By Jeff Jarvis
November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

PBS (Wed., Nov. 9, 10 p.m. ET)


“You don’t give theater to Auschwitz and you don’t use Auschwitz for theater,” Elie Wiesel says in an inspiring interview about his life before and after the Holocaust. “You should never allow that period, that theme to be trivialized or commercialized or cheapened.”

But turn the channel a few nights later and that is precisely what you will see happen when War and Remembrance tries to dramatize the death machine at Auschwitz, step by graphic step. The motive is good: to let no one forget the Holocaust. But there is an inescapable danger here: It is impossible to fully portray the Holocaust’s unimaginable evil. The best movies on the subject—such as The Pawnbroker or Sophie’s Choice—do not show you the horror so much as they show you the effect. They suggest the evil and let you try to imagine it. War and Remembrance is more literal. It simply tries to show you the Holocaust, the worst of it. But even the producers seem to realize the trap this puts them in, for they continually want to make the Auschwitz scenes uglier and uglier, to heap horror onto the horror. It is not enough for us to watch as concentration camp inmates are forced to dig up a mass grave of decomposing bodies, to tear gold out of the victims’ teeth, to pile them into a small mountain and to set them afire. No, the people behind this show looked at that scene and said it wasn’t evil enough. They wanted to make it worse, so they had a Nazi guard urinate on the grave. They could keep on making it worse and worse and never film a scene that is horrible enough. The Holocaust is worse than anything we can imagine and put on a screen.

Then War and Remembrance cheapens the Holocaust more by surrounding it with miniseries melodrama. War and Remembrance is long—an 18-hour sequel to 1983’s 18-hour The Winds of War, and it will be followed by another dozen hours next spring. It is so long that it is really six miniseries in one. There is the Holocaust sub-miniseries, starring Topol and John Rhys-Davies as victims. But interwoven with that is the trashy romance mini starring Polly Bergen in a painfully overdone performance as Robert Mitch-um’s two-timing wife, who flirts with Peter Graves and Mike Connors. The ever-craggy Mitchum stars in the war-movie mini, co-starring Hart Bochner and Michael Woods as his soldier sons. Mitchum also guest-stars in the newsman mini, which features the ever-classy Victoria Tennant with Robert Morley as her bumbling Brit father. Jane Seymour and Sir John Gielgud take over the roles played by Ali MacGraw and John Houseman in The Winds of War; they are Jews in Europe who constantly put themselves in harm’s way and are constantly on the verge of escape. Their mini seems never to end. Finally, there is the Nazi mini with Steven Berkoff as a hyper Hitler and Ralph Bellamy as his enemy, Franklin Roosevelt. Hitler gets to make his veins bulge, and Roosevelt gets to sit in the White House and say trivializing things like: “This Jewish situation is simply awful. I’m at my wit’s end about it.”

At the end the drama is stretched as thin as your patience will be if you actually make it through all 18 hours. But here is fair warning: At the end of these seven nights, you will not be rewarded with conclusions to the storylines; the war will not be over. No, you’ll have to wait until next year for that. And that is unforgivably maddening.

But don’t let anyone tell you that the failure of War and Remembrance marks once and for all the death of the miniseries. No, foreigners are making good ones, such as England’s The Jewel in the Crown and West Germany’s Heimat. Those minis were long because they had rich stories. War is long because it has too many stories. The mini-series is a dramatic form unique to TV, and I hate to think that it can be killed just because a network spent too much money and too much time on a show with too many extras and too little intelligence. But that’s not to say everything about War is bad, not at all. Mitchum, Tennant, Bochner, Barry Bostwick as a submarine commander and Bill Wallis as a sniveling Nazi bureaucrat, all put in fine performances. Somewhere in this week of movies there is at least one good movie of the week.