining traction in modest TV and film parts (Night Moves). Michael Moriarty had made a big splash opposite Robert De Niro in TV's Bang the Drum Slowly, but he often played weird characters that audiences couldn't get behind. This miniseries was of course Meryl Streep's big entry into the public consciousness. After Holocaust Streep went from one showcase part to the next.
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).
As had Roots, the miniseries tells its story through the experience of three families. Dr. Josef Weiss and his wife Berta (Fritz Weaver of Fail-Safe & Rosemary Harris of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) celebrate the Berlin wedding of their son Karl (James Woods) to non-Jew Inga Helms (Meryl Streep), even under 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 the powerful and feared Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner of Time After Time). Erik proves himself invaluable through his talent for semantics, frame outrageously criminal policies in 'legitimizing, normalizing' language. He is soon helping Heydrich formulate a policy of mass extermination.
Berta and Josef balk at leaving Germany until it is too late. Josef and his neighbor Franz Lowry (George Rose) are deported to Poland. Hope that things in Berlin will get better soon fades. After Kristallnacht, Karl is arrested and put in Buchenwald. His brother Rudi (Joseph Bottoms of The Black Hole) runs away. In Prague Rudi links up with Helena Slomova (Tovah Feldshuh of Daniel) and they eventually join a group of anti-Nazi guerillas. Karl's sister Anna (Blanche Baker) is attacked by Nazi street thugs, she becomes catatonic. Inga takes her to a clinic for the mentally disturbed, unaware that it is following new Nazi guidelines for the disposal of undesirables that 'can't contribute to society.'
Inga communicates with Karl the only way she can, by giving sexual favors to Heinz Müller (Tony Haygarth), a Buchenwald guard who was previously a family friend. Heinz's intervention results in Karl's eventual transfer to Theresienstadt, a camp maintained as a showcase for the Red Cross and neutral observers. Later on, Inga will ask Heinz to denounce her so she can enter Theresienstadt to be with her husband.
While Erik Dorf is researching 'factory' methods to kill on a mass scale, 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 most of the cast ends up in Auschwitz, the extermination camp.
Erik Dorf's unemotional efficiency earns him the hatred of other Nazi officers. He 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, and to compensate he increases his ruthlessness. 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 Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) 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, who complained about the trivialization of a gravely serious subject, as well as the moral crime of making money from the plight of the Jews. The series found some praise for its frankness about the killing in Auschwitz and elsewhere. Viewer warnings likely primed audiences to expect extreme content not previously depicted on American TV screens. Mass shootings in pits, and the entire process of gassing women and children are shown in detail that now might seem unnecessary -- there is is even full frontal nudity on display. In the end the miniseries probably comes out in the plus column, for general social responsibility.
Only in the last episode are there a few too many noble speeches about human dignity, made by victims that would likely be too brutalized to express anything coherent. James Woods and Meryl Streep achieve bold character statements, while Michael Moriarty's outwardly passive, inwardly screaming performance is one of the best portrayals of psychotic villainy ever -- a man soaked in his own 'necessary lies.'
The big winner was Meryl Streep, who was launched as a world class actress and major personality. The IMDB at present credits her with 21 Oscar nominations and three wins. Also making vivid appearances are T.P. McKenna as another Nazi chieftain, Ian Holm as Heinrich Himmler, and George Pravda as a fellow artist-prisoner in Theresienstadt. The venerated Marius Goring plays Berta's father, a bookseller.
This awful episode in history is difficult to express in film terms. Everybody has a theory as to what the right approach should be... mere 'respectfulness' isn't enough. Even Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List has accumulated naysayers. I personally gravitate toward Roman Polanski's The Pianist, which avoids sentimentality and doesn't confect a soap opera format to tell its story of a lone musician's survival against all odds. Excepting a mawkish moment or two, Holocaust certainly works well enough for me.
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. 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, because the entire eight hours are formatted at 1:78. The package incorrectly states 4x3. Only occasionally does a shot look too tight in the widescreen ratio. For a TV presentation from 41 years ago, it looks fine to this viewer.
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.
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson