"How a TV show starring Meryl Streep changed Germany" - Transcription:
Jonathan Gal: In the summer of 1977, two young unknown American actors traveled to Austria and Germany to shoot a television miniseries for NBC. The title of that show “Holocaust,” the actors Meryl Streep and James Woods.
James Woods: There was a moment where we were literally standing in the gas chamber pot of Mauthausen, Meryl and I, just alone and she said, “I wonder if we'll go to hell,” I said, “What?” she said, “Well, we're doing a television show about the Holocaust and when you're here you think - how could anything ever aspire to express the horror that took place?” And I said, “I agree with you. On the other hand, if there's one person who doesn't know what happened here and we give them an experience that peaks his or her interest in the history of this place, to learn more, then it will have been worth all of it, won’t it?”
Jonathan Gal: Turns out it was worth it in a huge way because about a year and a half later, “Holocaust” aired on German TV and pretty much changed everything.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: Showing this miniseries “Holocaust” in Germany in the year 79 was a real turning point from the point of view of the awareness of the general public to the fate of the Jews during the Second World War.
Jonathan Gal: Welcome to “On the Holocaust”, the podcast from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I am your host, Jonathan Gal, and today we're talking about how one Hollywood production in English pretty much forced the entire country of West Germany to look in the mirror, some would say for the first time since the end of the Second World War and come to terms with the crimes of the past. We're going to tell the story in three parts. Act I: “The Show.”
Scene from “Holocaust”:
Inga Helms Weiss [character of Meryl Streep]: “I'm going to try and get you some new identity papers.”
Karl Weiss [character of James Woods]: “Inga…”
Inga Helms Weiss: ”Then we can move somewhere else where they don't know us, Bremen, Hamburg…”
Karl Weiss: “Inga…”
Inga Helms Weiss: “When you can work.”
Karl Weiss: “Inga you're dreaming. It is the same all over Germany.”
Jonathan Gal: In the late 1970s TV miniseries in the historical drama genre were in demand following the incredible success of “Roots” about African slavery in America. One of the directors of that project, Marvin J. Chomsky, was then hired to direct a teleplay titled ‘Holocaust – The Story of the Family Weiss’, by Jewish American writer Gerald Green. . Speaking to us on Zoom from California, about 45 years later, James Woods remembers being blown away by the script.
James Woods: Any of your listeners who haven't ever seen the “Holocaust” miniseries, I wholeheartedly recommend it because it was amazing for a TV series that it was so educational, really, but in the not in any, you know, “eat your vegetables they’re good for you” kind of way… It's so educational, but you know, the Wannsee Conference and Babi Yar, all these signposts along the way. And “Roots” had just [been] a huge success. But I said, you know, a miniseries about the Holocaust, I don't know if people will embrace it or if they'll be, you know, it was at the time a very risky venture to do this very sad, obviously very powerful but tragic story. But you know, miniseries did big then, so we did it.
Jonathan Gal: The show followed the story of a fictional Jewish family from Berlin, the Weiss family, a successful doctor, his wife and children, as well as a German family led by an unemployed lawyer who is initially apolitical, even sympathetic to the Jews, Dr. Weiss treats his own wife, but then gets a job with the SS and gradually climbs the ranks of the Nazi killing machine, completely adopting their worldview. James Woods played Karl Weiss, the doctor's son, and Meryl Streep played Inga, his beautiful new wife, a gentile, from a middle class Christian family.
Scene from “Holocaust”:
Frau Helms: “Police. They’re here for Karl.”
Inga Helms Weiss: “Mama! You Should have warned us!”
Frau Helms: “It’s no use. They are all over the neighborhood. Police. Brown Shirts.”
Inga Helms Weiss: “You could have lied!”
Frau Helms: “We could have been arrested for hiding one of them!”
Jonathan Gal: Over four hour-long episodes “Holocaust” depicts key events from 1935 to 1945. We see Kristallnacht, or the November Pogrom;, deportations, the construction of the ghettos, and later the death camps. The gas chambers.
Scene from “Holocaust”:
Gestapo Policeman: “Weiss, Karl?”
Karl Weiss: “Yes?”
Gestapo Policeman: You have ten minutes to pack a bag and come with us.”
Inga Helms Weiss: “What has he done? Why are you taking him?”
Gestapo Policeman: “Routine questioning.”
Inga Helms Weiss: “No no no. What is his crime? What has he done?!”
Gestapo Policeman: “Who knows? I follow orders.”
Jonathan Gal: Almost all of the Jewish characters we meet are killed along the way. Karl, who is an artist, eventually finds himself in Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto”. In one crucial scene set in a concentration camp, the Nazis have hung him by his wrists. James Woods tells us that real survivors of the camps were on set with them as advisers. Some also acted on screen.
James Woods: He had been tortured that way. So he told me, he said, “This is what it feels like. Beside your breathing is… you literally just, you pray to die,” I said, “You try to survive?” and he said, “You want to die. You pray that someone will come up and put a bullet through your head.”
Scene from “Holocaust”:
Karl Weiss: “Inga. Inga.”
Prisoner: “Easy Weiss. Don't waste breath.”
Karl Weiss: “I want to tell them - You win, you can do anything you want to me. Kill me.”
Prisoner: “Listen Weiss,. I'm a religious man. I heard a rabbi say the day before we were arrested, that every one of us who lives is a sanctification.”
Karl Weiss “I don't want to live.”
James Woods: He helped me. They both said you want to be non-existent in the camp so that you can survive. If they can't see you, they can't kill you. So I always tried to make myself as small as possible.
Jonathan Gal: Much of the filming took place in Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Upper Austria that remained pretty much intact. The real location helped the filmmakers stage the scenes of the Weiss Family members murder in Auschwitz, a Spanish revolutionary named Carlos, who was himself imprisoned at Mauthausen during the war and later came back to serve as a guide there, joined the film crew when they recreated some of the most horrific scenes.
James Woods: And the director was saying, OK, we'll follow Fritz [Fritz Weaver who played Dr. Josef Weiss] and Rosemary [Rosemary Harris who played Berta Palitz Weiss]. And as they go into the chamber, and you know people are working, so they're trying to get the shots set up. And then we'll go on to Ian Holm [who played Heinrich Himmler] and we'll bring him over. And as he has explained… as David Warner, or whoever the actor was, explained how the ovens work. The cameras will go in and the ovens will light up. And I was standing next to Carlos. And I will never forget this moment, and he said, “How do I get their attention?” And I said, “I can do it Carlos,what do you need?” “Could you just get their attention?” I said, “sure,” I said, ”Guys, can you hold on for a second?” He said, “Gentlemen, just before you light the ovens please remember that they are the consecrated graves of 120,000 people.” And everybody just stopped cold and went,” Oh my God. What are we? What are we doing?” You know? I mean they… in the process of making the film and the work they just didn't think… It was… OK… How do you… You know it's just like the most obvious thing had skipped… So to their credit, and to NBC’s credit, I have to say they said, “Look, we're shutting down production,” and they rebuilt a sound stage to mimic where we were. Did it and tore it back down.
Jonathan Gal: To not use the real ovens. Out of respect.
James Woods: It was OK to use it because they wanted to use the real place, but they weren't going to light it up because this was a sacred burial ground, you know?
Jonathan Gal: When "Holocaust" first aired, there were those who accused the show of being simplistic, of trivializing the horrors of the Holocaust, and also of being historically inaccurate. This criticism was shared by researchers and Holocaust survivors alike, and it carries until today. However, despite its inaccuracies, there is no doubt that this was an important show.
Now here's some Hollywood gossip for you movie buffs. Meryl Streep at the time was in a relationship with the actor John Cazale, Fredo from “The Godfather.” He was very ill then. In fact, Streep later said that her entire paycheck from “Holocaust” went towards her partner’s medical bills.
James Woods: John was doing “Deer Hunter” and was dying of cancer and Meryl was desperate to get home to him. So she was just wracked with agony while she was making the series. So of course anytime she had like, we all did some big emotional scene and there were a lot of them. It was so. heightened by her personal experience at the time.
Jonathan Gal: And in the character of… of in this miniseries is a woman whose husband is away from her.
James Woods:The resonance between her personal experience and the experience of having her husband be in the. And we worked very well together and we were very fired up as young actors.If you want to know what heaven is, anything outside of family or good health or all the great things of life. But when it comes to one of the great things of life - having dinner with Meryl Streep every night for months. We tried to keep it light because the daywork was so unbearable. I mean, you're in a concentration camp, I mean, you just cannot escape the mood of the experience.
Jonathan Gal: But it was… It was a comfort to at least, after so much heavy work, to have comfort with such a lovely colleague it seems like it was a comfort for you.
Oh she was Meryl Streep is honestly one of, you know. There there are people. That we admire on the screen and hear what they have to say about life, whatever. And Meryl, of course, is the goddess of cinema, probably the greatest actor that ever lived. And just one of the funniest, smartest, nicest people you would ever meet. I just. Lover love love love her.
Jonathan Gal: Filming wrapped and the show aired in the States on NBC over four consecutive nights in April of 1978. It was a huge success. One report from the Times said that so many people watched it in New York City that when commercials were on, the local water pressure dropped due to so many people using their toilets at once.
James Woods: I was walking down the street and this crowd of people started running towards me and I looked around. I thought, oh I wonder who's here? I was looking around for like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan… And they all come running up and they go “Karl! Karl!” My character’s name. “Does Karl die tonight? Does Inga survivs?” And I went “Oh my God!” I said, “Did you watch ‘Holocaust’?” “Everybody’s watching ‘Holocaust’”, it was like this astonishing response, you know?
Jonathan Gal: If I am a young person in Germany, born after the war, so maybe in the mid-1970s I'm 20 something years-old. What do I know about the Holocaust?
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: You know, as much as you want to know.
Jonathan Gal: Act II: “Holocaust” comes to Germany. This is Moshe Zimmermann, professor emeritus at the History Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the late 70s he was living and studying in West Germany.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: There was a time in the 50s and the 60s, when the information about the Holocaust, information about the Second World War, and information about National Socialism was subdued, they also had a problem with the concept - National Socialism is a concept which was well known to everybody, Nazism and National Socialism. But for the murdering of the Jews, they didn't have a real concept, so “Holocaust” was not in circulation, “Shoah”, neither. So they talked usually about “the things with the Jews.”
Jonathan Gal: In the decades leading up to our story, if you cracked open a history textbook in a German School you'd probably see that history sort of ends some time after the First World War.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: The question is of course, to what extent did they focus on the history of the discrimination of the Jews, the history of what we know as the Holocaust. Of course, it was fragmented information that they got.
Jonathan Gal: In the 50s and 60s צany Germans, Zimmermanמ explains, took up a kind of “we were held hostage” narrative, like it wasn't really us who did all those horrible things. We were taken over.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: This is the way not to be identified with the criminals. Of course they knew that at least the previous generation was somehow involved in what happened, but there was a tendency, of course, to put most of the blame on the main culprits, that is the Nazis, the Nazi elite, the SS,, the people around Hitler, the elites of the National Socialists, and in this way evade responsibility.
Jonathan Gal: Sometime in the 70s though, something started to change. In 1973 the Germans commemorated 40 years to the rise of power by the Nazis, which sparked a lot of debate in the media and academia. Biographical studies of Hitler became bestsellers; the younger Germans showed they were at least beginning to be more open to an honest reflection on the past.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: They had bad conscience and they didn't know how to deal with the question. Of course you are in a very precarious situation. You don't know whether you did the right thing or not, so they tried to circumvent the topic, to evade debating it. And at the same time, of course, admitting that Germany practiced the most radical antisemitic policy ending up with the so-called “Final Solution”.
Jonathan Gal: So now we arrive at 1979, the year that “Holocaust” the TV show came to be broadcast in West Germany.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: Well I was back in Germany, I was as a student and then a young teacher, doing most of my research in Germany and German libraries and German archives. So in the year 1979 I was back again in Germany and of course I was aware to the fact that the people watch now the series “Holocaust” and react to it.
Jonathan Gal: The TV networks were hesitant about showing the miniseries. Unsure about how it will be received by the public, they started low key, broadcasting only in the smaller regional stations.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: And they found out very quickly, already after the first episode, that attention is very high, And they also started a kind of, we would call it today, a chat between the system, the television system in Germany and its audience. And after broadcasting it, people started to ask questions.
Jonathan Gal: People calling in on the telephone to the TV station?
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: Yeah yeah, and this was something that they took up, the system took up, and tried to answer the question and explain not only what happened in the film, but the history, the real history behind the film.
Jonathan Gal: 10,000 Germans called the broadcaster WDR after one of the episodes, many in tears, to express their shock and shame. Former soldiers got in touch to confirm the details of Nazi crimes. When the scenes of Kristallnacht were shown, police station switchboards were flooded with confessional calls from people who had participated in the actual event calling to confess. Many others, younger people, simply called in to ask, “How did I not know about this?”
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: This was one of the questions, or they didn't put it at the question, they just put it at a statement, “Well, I didn't know that…” or “I knew that something else but nobody told me that…”
Jonathan Gal: And then the historian…
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: And the question was, is really this situation that was described in this or the other episode?
Jonathan Gal: Really happens.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: Is this a real one, or is it an invented one?
Jonathan Gal:For many Germans, this was the first time that Hitler's victims appeared on their living room screen. They were humanized, they were people.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: It was very successful. It was effective because people showed interest without being coerced or being forced to do it. They were interested in looking at this film in order to get the information that they didn't have before, or they were not aware of before.
Jonathan Gal: The show went national and sparked a national debate. Surveys show that 86% of viewers discussed the Holocaust with friends or family after watching each episode.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: I know from reading the newspapers or listening to other programs on German TV that it was really one of the foci of general debate in Germany or in the general interest of the German viewers in Germany of those days.
Jonathan Gal: Zimmermann says the show had a profound effect in the long term as well. Many credit it for building towards a huge national debate the Germans went through in 1986, in what was known as the ‘Historikerstreit’: at that time, several prominent historians and philosophers from the left and the right, exchanged heated opinions in the German media, about how to incorporate Nazism and the Holocaust into German historiography, and into the German people's view of themselves. Social scientists have been studying the impact of the miniseries since then.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: It was not something which was only important for the moment, toward the end of 1979, but people who dealt with the question of the awareness of the average German to what happened during the Second World War, [say] that this film was a real turning point and this film, which was shown again and again also in other channels, this film had its effect in creating more interest in what happened and creating a new awareness.
Jonathan Gal: Act III: So what does it all mean? For this part, we visited Avi Nesheri, Israel's preeminent filmmaker. He made several of Israel's biggest all time blockbusters, as well as some critical darlings. You probably saw one of his latest projects, ”Image of Victory,” a sprawling epic drama about romance and courage during the Israeli War of Independence, recently. On Netflix, let's put it this way. If anyone can claim the honor of being the Israeli Spielberg, it’s Avi Nesher. Avi I want to start by saying Mazel Tov to you. Just recently celebrate your 70th?
Avi Nesher: Well, you know you do not discuss the rope in the hanged man’s house.
Jonathan Gal: Wow.Never heard that one before. But there's a retrospective of your films here in the cinematheque in Tel Aviv. I mean, these are exciting days for you, you're working on a film.
Avi Nesher: Well, the exciting thing about the retrospective is… you know the most important thing when you're an artist of any sort, is to hope that your art survives time. Because people think that the greatest challenge an artist faces is failure or success. And I think the greatest challenge at artist faces is time, because most art becomes irrelevant throughout time.
Jonathan Gal: The issue of time is very relevant to what we want to discuss, but I want to start for context - when we texted before we had this conversation, you told me that the topic of the Holocaust on screen “נוגע בי” (Nogea bi), touches you. And you were born in Israel in 1952, but how did the Holocaust touch your family?
Avi Nesher: Well, you know my parents are Holocaust survivors, as the parents of many of the kids I grew up with, and like my friends. like my whole generation, we went to great trouble to ignore the Holocaust, because the way we were brought up, we were supposed to be the new Jews, the brave Jews, the Jews who will not go “like lambs to the slaughter” and in my ways we sinned the greatest sin, you know children can sin against their parents, you know we were slightly ashamed of our parents that they did not fight back. Somehow they were responsible for their own tragedy, which of course is ludicrous. But you know, I never talked to my parents about their childhood. I never talked to my parents about their parents. I never talked to them about their friends. I mean I love my parents and my parents loved me. I mean there was no emotional disconnect. But this topic, you know, was totally contrary to the way the leaders of early Israel tried to create this new nation.
Jonathan Gal: Like the best directors, Nesher is first and foremost a fan of movies, a film scholar and critic, as well as a creator himself. But when we talk about some of the portrayals of the Holocaust on the big screen, he has his reservations, let's say.
Avi Nesher: You know the early Holocaust movies were all flawed. You know there's a movie called “Kapò” by Gillo Pontecorvo who's a great Italian filmmaker who made “The Battle of Algiers,” but it's so difficult to recreate the Holocaust because the horrors were something that no one can understandif you were not there. You know my wildest imagination cannot really duplicate the actual horror of being, you know, part of this horrible, horrible experience. And when you see movies like “Kapò,” you know the extras look all wrong. The actors looked like they were just recently fed, you know. I mean somehow it does not portray the true horror of the Holocaust. So I've always stayed away because I just… You know, these movies were movies. They were not films, they were movies. It didn't seem anything like documentaries that I saw that were horrifying. You know, films that were shot, you know, by Nazis themselves, films that were shot by the American soldiers who liberated, you know, the camps. These were really horror movies.
Jonathan Gal: You can see how this ambivalence bled into his own work. Nesher has written and directed films about almost all of Israel's major conflicts, wars and social changes. The Holocaust is present in many of them, but he never really shows it. He never made his “capital H” Holocaust movie.
Avi Nesher: All these stories are told from the point of view of the second generation and older characters, the Holocaust survivors, are always a bit of a mystery. I can tell you that no matter what my mother has told us, I'm sure she told us, you know, maybe 20%, maybe 30%. I really think that people who survived the Holocaust underwent such a journey that it cannot be really recreated with words because you know… I mean, if you really create it, you know it can become almost exploitational. You know it's… Again, it's something that… there is nothing in our lifetime that is even remotely similar to the experience.
Jonathan Gal: Like many Israeli film makers, Avi Nesher regularly screens his films in Germany, and that's not always been easy.
Avi Nesher: My experience with Germans is split because on one hand I have many German friends, good friends, and on the other hand, when I'm in Berlin, in the subway, and then the announcer says “Achtung!” you know I have a gut reaction. There's nothing I can do about it. You know, I'm preconditioned. I doubt that my daughter will have the same reaction and you know the great-grandkids will probably not have that reaction. But you know, for me, it's still very very fresh, I don't think my parents ever went back to Germany. It's complicated, you know.
Jonathan Gal: So what about the miniseries we're discussing? Turns out Avi Nesher l, not a huge fan. But he definitely acknowledges the importance of that broadcast back in 1979.
Avi Nesher: It was important in the same way that the Eichmann Trial was important, because you do not want the Holocaust forgotten. You know the tragedy is, that for the Western world, World War Two was over in 1945. For us, Jews, the Holocaust, you know it's still around the corner. World War Two was never over. There are people in Iran who have some interesting ideas about how to do a repeat act of the Holocaust. You know antisemitism is rising in America and everywhere else. It's present and it's important to remember that it is something that can come back at any given point, because the reasons for the existence of antisemitism have not disappeared, you know they're still around. So I do not want to discuss the artistic merits of the television series, but I think politically and socially, the fact that the Holocaust made a comeback, so to speak, is important.
Jonathan Gal: The show “Holocaust” was not the first time Hollywood dealt with the horrors of that era. There was for example, the nineteen fifty nine adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, which screened all over the world and won three Oscars. Then there’s a Sidney Lumet movie from 1964 called “The Pawnbroker,” about a haunted, deeply traumatized survivor who runs a shop in East Harlem after the war. Rod Steiger got an Oscar nomination for that one, but “Holocaust” the miniseries was the first that really worked that really made an impact, especially in Germany. The big question is - why?
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: Because this story concentrated on a family, it was something which was not complicated. It was based on the average American receiving information about the Holocaust and it was compatible to what the the average German could accept and could understand. I think this combination of those elements explains why such a miracle happened in the year 1979 and why this miracle left its effect for such a long time in Germany.
Jonathan Gal: This is of course thirty-something years after the end of the war, so you have to imagine that by this time more and more Germans were becoming open to a frank discussion…
Avi Nesher: Well, you know there comes a point when history becomes mythology, and mythology is much more potent than history, because history is something that you get tested on in fifth grade and you get a B, and you know… and you leave it alone. And history is something that can be contested, its historians and new historians, old historians. But mythology is not really accountable to anything. Mythology is just something that a nation adopts at some point, like the Western, you know. I mean, I assume life in the real West was different from John Wayne movies or Clint Eastwood movies or Gary Cooper movies, you know. So mythology is extremely important in the life of a nation, and there's no other medium as powerful and effective at creating mythology as cinema.
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann: This is the awkward situation for a historian. The historian believes that documentation is telling the story and people have to be impressed by the documentation or convinced by the documentation. And as a historian who did a lot of writing about cinema. I'm aware to the fact that fiction in cinema and fiction in general is not less effective than documentary. If you look at it in retrospective, some pictures, some images created in the fiction, film is more effective than anything else.
Jonathan Gal: That’s it for this episode of “On the Holocaust”, a podcast from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. My name is Jonathan Gal. Sound editing and mixing by Dor Komet; Tova Shimanov was our producer. Thanks to our guests, the great James Woods Moshe Zimmermann, professor emeritus at the History Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Avi Nesher, who's currently developing a new project, he tells us, that might end up being his Holocaust movie. Subscribe to this feed wherever you get your podcast for more episodes with more stories, you might not have heard before. Thanks for listening. Be well.