One of the most famous and highly respected of the Holocaust survivors, Elie Wiesel, was not a fan of this classic NBC miniseries. In his view, it was “untrue, offensive and cheap”. I guess it had to be to anyone who actually went through those horrors. In light of subsequent films like Schindler’s List (1993), Holocaust now also seems a bit tame, unable to fully convey the tragedy because of the limits set by network television. Still, when it aired all over the world Holocaust became an opportunity to shed light on a chapter of history so frightening that many preferred not to talk about it at all.
This is the story of the family Weiss, German citizens who also happened to be Jews. When we first meet them in the mid-1930s, the young artist Karl Weiss (James Woods) is marrying a Christian woman, Inga Helms (Meryl Streep). At the wedding, there are whispers about this marriage as an institution that might not benefit the couple; the Fuehrer is likely to introduce new laws targeting Jews. Still, the idea of leaving your own country seems utterly alien to Karl’s parents, dr. Joseph Weiss (Fritz Weaver) and his wife Berta (Rosemary Harris), who have a good life in Berlin.
As the war approaches, the Nazi regime tightens the screws on the Jewish population. At an early stage, Karl was sent to Buchenwald on trumped-up charges and Joseph is eventually deported to Poland where he meets his brother (Sam Wanamaker) in the Warsaw Ghetto. As the Weiss family is being destroyed, an unemployed Berlin lawyer called Erik Dorf (Michael Moriarty) joins the SS and realizes that the key to success lies in complete ruthlessness.
Taking on an ambitious task
Moriarty’s character became the best remembered of the miniseries. The suffering of the Weiss’s was expected, but writer Gerald Green also took on the ambitious task of trying to answer the most pressing questions of the war – how and why could ordinary Germans turn into monsters and just how much about the Holocaust was known in Germany? Plenty, is Green’s answer; Dorf is afraid to tell his wife what he’s been up to as a member of the SS and is surprised to learn that she doesn’t really care about the bloody details as long as he provides a good life for them and their children.
Moriarty plays Dorf as a cunning individual who is inspired by his superiors to always go one step further, inventing imaginative ways of killing Jews as well as employing his knowledge of law in coming up with legal and moral excuses for it, mirroring a real need to justify his actions. It’s a chilling performance and a perplexing character whose closeness to Himmler and Heydrich (Ian Holm, David Warner) provides some insight into the practicalities of the Final Solution. The Weiss family and their fate represents the emotional core of the series; few of them will enjoy a happy ending. The cast makes us root for them nevertheless; Streep and Woods, somewhat unfamiliar faces at the time, are touching as young lovers torn apart.
A lot of money was spent on Holocaust, which was filmed in Berlin and Austria. They were never in Auschwitz, however, and it shows. There is so much hardship on display throughout the series, in ghettos and camps, but the filmmakers never come close to the real deal. They make a valid attempt though and the writer makes sure we understand that the suppression of Jews came with a price; there was hard, organized resistance against the Nazis inside and outside the ghettos, a fighting spirit that is still evident today in Israel. For better or worse.
Holocaust 1978-U.S. Made for TV. 475 min. Color. Produced by Robert Berger. Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky. Teleplay: Gerald Green. Cast: Michael Moriarty (Erik Dorf), Meryl Streep (Inga Helms Weiss), James Woods (Karl Weiss), Fritz Weaver, Joseph Bottoms, Rosemary Harris… David Warner, Ian Holm.
Trivia: Originally shown in five episodes. Trevor Howard was allegedly considered for a part.
Emmys: Outstanding Limited Series, Directing, Writing, Actor (Moriarty), Actress (Streep), Supporting Actress (Blanche Baker). Golden Globes: Best Actor (Moriarty), Actress (Harris).
Last word: “The point is that anyone could become Erik Dorf. There, but for the grace of God, go I. That role helped make me a Catholic. The only way I could sustain the rage within Dorf, without guilt, was the image of Christ, all-forgiving and all-loving.” (Moriarty, People)