HOLOCAUST

U.S. Miniseries

Holocaust first aired on NBC from 16 April through 19 April of 1978. Most obviously, this nine-and-a-half-hour, four-part series may be compared to Roots, which aired on ABC a year earlier and on which Holocaust's director, Marvin Chomsky, had worked. Like Roots's saga of American slavery, Holocaust's story of Jewish suffering before and during World War II apparently flew in the face of network programming wisdom, which advised against presenting tales of virtually unrelieved or inexplicable misery. While Holocaust was a smaller ratings success than was Roots (it drew a 49 audience share to Roots's 66), NBC estimated after the 1979 rebroadcast that as many as 220 million viewers in the United States and Europe had seen the series.

Holocaust, produced by Herbert Brodkin, contrasts the interlocking fates of two German families, the Jewish Weisses of the subtitle and the Nazi Dorfs. At the time of the series's first airing, critics sniped about the improbability of the proposition that so small a cast of characters would be witnesses to so great a number of the major milestones in the destruction of European Jewry, among them the confabulations of the architects of Hitler's Final Solution, the slaughter at Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the liberation of Auschwitz. In another sense, however, this emphasis on blood ties conforms to this drama's major artistic strategy, the employment (over-employment, James Lardner complained in the New Republic) of symbol and archetype. Thus the Holocaust is, in this conception, the decimation of a family within Europe, just as the infamous smokestacks of the death camps may be emblematized by a moment when the small daughter of Nazi bureaucrat Erik Dorf stuffs a sheaf of Weiss family photographs into the parlor stove and shuts the door firmly upon them.

On its American debut, Holocaust met with a generally positive response but not with unanimous approbation. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel protested in the New York Times that it was "untrue, offensive, cheap". Reviewers generally applauded the cast (which included Meryl Streep, Ian Holm, Fritz Weaver, Rosemary Harris, and Michael Moriarty, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Dorf) and praised Gerald Green's script, an overnight best seller when published in novel form as a tie-in. Still, several critics described a curious "emptiness" at the drama's heart, emanating from what they identified as excessive melodrama and flat characters who seemed designed to represent particular classes and types more than individuals. Moreover, many viewers were particularly dismayed by the content of the commercial interruptions, which at best seemed to strike a cheerfully vulgar note inappropriate to the subject matter of the series and at other times appeared, horrifyingly, to parody it, as in the juxtaposition of a Lysol ad alerting viewers to the need to combat kitchen odors, with a scene in which Adolf Eichmann complains that the crematoria smells make dining at Auschwitz unpleasant.

When the series aired in West Germany on the Third (Regional) Network in January of 1979 (a forum apparently designed to lessen its impact), however, viewer response was little short of stunning. According to German polls intended to measure audience reaction before, immediately after, and several months after Holocaust appeared, this single television event had a significant effect on West Germans' understanding of this episode in the history of their country. Despite strong opposition to the broadcast before it aired, some 15 million West Germans (roughly half the adult population) tuned in to one or more episodes, breaking what Judith Doneson terms "a thirty-five-year taboo on discussing Nazi atrocities". Among those who saw the series, the number favoring the failed German-resistance plot of 20 July 1944 to assassinate Hitler rose dramatically, Variety reported "70% of those in the 14 to 19 age group declared that they had learned more from the shows about the horrors of the Nazi regime than they had learned in all their years of studying West German history". Such was the public response that West Germany promptly canceled the statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes, formerly scheduled to expire at the end of 1979.

The mixture of prime-time commercialism and emotional commitment that informed Holocaust goes far to explaining both its wide appeal (and, often, powerful effect) and the disappointment it represented for its detractors. Filmed, unlike Roots, on location--in Mauthausen concentration camp, among other places--and reportedly a shattering experience especially for the actors portraying Nazis, the series allowed its producers to take pride in the quality of the research involved; they were creating, they noted, a major television event designed to shape the historical perceptions of millions. But ultimately, it would seem, the critiques of the series arise from the fact that it is no more than the "major television event" that NBC assuredly achieved.

-Anne Morey

 


Holocaust

CAST

Adolph Eichmann .......................................Tom Bell Rudi Weiss .....................................Joseph Bottoms Helena Slomova................................ Tovah Feldshuh Herr Palitz ..........................................Marius Goring Berta Weiss................................... Rosemary Harris Heinrich Himmler ........................................Ian Holm Uncle Sasha....................................... Lee Montague Erik Dorf .........................................Michael Moriarty Marta Dorf........................................ Deborah Norton Uncle Kurt Dorf ...............................Robert Stephens Inga Helms Weiss................................ Meryl Streep Moses Weiss................................. Sam Wanamaker Reinhard Heydrich................................ David Warner Josef Weiss......................................... Fritz Weaver Karl Weiss .........................................James Woods Hoefle................................................... Sean Arnold Hans Frank ............................................John Bailey Anna Weiss .......................................Blanche Baker Frau Lowy........................................... Kate Jaenicke Dr. Kohn............................................. Charles Kovin

PRODUCERS Herbert Brodkin, Robert "Buzz" Berger

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
16 April 1978                                              8:00-11:00 17 April 1978                                              9:00-11:00 18 April 1978                                              9:00-11:00 19 April 1978                                              8:30-11:00

FURTHER READING

Doneson, Judith E. The Holocaust in American Film. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Jewish Publication Society, 1987.

Guild, Hazel. "Germany and the TV Holocaust." Variety (Los Angeles), 23 May 1979.

Langer, Lawrence. "The Americanization of the Holocaust on Stage and Screen." In, Cohen, Sarah Blacher, editor. From Hester Street to Hollywood. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Lardner, James. "Making History." New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 13 May 1978.

Morrow, Lance. "Television and the Holocaust." Time (New York), 1 May 1978.

Neusner, Jacob. Strangers at Home: "The Holocaust," Zionism, and American Judaism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Rich, Frank. "Reliving the Nazi Nightmare." Time (New York), 17 April 1978.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H. "The Holocaust in American Popular Culture." Midstream (New York), June-July 1983.

Waters, Harry F., and Betsy Carter. "Holocaust Fallout." Newsweek (New York), 1 May 1978.

Wiesel, Elie. "Trivializing the Holocaust: Semi-Fact and Semi-Fiction." New York Times 16 April 1978.

 

See also Docudrama; History and Television; Racism, Ethnicity, and Television