The film's subplot follows the struggles of Fritz Gerlich, a German journalist who opposes the rising Nazi Party. He is portrayed as to fulfill the essence of the quotation disputably attributed to Edmund Burke, which is displayed at the beginning and at the end of the film:
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
The opening of the film features a montage of Adolf Hitler's life during the years 1899-1914, when he left Austria for Munich. His participation in the First World War on the German side is then shown in a series of episodes which includes his promotion to the rank of corporal, his awarding of the Iron Cross for bravery, and his blinding during a gas attack.
Hitler returns to a revolutionary Munich in 1919 and, still employed by the army, is assigned to report on the newly formed political parties in the city. After attending a meeting of the German Workers' Party, he is recruited by the party’s leader, Anton Drexler, to organise its propaganda activities and give increasingly popular speeches that harp on the themes that Germany has been betrayed by the leaders who surrendered in the last war, and that Communists and Jews are sapping the German spirit from within. After meeting the wealthy art publisher Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler is encouraged to refine his image and create a symbol for the party - which he does by adopting the Swastika. Hanfstaengl also puts Hitler in contact with the city’s elite, including the war hero Hermann Göring, and the militant Ernst Röhm, eventual organiser of the paramilitary SA. In 1921, Hitler forces Drexler to resign and takes over as leader of the renamed National Socialist Party.
In 1923, the Minister of Bavaria, Gustav von Kahr, urged on by his speechwriter, the journalist Fritz Gerlich, tries to outfox Hitler by convincing him that he is preparing to stage a military coup against the national government in Berlin and that Hitler must remain silent or else his party can play no part in it. Upon learning that the proposed putsch is merely a ruse, Hitler confronts Kahr at gunpoint and coerces him and his associates into supporting his own plan for a putsch. Röhm and the SA plan to take over the military barracks in preparation for a march on Berlin, but the attempted coup is quickly crushed. Hitler takes refuge at the Hanfstaengl home, almost resorting to suicide before Ernst’s wife takes the gun from his hand.
Arrested by the authorities and tried for treason, Hitler manages to use the trial to his advantage, winning over the audience and the Judge with his courtroom theatrics. Consequently, he is awarded a lenient sentence in Landsberg Prison, during which he writes his memoirs (later published as Mein Kampf). In 1925, Hitler goes to the countryside to escape from politics and is joined by his older half-sister, Angela, and her daughter Geli Raubal. When he returns to Munich, Hitler takes Geli with him but, distraught by his overbearing control of her life, she later commits suicide.
Eschewing revolution, Hitler now demands that the party follow a democratic course to power. This declaration puts him into conflict with Röhm, but Hitler’s demand for complete subordination of the party to himself as Führer (Leader) wins the approval of most others, including an impressionable young agitator named Joseph Goebbels. During the late 1920s, the party’s political fortunes improve, with the National Socialists gaining more and more seats in the Reichstag with each election. Alarmed by the party’s growing popularity, Gerlich continues to write articles in opposition to Hitler and, when the paper’s editor fires him, forms his own newspaper.
In 1932, Hitler becomes a German citizen and runs for President against the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg. Although he is unsuccessful, the party has become the largest in the Reichstag, which emboldens Hitler to demand that he be made Chancellor of Germany. Though Hindenburg despises Hitler, the former Chancellor Franz von Papen helps bring this about in 1933. Thereafter, the Reichstag building is set on fire, allegedly by a communist, and Hitler uses the incident to have parliament award him dictatorial powers, which include suspension of civil liberties and suppression of the press. As a consequence, Gerlich's newspaper is shut down and he is arrested by the SA and sent to a concentration camp.
Germany now becomes a police state and Hitler crushes all his opponents, both inside and outside the party. Röhm is shot and the SA is absorbed into the German Army. Following Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, Hitler combines the office of President and Chancellor into one – thus making himself the country’s absolute ruler.
The miniseries received mixed reviews but was nominated for an Emmy for Best Miniseries. Peter O'Toole was also nominated for an Emmy in the supporting actor in a TV movie or miniseries category. The miniseries won Emmys for Art Direction and Sound Editing.
The New York Times said "The filmmakers worked so hard to be tasteful and responsible that they robbed their film of suspense, drama and passion" but praised the performances of Peter O'Toole, Julianna Margulies and Liev Schreiber.
David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle gave it a positive review, praising Carlyle's performance as "brilliant".
Ed Gernon, the executive producer, compared the climate of fear that led to the rise of Nazism to the war on terrorism.
It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear, who ultimately chose to give up their civil rights and plunged the whole world into war. I can’t think of a better time to examine this history than now.
Production company Alliance Atlantis, where he had worked for more than a decade, fired him for this comparison. CBS said that his "personal opinions are not shared by CBS and misrepresent the network's motivation for broadcasting this film".
Associates claimed that CBS was prompted to act by a New York Post article that claimed the comment was a sign of Hollywood’s anti-Americanism and stated that Gernon had said President George W. Bush should be looked at "through the prism of Germany’s psychopath."
The film was banned in the Republic of Belarus.
At the beginning of the film, Hitler's father is shown dying in front of Klara and a young Adolf, at their home during a meal. In fact, Hitler's father died when he went out for his usual morning drink at his local inn, the Gasthaus Stiefler.
Klara Hitler's doctor, Dr. Eduard Bloch (who diagnosed her with breast cancer) is portrayed as a Haredi Jew. In reality, like most Jews in Linz at the time, Bloch was fully assimilated into Austro-Hungarian society.
While walking through Vienna, Hitler passes a shabby boarding house that is offering its rooms in German and English, obviously for the benefit of the English-speaking TV audience.
Hitler is shown as fleeing from Vienna on a train bound for Munich in May 1914. In reality, the time of Hitler's departure from the then Austro-Hungarian Empire for Germany was actually exactly one year earlier in May 1913.
At the outbreak of the First World War on 1 August, a newspaper boy selling a special edition announces "Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria leads to War." During this scene, a statue of Kaiser Wilhelm II can be seen in the background (the same statue is later beheaded by communist revolutionaries when Hitler returns to Munich after the war). In fact, there was no statue of Wilhelm II in the capital of Bavaria, a region whose inhabitants harbored deep resentments against everything and anyone they felt to be "Prussian".
One scene shows Hitler whipping a dog during his time in the trenches. This scene was criticised by historians, and there are no sources that state that Hitler ever beat any animal. Most researches show the opposite: Hitler was an animal lover (as shown by his fondness towards his dog Blondi) and the Third Reich had the first animal protection laws in the world. See Animal welfare in Nazi Germany.
While serving on the Western Front, Hitler is given an order by a sergeant wearing Reichswehr-style shoulder straps. During the First World War, German NCOs did not wear shoulder straps, their rank being indicated by NCO Tressen (lace edging at the collar and cuffs). Hitler was awarded the Iron Cross for repeated acts of bravery in front line service, and not for the cynical political reasons given in the film (though historian Thomas Weber, writing some years after the series, states it was mostly for his proximity to regimental command and that he actually spent the war in relative comfort and safety as a regimental, rather than battalion, runner, though this detail was not known at the time the series was made.) Additionally, there are multiple issues with military awards. For example, Erich Ludendorff is shown wearing a Star of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. This exclusive medal was awarded only twice, and Ludendorff was not a recipient. Furthermore, the German Army at the time did not wear ribbon bars, as is depicted in the film.
While Hitler is recuperating from mustard gas poisoning in a German military hospital, a doctor announces the German "surrender". In fact, the war was not ended by a surrender, but by an armistice. In any case, the abdication of the Kaiser and the beginning of the revolution in Berlin (both on 9 November, two days earlier) would have been far greater and much more important news to the German people at the time, as the armistice had already been expected since October.
Fritz Gerlich and Friedrich Hollaender are shown visiting the Tingel-Tangel-Theater in Munich in 1920. The real Tingel-Tangel-Theater was in Berlin and opened only in 1931.
The Nazi Party is depicted as repeatedly triggering new elections by boycotting sessions of the Reichstag, whereas in reality repeated early election were caused by non-confidence votes which repeatedly brought down governments. These votes were generally supported by the Nazis but usually also by other extremist parties such as the Communists.
Anton Drexler is depicted as not wearing glasses or having a moustache; in fact, he had both. Ironically Gottfried Feder is shown as wearing spectacles when in reality he actually did not. Feder is also shown without a moustache when in reality he had a trademark toothbrush moustache. Ernst Röhm is also portrayed as being tall, decently slim and lacking a moustache; in reality, he was short in height, somewhat stout and had a moustache.
In the scene where Hitler poses for a photograph, the picture of Mussolini in the newspaper shown was taken in Munich in 1937.
One scene depicts Feder giving a speech at a beer hall advocating the separation of Catholic Bavaria from the rest of Germany. In reality, he said that the German state of Bavaria and Austria should annex together to form a nation separate from Germany.
In the scene in the Kroll Opera House, Hitler is shown meeting opposition from other parties. In reality, the Reichstag largely supported the bill, which passed 444-94 with the only dissenters being the Social Democratic Party.
Hitler's niece, Geli, is shown to commit suicide on the night of the 1930 election, but in reality she died more than a year after this event.
Hitler is implied to have committed sexual acts with Geli due to an obsession with her. This is uncertain; however, Konrad Heiden wrote that Hitler composed a letter to Geli in 1929 expressing graphic desires, but it was never sent. In addition to this, William L. Shirer reported that Hitler's then-close allies later told him they were sure Hitler was in love with Geli.
Furthermore, Ludendorff is seen in full uniform when marching towards Odeonsplatz on the second day of the Beer Hall Putsch. In reality, he wore civilian clothing, like Hitler.
The place where the clash of the Nazis "marching for Berlin" with the Bavarian police was filmed bears no resemblance at all to the Odeonsplatz in Munich where the actual clash took place. Odeonsplatz still looks very much as it did back then and it is not known why that clash was not filmed on location there.
Other inaccuracies include:
- Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels are minor characters in the story, and so their contributions to Hitler's success is, for the most part, unexamined.
- Ernst Hanfstaengl is given a prominent role, while other infamous Nazi figures such as Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Albert Speer are not depicted.
- Erich Ludendorff is portrayed in the film as an ignorant, fatuous old man, with whom Hitler severed ties. However, according to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, Ludendorff abandoned Hitler, even refusing to accept a Field Marshal's baton.
- Kurt von Schleicher's role in Hitler's rise to power is largely glossed over. Gregor Strasser, Hitler's competitor, was also not portrayed with much importance.
- Dietrich Eckart was a huge influence on Hitler until the Beer Hall putsch of 1923. Hitler dedicated the second volume of Mein Kampf to Eckart. He is not portrayed or mentioned in the film. In Göring's first appearance in the film, he utters Eckart's words regarding leaders.
- Many members of the cast bear very little resemblance to the historical characters they are supposed to depict.
In Australia, the film was aired on the Seven Network. The network initially used a promotion which went as follows:
Boy 1: "When I grow up, I want to be a fireman." (shows drawing of a fire truck)
Narrator: "Every child needs encouragement..."
Girl: "When I grow up, I want to be a nurse." (shows drawing of a hospital)
Narrator: "But what if you encouraged the wrong child?"
Boy 2: "When I grow up, I want to be much, much more..." (shows child violently drawing a Nazi flag)
The advertisement then proceeded to show the trailer for the film. After some review, the network decided that it was inappropriate to use such a tone to promote a film about Hitler, so the initial scenes were removed and the standard trailer was shown.