An Anti-Nazi's Memoir. `Masterpiece Theatre' dramatizes the life of a Briton who lived out World War II inside the Third Reich. TELEVISION: PREVIEW
BOSTON — CHRISTABEL PBS, Sundays (through March 5), 9-10 p.m. Stars Elizabeth Hurley, Stephen Dillon, and Nigel Le Vaillant. Adapted for television by Dennis Potter from a book by Christabel Bielenberg. Directed by Adrian Shergold. Produced by Kenneth Trodd for the BBC, and Rebecca Eaton for WGBH/Boston. AMERICAN TV viewers are about to get a new picture of everyday life in Germany during World War II.
The startling thing about the war for this writer (who grew up in England during it), wasn't the bombings and the killings - vivid imaginations had prepared us civilians for that - but the way ordinary daily routines still continued.
Between air raids, there was marketing to be done, children to be delivered to school, the garden to be weeded.
How the German people carried on was hardly considered then, and is rarely mentioned now.
Fortunately we have a first-hand source in Christabel Bielenberg. A Briton married to a German and living in his country, she kept a diary covering the years from Hitler's gradual rise to power to the day the Russian ``liberators'' arrived in the village where she and her three sons spent the last years of the war.
She had something more to write about, however, than daily life on the German home front.
Almost from the very beginning, she and her husband, Peter, were convinced of Nazism's unspeakable evil. In fact, Peter and his friends were working and plotting for Hitler's downfall.
Among those heroes (surely we don't honor them sufficiently) was Adam von Trott, hanged for his part in the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. Peter was also imprisoned, but, thanks to Christabel's extraordinary courage and brilliant diplomacy, he was released.
As suspected anti-Nazis, the Bielenbergs and their friends had to be constantly alert, testing acquaintances not only for their politics but for their discretion. Theirs was a world where a careless word, a child's prattling, could lead to a concentration camp.
Before Hitler invaded France, the German underground had tried to enlist the help of the United States. At that time, according to Christabel, the generals were skeptical of Hitler's plans, and their allegiance to him was at a low point. But no support came from the Allies.
In fact, she believes that the stern demand for ``unconditional surrender'' stiffened the determination of the German people never to face another Versailles.
Her true story, ``Christabel,'' is now available both as a television drama and as a paperback. The book, originally published in America by W.W. Norton under the title ``Ride Out the Storm,'' has been reissued by Penguin at $6.95. The TV adaptation is the work of prize-winning TV dramatist Dennis Potter (``The Singing Detective'' and ``Pennies From Heaven''). It will air on PBS's ``Masterpiece Theatre'' in four weekly episodes, beginning Sunday.
The two versions must, of course, be judged as separate pieces of entertainment, standing on their own merits. All the same, it is sad to find that the remarkably intelligent Christabel has been lost in translation to TV.
Her role on the screen is played by the childlike, almost expressionless Elizabeth Hurley, who portrays her as an innocent, untouched by experience. (It's significant, perhaps, that it takes a devastating bombing to mar her otherwise immaculate makeup.)
But she is beautiful, oh so beautiful, and so are the scenes of the Black Forest. In fact, all the backgrounds are skillful evocations of the time and place.
Stephen Dillon's Peter Bielenberg is suitably handsome and sensitive-looking, but the best acting in this not very well-acted drama is done by Nigel Le Vaillant as Adam von Trott.
Good TV is not so plentiful, however, that we can afford to judge this version of ``Christabel'' too harshly. Though it falls below the high standard set by most ``Masterpiece Theatre'' productions, its unusual setting and high drama put it above most TV fare.
Missing from the TV version and so conspicuous in the book is Christabel's feeling about the German people. Her heartfelt loathing for Nazism never completely overwhelmed her affection for the man in the street, even those who had been fooled, frightened, or misled into support for the party.
Some of the poignant episodes she relates so deftly stand on their own - complete short stories as memorable as good fiction. And running through the whole book, despite the terror of the times, is the comfort she says she longed for in the spring of 1940: the ``assurance that human nature would not allow the hate and rattling armor to interrupt the warm and natural flow of human affection.''
(In Britain, the paperback is published by Corgi Books at 3.95 under the title ``The Past Is Myself.'')