This is sixth in a series on the religious views of Rod Serling. The first was God and Rod Serling, the second was Angels and Rod Serling, the third was The devil and Rod Serling, part 1, the fourth was The devil and Rod Serling, part 2, the fifth was The devil and Rod Serling, part 3: Faust Revisited.
In addition to revisiting Faust, Serling dealt with the issue of Hitler and Nazism.
As an ethnic Jew, and veteran of the Pacific theater (he was a paratrooper, and received the Purple Heart with an oak cluster), Serling took Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust personally. Not surprisingly, Serling “loathed” the action-comedy series Hogan’s Heroes (Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man, 6). Admittedly, Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz were buffoons. However, the comic-relief aspect could desensitize people to the seriousness—the lethal and earth-shattering seriousness—that was Nazism.
Serling, however, took evil seriously . . . as his teleplays show.
“Death’s Head Revisited” portrays an SS captain who returns to the death camp where he once was stationed. As he roams the living museum, he encounters the ghosts of the former inmates who judge and then pass sentence on him. He suffers all the pains that the shades had suffered, and the pain drives him insane.
This story is simply one of cosmic justice, essentially Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with claws and fangs. But Serling’s closing narration points out that such Holocaust museums must remain (and, by corollary, such tales as his must be told) because “they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard.”
So there is both a memorializing and cautionary aspect to Serling’s fables. In a sense, Serling follows Shakespeare: in Hamlet, the ghost cries for vengeance. In “Death’s Head Revisited,” the ghosts were victims. But in “He’s Alive,” the ghost was the perpetrator himself—Adolph Hitler.
In this tale, the shade of the Fuehrer himself mentors an utterly pathetic neo-Nazi. Serling’s genius (and unabashed edginess) becomes apparent as the Goebbels-wannabe comes home, and falls into the arms of his elderly neighbor and proxy father, who happened to be a concentration camp survivor.
Again, this was a cautionary tale about the resurgence of the hate that fueled Hitler . Serling once said, “I happen to think that the singular evil of our time is prejudice. It is from this evil that all other evils grow and multiply. In almost everything I’ve written, there is a thread of this: man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself” (Rise and Twilight, 207).
Utahans should have a special concern with Hitlers and his like. Christians have a legacy of catacombs and the Coliseum, in addition to the Inquisition. Latter-day Saint Utahans have the legacy of the Gov. Lilburn Boggs and the Extermination Order.
In a sense, Latter-day Saints have their own Rod Serling in Parley P. Pratt, one of the Church’s first apostles. His satire “Joe Smith and the devil” has a Serling feel to it. And his preemptive eulogy of Boggs is as gritty as anything Serling wrote:
“The ancient Herod, fearing a rival in the person of Jesus, issued his exterminating order for the murder of all the children of Bethlehem from two years old and under, with a view to hinder the fulfillment of a prophecy which he himself believed to be true.”
“The modern Herod (Boggs), fearing a rival kingdom in “the people of the Saints of the Most High,” issued his exterminating order for the murder of the young children of an entire people, and of their mothers as well as fathers, while this Court of Inquisition inquired as diligently into the one prophecy as his predecessor did into the other. These parallel actions go to show a strong belief in the prophecies on the part of the actors in both cases. Both believed, and feared, and trembled; both hardened their hearts against that which their better judgment told them was true. Both were instigated by the devil to cause innocent blood to be shed. And marvelously striking is the parallel in the final result of the actions of each.”
“The one slew many young children, but failed to destroy the infant King of the Jews.”
“The other slew many men, women and children, but failed to destroy the Kingdom of God.”
“The one found a timely refuge in Egypt.”
“The other in Illinois.”
“Jesus Christ fulfilled his destiny, and will reign over the Jews, and sit on the throne of his father, David, forever.”
“The Saints are growing into power amid the strongholds of the mountains of Deseret, and will surely take the Kingdom, and the greatness of the Kingdom, under the whole Heaven.”
“Who can withstand the Almighty, or frustrate his purposes? Herod died of a loathsome disease, and transmitted to posterity his fame as a tyrant and murderer. And Lilburn W. Boggs is dragging out a remnant of existence in California, with the mark of Cain upon his brow, and the fear of Cain within his heart, lest he that findeth him shall slay him. He is a living stink, and will go down to posterity with the credit of a wholesale murderer.” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 180-181)
Serling’s last artistic treatment of the Holocaust was the Night Gallery segment “The Escape Rout”
This episode depicts a Nazi war criminal, Joseph Strobe, who is hiding in South America. In an art gallery, he encounters one of the former Jews that he had guarded.
In the opening narration, Serling comments that he was “a monster who wanted to be a fisherman.” One of the pictures in the gallery is of a man fishing. To avoid talking to the former inmate, Strobe imagines himself in the picture, as the fisherman angling a line. Over time, he is able to imagine himself into the picture—feeling the breeze and the sunlight.
Several days later, near closing time, the former concentration camp survivor sees Strobe and then confronts him about his past. With a full-court press of the will, Strobe wishes himself into the picture.
But, as always with Serling, there is a twist. Strobe disappears, and the old Jew hears a faint scream. He speaks with the curator, who points out that the fishing picture was on loan, and had been returned. In its place was hung a painting of a crucifixion. And the face on the cross is that of Josef Strobe.
It was classic Serling, with the rotter getting his just desserts. The fugitive could run, and even hide in the Night Gallery. But justice he could not escape.
This was more than wish-fulfillment on Serling’s part; it was a lesson about a universal truth. There may be evil in the world, but there is always a larger force—something that grants “big, tall wishes” to boxers, and magic sacks to meek alcoholics on Christmas Eve.
However, the case of Joseph Stobe’s damnation to be perpetually crucified in a picture shows us how Serling saw the Afterlife.
To be continued in “Going to Hell, Rod Serling Style.”