Image: Nada Bakos and Bob Baer are trolled by the set dresser in Hunting Hitler Series 3
[History/Kaga Seven Pictures: Fair Use for the purpose of reporting and review]
The satirically named TV channel “History” has just launched Season 3 of its fake history epic “Hunting Hitler” and on the surface all the signs are the journey into the looking glass world of the Hitler obsessives in TV factual commissioning is going to be as much fun as the previous two series. Both of which utterly failed to find any credible evidence that TV executives favorite Anti-Semitic, genocidal, dictator, with some cool [allegedly] Hugo Boss threads, survived his self-inflicted twilight of the dark gods of Nazism in Berlin in May 1945.
The premise of Series 3 of “Hunting Hitler” is much as before. A group of intrepid “investigators” blow a budget, reputedly north of $2 million per episode, visiting exotic foreign locations in search of Nazi concrete, Nazi relics and rumours of clandestine visits by recently ex Nazis.
If they get really lucky the local fixers have found a few aged locals who will claim on camera that they once saw Nazi’s in a “secret” tunnel/concrete basement/remote compound/condo in down town Buenos Aires. Or at least they will appear to make such claims when subjected to leading or closed questions and some sharp editing.
Once again the team is “led” by ex CIA spook, turned conspiracy theorist and occasional CNN terrorism analyst, Bob Baer. Although in fact everyone knows that the team is really led by the script, because by entering this world of “alternative facts”, where facts are what the programme makers say they are, we are also entering the world of what media circles call “muscular story telling.”
Muscular story telling is, in fact, the relatively new bastard offspring of drama and documentary. The form depends on the interplay of a cast of “characters” against the background of a story lined, semi-scripted action adventure narrative, shot on location and structured like a serial drama such as “24”. This means each programme is replete with action set pieces involving the deployment of eye catching technology such as drones and apparently hi-tech computer software, coupled with travelogue shots of the local landscape and frequent plot exposition and recapitulation for anyone who is channel hopping, all culminating in a cliffhanging [sometimes literally] teaser to hook the viewer into the next episode.
Also central to the format is regular faux jeopardy to draw the audience into caring about the fate of the characters. Although in the absence of any slathering Rottweilers of the kind who did for Gregory Peck in “Boys from Brazil” it is somewhat difficult to get invested in whether the team are going to be told off sternly for trespassing as they wander into yet another “secret” Nazi site. Instead we have to settle for British conspiracy theorist Gerrard Williams and his series sidekick Lenny DePaul, investigating a former hospital at night by torch light in order to, as the commentary tells us,
“Limit their exposure.”
Limit their exposure to what the commentary does not say. Perhaps limit their exposure to the ridicule of genuine historians who tend to visit research locations in daylight because you can generally see more?
Of course, such nonsense is necessary in order to pump the alleged mystery and here it is possible to sympathise with the episode director. It is hard to conjour up an atmosphere of mystery when the majority of the locations used in “Hunting Hitler” have been known about for years and many, like the tunnels under Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, are even on the regular tourist itinerary.
In fact after two previous series of “Hunting Hitler” these scenes have a comforting familiarity, suggestive of what, for the History channel, is a winning formula. For example, there are lots of shaky camera shots and close ups of tense dialogues between the protagonists suggesting that they have actually uncovered something new and “massive” rather than visiting a site you can find out all about on Trip Advisor.
One such tourist site is Erprobungsstelle Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s secret testing facility to the north of Berlin, which is visited by Gerrard Williams, Lenny DePaul and a cute robot crawler in Episode 2 of the latest series.
It is a measure of quite how cynical and/or badly researched “Hunting Hitler” actually is that the audience is led to believe that the, by then chronically ill, Fuhrer could have escaped from General Zhukov’s approaching Red Army hordes in April 1945, stuffed into the back seat of the trainer version of an Me 262 jet, while completely missing the most obvious connection with the secret operations of the Third Reich which should have been catnip to the conspiracy thesis storyliners of “Hunting Hitler.”
It is absolutely true that the Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter bombers of Jagdgeschwader 7 did indeed operate for Rechlin and its adjacent airfield at Lärz until the very last days of the Reich in early May 1945, and it is also true that the Luftwaffe did blow up many of the facilities at the base, including the hardened concrete hanger visited by the “Hunting Hitler” team. However, the spectacular destruction was not to cover up the escape of the Fuhrer as the programme leads its audience to think. It was a scorched earth policy to deny the approaching western allies and Russians usable infrastructure, technology and intelligence as well as to cover up evidence of war crimes. Indeed, as his armaments minister Albert Speer recalled after the war, it was a policy ordered by Hitler himself.
However, what “Hunting Hitler” fails to address entirely is the fact that Rechlin was also one of the operating and testing bases of the Luftwaffe’s famous special operations unit, KG200.
One of KG200’s specialties was long range operations, including operations using captured allied aircraft and the Luftwaffe’s own Junkers 290 reconnaissance bomber and transport, which had a range of over 6000km. Not only that, the unit’s penultimate commanding officer, Oberst Werner Baumbach, who was in post until March 1945, after the war ended, found his way to that rest home for retired Nazi’s, Argentina. It should have made for a conspiracy slam dunk.
If ever there was a group of men and machines who could have flown Hitler out of Germany it is KG 200. Sadly, unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, there is no credible evidence that they did. Indeed, it is recorded that Hitler refused to be flown out of Berlin when the famous pilot Hanna Reitsch showed it was possible to try.
None of which is surprising because Hitler wrote in his political testament, dated 4am on 29 April 1945, the day before his suicide.
“I have therefore decided to stay in Berlin and there to choose death voluntarily when I determine that the position of the Fuhrer and the Chancellery itself can no longer be maintained. I die with a joyful heart in the knowledge of the immeasurable deeds and achievements of our peasants and workers and of a contribution unique in the history of our youth which bears my name.”
However, while the Rechlin episode shows that the research and scripting of Series 3 of “Hunting Hitler” is as thin, lacking context and cynically slanted towards the premise of the series as in the previous two outings, the producers of “Hunting Hitler”, Kaga Seven Pictures, have tried to ring a few changes.
To begin with Bob Baer’s situation room now looks less rented by the hour and more dressed and lived in. Although the member of the production team who placed the prominent “Hitler Dead” document on the pin board which forms the background to a number of dialogue scenes was clearly trolling someone. Probably the programme’s audience.
Even more remarkably, for a series which has, until now, thrived as an exercise in “big boys, hunt Nazi’s, with techie toys,” one of the people doing the hunting is a woman.
Gone from the cast is criminologist John Casich, who really only ever acted as the Robin to Bob Baer’s totally batsman, existing primarily so that Mr Baer could explain the latest plot development, and in comes Nada Bakos. Ms Bakos is described by the series website as “a former terrorist targeting officer, and one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorist networks.” The History website also claims that,
“She was on the team responsible for tracking and dismantling al-Qaeda and gathering the intelligence that lead to the capture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the “godfather” of ISIS), and the biggest prize of all—Osama bin Laden.”
However, like Bob Baer, Ms Bakos is also proof that, however distinguished their CV, retired spooks still have a living to learn and can, if they choose, undercut any credibility their career gave them by exploiting lucrative media opportunities where the only limit is the cynicism of producers and the gullibility of audiences.
The shame of it is that a genuinely informed, inquisitive and nuanced exploration of the methods used in the hunt for a real world fugitive, like Osama Bin Laden, would make good television. Such a series could even be capable of asking some penetrating questions about how state operators in the intelligence agencies navigate the moral shades of grey which swirl around their trade. The trouble is it has already been done, most famously in a semi fictionalised form by Hollywood director Kathryn Bigelow in the Oscar winning film “Zero Dark Thirty”.
Sadly for “Hunting Hitler” Bob Baer and Gerrard Williams are no match for Osama Bin Laden’s buffed nemesis from “Zero Dark Thirty”, SEAL Team Six, or even the elite US Airborne Pathfinders of World War Two.
In fact Mr Baer and Mr Williams look more like operatives from that other less media shy, Special Op’s group, the Chairborne Piefinders.
However, every classic war movie requires a cheeky chappie, salt of the earth, British squaddie to ground the officer class. Think David Niven in “The Guns of Naverone”. In “Hunting Hitler” British military historian James Holland fulfills the role. Introduced in Series 2, in Series 3 Mr Holland’s role has been expanded to include nodding as he recognises the name of a leading Nazi and holding a walkie-talkie even more often.
That he manages to keep a straight face amid this farrago of nonsense suggests that he at least possesses previously unrecognised talents.
Mr Holland has hitherto aligned himself on the saner side of history TV commissioning with, for example, a well regarded book and documentary about the Battle of Britain to his credit. However, in “Hunting Hitler” he gives the performance of a lifetime, and one which merits a whole new category in the BAFTA’s and Emmy’s: Best Supporting Historian in a Comedy or Musical.
That leads this reviewer to close with a suggestion for Series 4 of “Hunting Hitler”.
[And there will surely be a Series 4 if the current series maintains its ratings.]
Given how much scripting, story-lining and acting is going on in “Hunting Hitler” why not just drop the pretense that anything about it is grounded in historical reality and turn the whole series into a tongue in cheek action adventure?
I can even suggest a title. Given that the foundation of the series is the theory that Hitler was given a whole new start in Argentina it could be called “Springtime for Hitler.” I can almost hear the theme tune.
“Springtime for Hitler on History, do de do do,”
Back with the current Series 3, the full title of History’s new series is “Hunting Hitler- the final evidence.”
However, to reputable historians trying to research understand and interpret this darkest of 20th century narratives, not to mention to the dwindling number of survivors who actually suffered in the atrocities driven by Hitler’s genocidal political ideology, the series could be called equally “Hunting Hitler- the final insult.”
That is because for this highly polished, but deeply dishonest, television turd, to be given its first broadcast run during the period which sees Holocaust Memorial Day is truly an insult.