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  • Benjamin May

Hitler's SS: Portrait in Evil (1985) Review

It is the early 1930’s, and the Nazis are gaining power in Germany. The young, unemployed Karl Hoffman is enthusiastic about the party, readily joining the SA. His brother Helmut, a university student, is more wary, but after meeting Reinhard Heydrich, is seduced into joining the SS. As time marches on, Helmut’s star rises, while Karl loses faith in the machine of fascism, particularly after the Night of the Long Knives. Amidst the horrors of war and Hitler’s murderous reign, can the brothers’ relationship- and they themselves- survive?


Directed by Jim Goddard from a Lukas Heller screenplay, ‘Hitler’s SS: Portrait in Evil’ is a well-intentioned, but fairly rote made for TV movie suffering from a dull narrative and stilted dialogue. Heller’s linear tale charts the rise and fall- not just of the Hoffman brothers- but of the Third Reich, feeling at times like a drab recital from a history book. The affair lacks emotional depth, as well as natural dialogue and impactful characterisation. One has no reason to care for either of the brothers, nor any of the secondary characters, and Heller’s attempts to balance historical accuracy with engaging storytelling proves challenging, resulting in an overly didactic piece.

As a chronicle of history, the film works quite well, despite creative licence taken here and there, leading to inaccuracies. Heller’s representation of Nazi-era Germany as a hotbed of varying political ideas, as well as the juxtaposition of the SS verses the SA and the Wehrmacht, is mostly on point, making for some interesting moments. However, as a piece of fictional storytelling, attempting to examine themes such as nationalism and brotherhood, as well as how a nation fell under the spell of fascism, the film falls short. In addition, a love triangle sub-plot adds nothing to the piece but more minutes to the runtime.


Furthermore, Ernest Vincze’s cinematography does little to aid proceedings. He opts for a very conventional approach, without stylizations or tension-building techniques, such as irregular angles or creative framing, which would have compounded the film’s emotional weight. Although he captures the fascist rallies and smoky interiors of the bierkellers effectively, his work is not memorable, nor powerful.

Moreover, Richard Hartley’s overly romantic score seems to have been written for a different film entirely. His cloyingly mournful melodies would be more appropriate in an adaptation of a Jilly Cooper dime-store novel; set against the horrors of the Third Reich they seem utterly out of place. Conversely, Eileen Diss and Mike Porter’s production design appears faithful to the period, while Elizabeth Waller’s costumes carry the weight of authenticity. Although perhaps everything is a bit too clean, the overall visual effect is one of realism.


Bill Nighy and John Shea star as Helmut and Karl Hoffman, respectively, opposite a large cast of well-known performers. Nighy does fine work as Helmut, creating in him a cynical, morally ambiguous character one could imagine rising through the ranks of the SS. On the other hand, Shea opts for a more straightforward approach, playing Karl as a good man; lacking the intrigue, nuance and complexity Nighy fosters.

The supporting cast are a veritable who’s who of Hollywood, some of whom do strong work. David Warner is particularly good as the sinister Reinhard Heidrich, a role he played before in Marvin J. Chomsky’s far-more effective ‘Holocaust.’ Lucy Gutteridge does what is required with the under-written role of Mitzi, a nightclub singer, though doesn’t make much of an impression. In addition, José Ferrer and Tony Randall bring a gravitas to their all too small roles as a Jewish professor and a doomed comedian.


A straightforward made for TV movie about a fascinating point in history, Jim Goddard’s ‘Hitler’s SS: Portrait in Evil’ is a fairly mundane piece of work. The narrative is underwhelming and the dialogue is stilted, although the production design is fairly authentic. While Bill Nighy and some of the supporting cast do strong work, John Shea underwhelms and the cinematography lacks creativity. Unfortunately, ‘Hitler’s SS: Portrait in Evil’ is ultimately a portrait in mediocrity.

 

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