Picks and Pans Review: Masterpiece Theatre: Christabel

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

PBS (Sun., Feb. 19, 9 P.M. ET)


In Britain they call the shows that Dennis Potter writes "pottery." I call them crocks. Last year, over here, he became the dutiful darling of the PBS-and-brunch bunch with The Singing Detective, his autobiographical exercise in criminal self-indulgence. Whether or not you liked that thing became a new test of pop-cultural snobbery. The New York Times adored it. I despised it. And that shows where I score on the Snobometer. Now Potter is the writer and executive producer of a new BBC import—but at least this one isn't about his life. This four-week mini is based on the autobiography of Christabel Bielenberg, a British woman married to a German, who lived in the Reich throughout World War II, becoming involved with conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler. Amazing how Potter can turn even her story into just so much sophomoric tedium. He makes no good attempt to investigate the complex moral quandaries faced by Christabel or the conspirators—about patriotism, loyalty and deception, about fighting evil from within an evil system or without. Instead, Potter settles for penny profundity: counterposing the swinging pendulum of a clock against toy soldiers or the hanging of a would-be Hitler assassin against children singing Stille Nacht. We are supposed to sit in front of our tubes, admiringly whispering, "Wow, heavy, man." Meanwhile, the gorgeous and talented Elizabeth Hurley as Christabel is forced to look inexcusably innocent and downright dumb as she discovers that Nazis aren't nice. "If you're talking politics," she simpers to a Jewish doctor in 1938, "count me out." They should have retitled this thing A Brit Twit in Berlin. Potter does not give us any good idea of what Christabel's husband and the conspirators do all day (and how they live with it); he does not bother to portray Germans and Britons with any cultural differences; he manages to make World War II look dull. This is bad moviemaking, plain and simple. But you have an alternative. You can get essentially the same story by reading Berlin Diaries by Marie Vassiltchikov (now out in Vintage paperback). She was a Russian refugee who happened to be an acquaintance of Christabel's and worked with one of the conspirators. She tells this tale with far more drama, import and humanity than Potter can.

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