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Reviewed by Will Harris
o look at the cover of “Selling Hitler,” with Jonathan Pryce wearing a Viking helmet and Alexei Sayle smirking it up like he’s still part of the cast of “The Young Ones,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that this five-part miniseries is a comedy. There are comedic elements to the proceedings, that much is certain, but as a student of journalism, I’m hard pressed to call this true story anything less than a drama, because although it sounds completely ridiculous when you look back on it with the benefit of hindsight, man, this was a serious affair when it originally went down.
Picture it: West Germany, the early ‘80s. Journalist Gerd Heidemann (Pryce), long fascinated with the Nazi regime and its place in German history, finds himself on the trail of what may well be the greatest story of his career when he is assured that Konrad Fischer (Sayle) has, by way of his brother, come into possession of Adolf Hitler’s heretofore-undiscovered diaries. What we learn almost immediately, however, is that Fischer is a masterful forger who has a remarkable gift for reproducing the Fuhrer’s handwriting. You’d think it would’ve occurred to Gerd that there was something suspicious going on when Fischer kept miraculously coming across new volumes of the diaries, not to mention the fact that they had a tendency to contain information that conveniently filled in long-missing blanks in the history of World War II or, in some occasions, completely rewrote it. But, no, Gerd is so blinded by the possibilities inherent in this discovery that he can’t see the unlikeliness of it all.
In Gerd’s defense, you can see why he was caught up in the excitement. After all, as he presents his discoveries to his employers at Stern Magazine, they proceed to have the handwriting in the diaries authenticated, only to have them agree without hesitation that, yes, it really does belong to Hitler. Money begins to be thrown around in an attempt to secure further volumes of the diaries, but while secrecy is maintained throughout the process, paranoia grows about whether or not they’re being taken for a ride. By the time they’re about to spring the diaries on the public, it’s risen so far up the chain of command that Rupert Murdoch (Barry Humphries) is involved.
Although it’s as hilarious to watch Fischer’s side of the story as it is cringe-worthy to watch Gerd while knowing that the rug will inevitably be pulled out from under him, there’s one big flaw with “Selling Hitler,” as you’ll realize relatively quickly into the proceedings: it in no way needed to be a five-part miniseries. While it’s true that British productions tend to move at a more studied pace, this one is filled with moments that will either leave you contemplating which bits you personally would’ve trimmed out or imagining how the story could’ve been streamlined into a theatrical release. Still, once it really gets rolling, there’s less and less extemporaneous material to be found, and the final chapter is excellent through and through.
All told, most any history buff will be fascinated with “Selling Hitler,” and really, anyone who’s willing to wait it out will enjoy watching the tale unfold. Just don’t go in expecting it to be constantly comedic. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but at its heart, it’s a drama about a man who thought he had the scoop of a lifetime and instead found his career dead in the water and his reputation ruined. That’s not very funny, now is it?
Special Features: Don’t get hopeful when you see that there’s something on the set called “The Aftermath.” It’s not a featurette but, rather, a text piece on what happened to the various individuals after the Hitler Diaries scandal. Interesting, but ultimately a poor excuse for bonus material.