The docuseries, Hitler and the Nazis: Evil on Trial, may be a tad too dense, but it works as a great primer on Hitler and the Nazi regime, and as a scary, allegorical tale for the present

“You know, with Hitler, the more I learn about that guy, the more I don’t care for him,” once said the inimitable Norm MacDonald, seated beside an equally iconic comic and talk show host David Letterman. A few minutes later, MacDonald would take centre stage on The Late Show and refer to Germany once again in one of his bits, ripping into the country’s once-infamous tendencies to wage war against the entire world (and not a solitary country like in most other cases). Not once but twice over, he points out, suggesting strongly that it’s not North Korea of the present but the Germany of the past that he fears more. It would be best if you gave the late-great Norm a chance at explaining this; I promise it’s a lot funnier than I make it seem.

The same Germany of the past he talks about, the one that was part of the two World Wars, is the subject of a new and yet another visual dissection, with Netflix now attempting a full-on plunge into it with a sprawling six-part documentary series. The tone, of course, is nowhere close to that of MacDonald’s comedy routine but is just as incisive and potent under the aid and guidance of several authors, historians, eyewitnesses, critiques and all things specialist on Germany, Adolf Hitler, The Third Reich and also the Holocaust.

A dictator who fired up the post-war disillusioned youth

Titled Hitler and the Nazis: Evil on Trial, this is a show dense with information, anecdotes, criticisms and insights relayed by a mixture of talking-head experts and a superb collection of archival footage, audio tapes and photographs, along with staged recreations of specific moments with actors. Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Conversations With a Killer, etc.) directs the mega effort and mostly succeeds in navigating the material with a predominantly straightforward narrative that only jumps back and forth in time either to contextualize or juxtapose.

The Nuremberg Trial, which tried 24 Nazi German political and military leaders after Hitler’s suicide, then becomes the centre of this weave. The event, much like the series’ most frequently visited participant, American war correspondent and author William H. Shirer, becomes our voice of reason. The use of the archival material, particularly in these portions, effectively heightens the drama. Berlinger interweaves facts dispensed by experts ever-so-meticulously with real footage of the courtroom proceedings, as the Robert H. Jackson-led prosecution team avenges the epic tragedy inflicted upon millions of lives.

As the camera, with its frame-rate cranked up almost to the max, pans across the defendant box in the reenactments, a memory of the real-life counterparts of Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Franz von Papen and the likes lingers fiercely in our minds, eliciting remarkable emotions. The reenactments might seem mawkish to some and Karoly Kozma, as Hitler through the years, imbues a Chaplin-esque energy to his portrayal that may or may not impress everyone. But as the narrative grows on us, it becomes apparent that Berlinger is deliberately melodramatizing the events; he wants to cater to a much younger audience that is potentially not aware of the intensity and the malevolence with which everything unfolded.

Berlinger’s guiding force, thereby, remains Hitler’s personality and he uses the self-embracing dictator’s insecurities and proclivities to highlight why and how times fared the way they did. We learn that Hitler, an Austrian who believed Germans to be superior, was a struggling, lonesome only moderately talented artist in Vienna. We learn that World War I allowed him to snake his way into Germany and find firm footing as the voice against the left-wing, Jewish civilian leadership of the country. We see him catapulting himself into overnight fame as the master orator who knew just how to light the fire of post-war disillusioned youth. We see him orchestrate one of the bloodiest regimes of all time simply because he believed he was destined to do so, simply because he believed another race to be subhuman.

A scary, allegorical tale for the present

This approach, of keeping Hitler’s psyche (as recounted by biographers, authors, etc.), works brilliantly because Berlinger is able to subtly highlight the irony with which Führer led his life. Hitler despises the cultural liberalism that permeated German urban life in the 1920s but he ends up falling in love with a woman (Eva Braun) who embodied the movement's free spirit. He accuses the Jews of backstabbing German people during World War I but he doesn’t bat an eye before exterminating his own subordinates and loyal forces whenever he feels the need. His views on homosexuality, art and music appear to be quite progressive and nuanced on the one hand, while he simultaneously indoctrinated that Jews were a major threat and needed to be wiped out of existence for a better Germany.

In a passing statement, one of the interviewees points out that the very physical appearance of the top-rung Nazi leaders was a contradiction to what the party was chasing. “It’s almost ironic that so many of the Nazi leaders, if you think of Hitler, Göring, Himmler, and Goebbels. None of them look like the classic Nazi ideal of an Aryan — no one was blond or particularly athletic.”

But Evil on Trial is as much a retelling of this darkest phase as it is an allegory. If we shift the focus back to the form that Berlinger adopts to make his point, it is clear that there is an underlying stealthy message he wants to communicate to the people of today. Berlinger’s views on authoritarianism and top-level racism, particularly in America, aren’t muted and the filmmaker has alluded that his latest endeavour comes as a cautionary tale to the younger generation.

Indeed, he hits the nail on this one considering the startling parallels one could draw between The Third Reich and the methods employed by other major statesmen across the world. That oratorship, despite being laced with lies and belligerence against a community, could be embraced wholeheartedly. That theatrics could be used to create an image and propagate it endlessly. That technology and human acumen are tools of devastation when they fall into the wrong hands. And that silencing of critics and dissenters in whatever way possible — aren’t all these still our realities?

As a format, Hitler and the Nazis: Evil on Trial could prove to be a tad overdrawn and time-consuming watch to some, especially those who are already well-aware of the Nazi regime and Hitler’s life and times. That said, the series takes you into its fold without any deceit or ploy but by simply sticking to truths and analysis, allowing it to work not just as a great primer into this time of history, but also as a scary, allegorical tale for the present.

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