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TV review: Berlin 1933, Julius Caesar: The making of a dictator, and The Couple Next Door

08 December 2023

BBC/Autentic GmbH

Nazi strormtroopers march through the streets, in Berlin 1933 (BBC4, Tuesday of last week)

Nazi strormtroopers march through the streets, in Berlin 1933 (BBC4, Tuesday of last week)

IF ADVENT is, for you, also that season when we enter most profoundly the darkness not just within, but also enveloping our world, the better to grasp our existential need for the coming of God’s light in the incarnation, then the three-part Berlin 1933 (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) offers salutary penitential material.

Although it chronicles events nearly one century old, its lessons are only too current. The story is told through a palimpsest of contemporary film and extracts from diaries — not just of politicians and journalists, but of ordinary Berliners, such as doctors and housewives. They recount everyday concerns and events, as well as the climactic upheavals on the streets: the rallies, the marches, the violence.

Plenty of people opposed Hitler’s rise — a popular Communist Party sought to mobilise the industrial workers and protested against the poverty of the masses — but, from our perspective, the rise of the Nazis appears sickeningly inevitable. They are better organised, more implacably determined, happier to use brutal violence to neutralise opposition — and they have the ranting demagogue Hitler, able to sway vast meetings with his tirades of hatred and vision of a new Germany, cleansed from all the contamination, internal and external, that undermines its rightful supremacy.

We don’t need extraordinary insight to recognise in all this today’s pattern of totalitarian movements: ruthlessly repressive, gathered around the adulation of a charismatic leader hailed as the longed-for messiah.

Julius Caesar: The making of a dictator (BBC2, Monday of last week), also in three parts, treads a similar path, 2000 years previously. The steady rise of Caesar’s power is told by historians and commentators, led by the admirable Tom Holland. It is a story of guile and trickery, of overweaning ambition willing to undermine the democratic republic and set up a personal autocracy — a tyranny in all but name, of shameless populism and audacious risk-taking.

The scenes are dramatic reconstructions, but it is weakened by too much spelling out, being too constantly didactic in drawing our attention to the parallels between this ancient history and events in today’s world. The message that democracy needs constant guarding is, of course, vital; but it is too much in the foreground here.

The Couple Next Door (Channel 4, Mondays) exposes comfortable suburban life. The newcomers Pete and Evie’s gorgeous neighbours, Becka and Danny, give heartfelt support when tragedy strikes. But these new friends are “liberated”, invigorating their marriage by taking on other sexual partners. How quickly Evie and Pete will join in develops surprisingly slowly, and an extraordinary number of sub-plots clog up the narrative. I will be surprised if this farrago doesn’t eventually conclude that boring old marital faithfulness is best after all.

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