Netflix, here’s an idea for you: remake “Holocaust.” I know this contradicts the whole “Never Again” message about the Shoah, but it’s now over 40 years since the NBC original was seen by 120 million Americans over four nights in April 1978 – providing the ultimate “water cooler moment” before the term had even been invented.
More remarkably, the miniseries was viewed by a third of the population of West Germany when it premiered there the following year, introducing the word “Holocaust” into the German lexicon. It also changed forever the way the country viewed its Nazi past – well, at least until the Alternative for Germany party came along.
And it’s even more extraordinary that the original “Holocaust” series achieved all of this without actually being very good.
Art doesn’t have to be great to be effective, of course. It just needs to capture a truth and strike a chord with audiences at a certain moment in time. There were many (justifiable) criticisms of “Holocaust” that charged it was sentimental and simplistic – although most people agreed its biggest strength was showing the sheer normality of the human cogs in the Nazi killing machine. However, its very existence was enough to enlighten hundreds of millions of people about something they never would have sat through in documentary form.
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For proof of the show’s effectiveness, look no further than the fact that neo-Nazis tried to blow up television transmitters in Koblenz and Münster in an attempt to stop the show even being broadcast in Germany. (Full disclosure: I once hatched a similar plot to stop the second series of “True Detective” being shown in Israel.)
In his book “Zeitenwende 1979” (“Turning Point 1979”), the German historian Frank Bösch places the four-part miniseries on a par with the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of China as transformative events in our lifetime. This sounds unimaginable nowadays in our scattere schindler's list d media landscape, where TV series come and go with the regularity of disgraced Trump lackeys, and 140 characters is a more reliable way to get your message out there than a group of fictional characters.
Sure, a new “Holocaust” could never hope to achieve the impact of the original – just look at how the History Channel remake of Alex Haley’s “Roots” in 2016 barely scratched the surface compared to the taboo-busting 1977 original, whose final episode was the most-watched in television history up until then.
But in an age where ignorance of the Holocaust is at an alarming level – two-thirds of American millennials say they don’t even know what Auschwitz is, for example – it’s clear that every generation needs its own TV series or major film about the subject (Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” was made over 25 years ago).
Where better to have that series than on Netflix, the streaming giant with a global reach that even McDonald’s must envy. And while it’s at it, I would also urge Netflix to buy the rights to Claude Lanzmann’s definitive eyewitness documentary, “Shoah,” and edit it into nine more audience-friendly chapters. (Bizarre fact: Search for “Shoah” on Netflix and Blake Lively’s “Gossip Girl” is one of the options offered.)
Dramatizing important issues
Rule number one in my remake book is to always revisit something that was flawed to begin with – and “Holocaust” definitely falls into that category. There’s just one proviso: Given the way his politics have skewed ever rightward over the years, it probably makes more sense now to recast one of the original cast’s Jews, James Woods, as a Nazi in the remake.
I also think I have the perfect writer-director for this monumental task: Hugo Blick. The British writer-producer-director is no stranger to tackling daunting topics, having created shows featuring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (2014’s “The Honourable Woman”) and the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in his new, engrossing eight-part series “Black Earth Rising” (now available on Netflix).
What I love about Blick is his ability to take important subjects and weave dramatic storylines around them, populated by flawed characters he makes you care deeply about. And while his shows’ thriller elements are often a little too neatly packaged, their themes linger long after the plotlines fade from the memory.
“Black Earth Rising” seems to have slipped under the radar in this Peak TV age, which is a real shame. It’s the kind of show I am contractually obliged to describe as cerebral – even though its protagonists do some remarkably dumb things – and it is occasionally hemmed in by those thriller tropes (a surprise death here; a shocking reveal there; a character or three whose motives are not as previously advertised).
Blick is also smart enough not to tell his stories solely from a white liberal perspective – some of the best characters in “Black Earth Rising,” for instance, are the Rwandan politicians (the show is set in the present day, with occasional flashbacks to the genocide itself). He also writes great leading roles for women: Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jewish philanthropist Nessa Stein in “Honourable Woman,” and the brilliant young British actress Michaela Coel as a genocide survivor now working as a legal researcher in “Rising.”
Sure, there are weaknesses to his approach. His plots occasionally verge on the operatic, he seems incapable of writing plausible American politicians or secret service officials, and his dialogue is so theatrical it should come with its own safety curtain (“My moral compass is spinning so fast, Chuck Yeager would bail out” being a prime example uttered by John Goodman’s character, the human rights lawyer Michael Ennis in “Rising”).
But that’s countered by his constant desire to create cinematic television, leading to some stunningly shot scenes and much visual invention – like the decision to show the horrors of the genocide through black and white animation sequences.
Blick’s shows are captivating because they never reduce their subject matter – whether Middle Eastern politics or truth and reconciliation between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda – to a mere exotic background. These are subjects he cares about and makes the viewer care about, too.
So while “Black Earth Rising” won’t leave you with questions about that neatly concluded plot, it will leave you wondering many things – like why English replaced French as Rwanda’s lingua franca a decade or so after the genocide; and whether, with its targeting of African warlords, the International Criminal Court is just a well-disguised example of Western colonialism and desperation to keep imposing itself on the continent.
To appreciate just how good Blick is at fashioning a story out of geopolitical events, you should also watch the four-part Australian series “Safe Harbour” (Yes Edge, Thursdays at 22:00 and Yes VOD), which makes a melodrama out of a humanitarian crisis – the plight of refugees fleeing Iraq and other war-torn countries and heading for Australia on ramshackle vessels.
There’s nothing wrong with the moral dilemma at the heart of the show: How far would you go to help a group of desperate refugees if you found them marooned at sea? The big problem is that the subject matter is turned into a rather nauseating revenge thriller that’s as plausible as a summer snowstorm in Sydney. It leaves you with the same bad taste as a koala burger.
The show’s problem is exacerbated by creating five of the most obnoxious, self-centered middle-class folk you have ever seen (led by Ewen Leslie, who was so much better served in last year’s British-Australian thriller “The Cry”): It unwisely contrasts their white people problems – including, yes, struggling to sell a yacht and drinking heavily to cope with the pressures of being a high-flying lawyer – with the poor Iraqi family they encounter on that stranded fishing boat between Australia and Indonesia. It seems particularly unfair to ask a boatload of refugees to jump as many sharks as this script demands.
The show is ripped from the headlines with all the care that the word “ripped” implies. It also features one of the worst endings since David Cameron decided to ask the British public what they thought about staying in the European Union. “Safe Harbour”? “All at Sea” would have been far more apt.