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DVD Review: Selling Hitler

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He says:

Would you pay $1,500 to take a class I’m selling? Here’s my closing: “The starting date won’t be set until we sell all the remaining spaces in the class. You will receive a letter with the time and date of the orientation session to which you can bring one or two guests. Now, I’ll need a check for the full amount to reserve your spot now. Yes, now. It’s customary.” (You pay for something when you buy it, you know.)

The first year I was in that business, I earned national recognition for sales. My mentor said that I had an ability to “inspire trust.” True story. Selling Hitler, directed by Alastair Reid and starring Jonathan Pryce, Alexei Sayle, and Alison Doody, is a British comedy based on the true story of the Hitler diary hoax. Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann was the go-between for the forger and his publisher. He was also a much better salesman than I.

The "mark"Selling Hitler is filmed in “film noir” color with frequent dark settings and atmospheres. What appears to be authentic “Movie Tone” style black and white footage is interspersed to add support to the story and document factual information. There are a few truths mixed in with the forgeries. This production originally aired as five television episodes in England and will be released July 13 in the states as a DVD.

If Heidemann was in on the scam from the beginning, it isn’t clear from this production. He soon became enamoured with the potential for profits and quickly succumbed to temptation. He convinced his financiers to trust him and the forger and pay in cash to protect the forger's brother, a supposed German officer in hiding. The “brother” was supplying the goods in a clandestine manner for his own safety. After the first transaction was complete, Heidemann’s marks convinced themselves that it wasn’t a scam with the logic of “We’ve spent so much money already, it couldn’t possibly be fake. We wouldn’t spend that on fakes!” Heidemann even manages to have the document experts compare the diaries with another piece of forgery from his contact.

The story is told with frequent metaphoric references to a Wagnerian opera complete with valkyre and a “Madonna” style bustier. Pryce (Siegfried) and Doody (Brünnhilde) appear in operatic costume, serving up high drama, as impending tragedy looms with the next aria. A scene in the third episode puts the viewer on notice that something is amiss when the forger greets Heidemann with, “I saw you coming.” David Irving appears in the third act as “Hagen” and begins to sharpen his dagger.

Selling Hitler is a hilarious romp through history reminiscent of The Producers — and grounded in the truth. One truth is that even Rupert Murdoch can be taken in by someone who is a great salesman; someone like Lou Pearlman, Bernard Madoff, Charles Ponzi, or Gerd Heidemann.

And She says:

Selling Hitler, “The Outrageous True Tale of Hitler’s Missing Diaries,” is an amusing television series detailing the events connected with “the biggest fraud in publishing history,” as well as a telling indictment of man’s greed and stupidity.
If something’s too good to be true, we should be wary because it probably is. If something’s too good to be true, but we might possibly make huge profits from our involvement with that “thing,” are we willing to suspend our disbelief? Bernie Madoff knew the answer to that question. There are certainly enough examples that support the fact that people who should know better don’t always.

Selling Hitler, a British television series from 1991, tells the story of German journalist Gerd Heidemann (Jonathan Pryce), obsessed with bringing Hitler artifacts to light (at a huge profit), who becomes the dupe of a forger who produces, at first, 26 diaries. When the forger’s scheme proves to be extremely profitable, he “learns” that there are dozens more diaries available (in addition to a second volume to Mein Kampf and an opera written by Hitler) which he offers to the journalist. In creating the diaries, the forger also rewrites history. Not only was he making a fortune, he was also making Hitler into a “nice guy” (who had occasional intestinal problems and insomnia).

The forger demanded outrageous sums for each volume of the diary, and the journalist increased the demand by huge sums which he pocketed. Easy to do, since his publishers saw a gold mine in the acquisition of the diaries and were willing to suspend their disbelief to the point where they were allowing cash payments to be delivered by the journalist, without knowing the identity of the source of the materials.

American handwriting experts certified the diaries as authentic by comparing them to a letter Hitler had written. That letter had been created by the same forger. The forgery was uncovered by another journalist, David Irving (Roger Lloyd-Pack), doing a quick perusal of a photocopy of a forged letter.
Behind-the-scenes negotiations, business meetings, and conversations reveal the avarice and ambition that built—and ultimately undid—the entire scam. Threaded throughout the episodes is a Wagnerian-type opera taking place in Heidemann’s imagination that portends his doom.

Jonathan Pryce portrays the journalist with the right combination of greed and excitement. His delight at each new “discovery” reminds one of the joy of a child getting exactly what he wanted for his birthday. The large cast of Hitler fans, magazine publishers, journalists, retired Nazis, and assorted wackos keep the story moving over five episodes.

This story is billed as “outrageous,” and that’s what makes it fun. The acting is broad enough to be funny without venturing into the realm of ridiculous. There’s no question, “who would do such a thing” or “react in such a way”; we know they’re out there (they’re just not us!).

The two-DVD set includes “Aftermath of the Hitler Diaries.” Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent/stream Selling Hitler? Yes, it’s very funny.

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  • jeff allee

    Great review. This is one of my all time favorite mini-series and I always thought it was criminal that it never aired in the U.S. There have also been home video releases in Canada and the Netherlands that cut out 50 minutes from the first 3 episodes. It took almost 20 years, but I’m glad this classic series is finally available uncut on home video.

  • the fake she

    Oh my. Now I want to watch them both.