If you think the current media obsession with scoops and sensationalism is a product of the internet and 24-hour cable news channels, consider that way back in 1983 the German news magazine Stern and the UK newspaper The Sunday Times, as well as the eminent historians Gerhard Weinberg and Hugh Trevor-Roper, found themselves in the embarrassing position of having endorsed (in the case of the historians) and published (in the case of the magazine and newspaper) what proved to be perhaps the most spectacular hoax of the century: the supposedly recovered diaries of Adolf Hitler.
It’s a sordid tale of deception, inflated self-importance and greed, which drew on the continuing fascination of many private citizens with Hitler and Nazi memorabilia—but this display of base humor behavior also provides ideal material for the British comedy mini-series Selling Hitler, which aired in the UK in 1991 and is now available on DVD stateside. Honestly, it’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in years and I can’t imagine why it hasn’t been released before now.
The story begins with the Stern reporter and Nazi-phile Gerd Heidemann (Jonathan Pryce) buying Herman Goering’s yacht, which he plans to fix up and sell. This brings him in contact with others sympathetic to the Third Reich and before long someone shows him a volume of Hitler’s diary, supposedly smuggled out of East Germany where it was recovered from a plane crash in 1945. He’s also told there are 26 more volumes in existence. This contains enough possibility of truth (boxes of documents were removed from Hitler’s bunker during Operation Seraglio and one of the planes carrying them did crash near the German/Czech border) to hook Heidemann who is an easy mark not only because of his ambition and his fondness for all things Nazi but also because he’s heavily in debt and hopes publishing the diaries will make his fortune.
His editor at Stern (Peter Koch, played by Oliver Pierre) will have none of it, but Heidemann manages to sell another Stern staffer, Thomas Walde (Peter Capaldi) on the idea and the two of them go over the head of the editorial division and pitch their idea straight to the magazine’s management, including founder Henri Nannen (Richard Wilson).
Meanwhile, we learn the real source of the diaries: a forger using the name Konrad Fischer (Alexei Sayle) is writing them in Gothic script using notebooks obtained at the corner store which he ages by pouring tea on the pages and banging the covers on his desk. Much of the material later turns out to be copied from other sources and the remainder is mainly banal, but Heidemann and the Stern management are blinded by their greed and sense of self-importance.
In a hilarious scene they regard Heidemann with near-reverence as he reads from the “sacred book” of the diaries (incongruously transported in a bright yellow Lufthansa flight bag): “April 15. My health is poorly, the result of too little sleep. April 16. My stomach makes it difficult to sleep. My left leg is often numb. April 18. I suffered much from sleeplessness and stomach pains. I ate nothing while Eva enjoyed her vegetable hotpot.”
The forged diaries also contained some statements which, if true, would have changed the way we look at certain aspects of World War II. Among them: Hitler was against book burning, he authorized Rudolph Hess’ flight to Scotland, and he thought perhaps the Jews were being treated a bit too harshly. All of which proves that Fischer (whose real name was Konrad Kujau) was clever enough that when he got creative, it was in a direction which would flatter the beliefs of those most likely to buy his wares.
It gets better: several handwriting experts proclaim the diaries are written in Hitler’s own hand, not realizing that the document they are using for comparison is also a forgery by Fischer/Kujau. Two eminent historians call in, but are given only a brief amount of time to examine the diaries and one is lied to by being told that physical examination of the paper has already confirmed that it is from the right period. The great day of publication comes, the diaries are almost immediately exposed as clumsy fakes and heads roll all around (Kujau and Heidemann both served prison terms while several editors lost their jobs, facts made clear in a historical coda which is the only extra on the discs).
It’s a great story, but is made even better by the script by Robert Harris and Howard Schuman which mixes ordinary dramatic action with surreal flights of fancy, most notably the repeated motif of Heidemann and his wife Gina (Alison Doody) appearing as heroic characters in a Wagnerian-style opera built on the legend of Wieland the Blacksmith. This references not only Heidemann’s inflated opinion of himself (at one point he says that he feels himself to “be on a quest, guided by some higher power), but also that Kujau claimed to have in his possession an opera written by Adolph Hitler on that very subject.
In fact, the use of sound is excellent throughout: another example is the thunder clap which accompanies Heidemann’s displaying the first shipment of cash to Kujau, as if he were completing a pact with the devil. Archival footage is also cleverly used throughout, often to show characters imagining the real Third Reich while contemplating the phony version presented in the diaries.
So I can heartily recommend Selling Hitler and that goes double if you are knowledgeable about the historical period in question (I was kept busy googling names throughout). However, take warning: I watched all five episodes (about 256 minutes worth) straight through and once you start watching, you may not want to stop, either. So you might want to watch them on a weekend or at least start early in the evening, lest you find yourself still glued to the tube at 2AM.
Fill still courtesy of Acorn Media