Personal magic

23 November 2012


WHICH side of the fence are you on? When you hear the word "charismatic", do you relax in eager expectation, or do you batten down the hatches? I suspect that we might revise our attitudes in the light of the new documentary series The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler (BBC2, Mondays).

How could the most civilised country in Europe, the home of stern theological and philosophical enquiry, submit its destiny to a ruthless demagogue? The contrast between Germany at its best and the thuggish reality of Nazism is made explicit: glorious panoramas of German scenery and medieval towns, and a soaring soundtrack of Mozart and Schubert are counterpoised by newsreel shots of stormtroopers.

Laurence Rees attempts a serious analysis into the phenomenon of charismatic leadership that includes a number of warning signs worth noting by those of us who seek positions of authority: be single-minded; have a burning sense that everything is wrong; have a scapegoat on whom to load all the blame; and be vague about what you are actually going to do.

Hitler was fuelled by an implacable generalised hatred, yet he found a way to mask this as a single-minded desire to return Germany to greatness. This focus gave others an impression of strength and purity that, bizarrely, moved them to love him.

Rees's thesis is that Hitler's rantings were what the German people, humiliated by defeat, felt themselves. Yet, even so, it was only the economic collapse after the 1929 crash that created the despair necessary to make his appeal widespread. This is sobering stuff. It is not just the chronicle of recent cataclysm, but a meditation on how easily we collude with evil.

"Charismatic" is the last word you would use to describe Sarah Lund, the detective in the Danish crime drama The Killing III, (BBC4, Saturday). She is obsessive, her hair is a mess, and her taste in pullovers questionable. This time round, she has mellowed, and is attempting to be more attentive to her personal life, but a shocking murder makes her revert to the neurotic compulsive whom we adore.


The programme is charismatic, in the sense of drawing us in despite ourselves. It has believable, sharply drawn characters, and a clever contrast between the highest corridors of political power and a sordid criminal underworld, with a rare depiction of the consequences of crime on the victim's family, and with oddly fascinating shots of grey Copenhagen.

Attenborough: 60 years in the wild (BBC2, Saturday) is a reflection on a long journey that has brought delight and illumination to millions. Over the decades, the genre of wildlife documentary has changed utterly, with far greater emphasis on habitat, environment, and ecology. As much as anything, this was a celebration of how the development of more sensitive and flexible cameras has enabled us to watch creatures in ways that were impossible previously.

Attenborough is charismatic by not being so; genial and absorbed, he places centre-stage not himself but the animals. Yet he does this with such consum- mate genius that, given the choice, we would all happily vote for him.

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