With 'Selling Hitler', You'll Laught 'til You Plotz

The hilarious British series, based on one of the most notorious forgeries of the 20th century, is now available on DVD

Selling History

Director: Alastair Reed
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Alexei Sale, Peter Capaldi
Distributor: Acorn Media
Studio: Euston Films
Release Date: 2010-07

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


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.