The Nightmare Years (1990)


Our rating: 4 out of 5

Rated: TVPG

reviewed by Charity Bishop


It is a lesson the world learned the hard way, and one we will never forget: the events of WWII in which Adolf Hitler attempted to dominate Europe and compress it into a one-world government of white supremacy. The Nightmare Years is a powerful and informative film based on the life of American journalist William Shirer, who may have had the most up close and personal glimpse of the Third Reich ever recorded. It is out of print, but can be found in most college libraries as a WWII resource, and is well worth the hours you'll put into it.


Germany has just become strengthened under the leadership of new hero Adolf Hitler. While the rest of the world wonders if war will break out between the French/British alliance and enemy Russia, Germany is eager to welcome journalists into its borders to document the events as they transpire. This "new" form of government has many stipulations on what can be published and broadcast, because they don't want any "misinformation" leaking into the press. William Shirer (Sam Waterston) is traveling to Berlin on a press passport with his Austrian wife, Tess (Marthe Keller). Curious about the events in the world, he is set ill at ease when their train is stopped and some passengers are imprisoned in one of the cattle cars. Before being caught and forced back to his cabin by an officer, Shirer manages to learn they are Lutheran priests, and is told the name of a minister he should contact when he reaches Berlin.


Notions of a free and uncensored press are a laugh among his colleagues, who inform him if Germany doesn't like what you print, they simply force you out of the country. None of them are too concerned with the antics of the Department of Propaganda, nor the events taking hold of Berlin. There is a distinctly anti-Semitic whiff on the air, and Shirer's attempts to learn the truth about the priests turn up red tape and rhetoric. He is informed they were prisoners and terrorists, but his meeting with their contact says otherwise. Reverend Lenz (John Steiner) confides that Hitler is secretly attempting to form a single church that would only allow what teachings agreed with his white supremacist standpoint, and any ministers that stand publicly against him are being extradited to "holding camps." Having underestimated the Third Reich, Shirer is horrified when his investigations lead to the capture and arrest of two of his informants.


Now with the eye of the government hard upon him, conflicts with his publishers abroad and in New York, and the belief the Nazi party intends to take over the world, Shirer finds himself a ploy in a dangerous game. His one objective is to find and report the truth, but as the years pass and the Gestapo's long arm begins to reach into neighboring countries, he becomes more and more a threat to the Nazis. The film is unusual in that it approaches the war from a new perspective -- that of radio and print journalism. I had no idea that the Nazi party catered to such elaborate antics in order to convince international journalists of the benefits of its cause, nor the sheer amount of propaganda it spread throughout Europe. It's a complex study both in the brilliance of Hitler's mind-washing campaign, and a serious glimpse into what the world was like during the early years. Audiences will see so many missed opportunities to have stopped the enemy, gone unnoticed and unreported.


If you want an honest, objective look into the years prior to WWII in Germany, this is the place to start. It's historically accurate and the production studios have done an ingenious job of mixing real footage from Hitler's filmmakers with what they filmed. The acting seems a bit thin at first but soon you are pulled into the dangerous world in which the journalists exist, and halfway through are terrified of what might happen to them. Their lack of awareness for the peril they were all in can only be seen in retrospect given what the Nazis did to their enemies, and watching them realize the truth is compelling. Men engage in fist fights on occasion, and a Jewish man is shown after being badly beaten, his face covered in bruises. The Germans dress prisoners in Polish uniforms and then stage an invasion, gunning them down in cold blood in order to justify marching into Poland. The most horrific scene is emotional more than physical, when two female German officers force Tess into a room and hold her down during a search. Tess is just out of the hospital, recovering from a botched operation, and it both traumatizes her, and severs the stitches in her abdomen.


Language is scattered throughout the script, mostly in the form of mild profanities and abuses of deity. There are two uses of GD, and one utterance of telling someone to go "screw yourself." There's no sexual content, but William and his wife are playfully affectionate after his return from a trip, and a conversation revolves around Hitler's ineffectiveness with women, citing that he "makes love" to the masses through his speeches, in an "orgasm of words." There's very brief side nudity on a man forced at gunpoint to change into a uniform. It's a courageous piece of filmmaking both informative and entertaining. There's a subtle sense of humor to certain aspects of it, which softens the emotional state audiences will be left in. I think that you will also be amazed at its glimpse into true journalism.