Tom Cruise plays a Nazi officer determined to assassinate Hitler in Valkyrie.
December 25, 2008
Like so many other Jews, I have made my contribution toward the multiplication of Holocaust films. On New Year’s Eve 1985, I chose to spend my money at a movie theater watching Part 1 of Shoah. A few years later, when asked in the wake of Schindler’s List how many more Holocaust films the world needed, I snapped, “We can stop at six million.”
But now, some dozen years and perhaps hundreds of movies later — in a season swollen with no fewer than six such releases — I respectfully request a moratorium on Holocaust films. By continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate. Call it the law of diminishing returns — or call it a paradox that mirrors the Torah’s famously self-contradictory commandment at the end of parshat Ki Tetze concerning the people who were the prototype of Nazi Germany: “Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.” Very soon, with Holocaust movies, we’ll need to forget if we want to remember.
The problem with these films is not necessarily one of impurity, either of method or intent. The movies that broke Hollywood’s silence about the Nazis, when the Third Reich was still a living threat, were The Mortal Storm, The Great Dictator, and To Be or Not To Be, a melodrama and two comedies. As for Europe’s major postwar Holocaust films, they were made (or in the East, permitted) with decidedly mixed purposes. Distant Journey and Passenger commemorated the death camps and also lent legitimacy to the Czech and Polish regimes that had supplanted the fascists. Night and Fog commemorated the death camps and also challenged the legitimacy of French rule over Algeria.
Responsible opinion holds that such side agendas must not be permitted when the Shoa is under discussion. But they seem unavoidable even when Holocaust cinema is at its most sober, aspiring to the condition of a celluloid Yad Vashem.
Like that institution, the Holocaust film may fulfill multiple functions: offering recognition, collecting and disseminating information, and urging a response from a population that extends ideally beyond the Jews. This third purpose may account for the satisfaction felt by many of us, even among the grudging, when Schindler’s List began to play to a substantial non-Jewish audience.
“Oh, you poor people!” the world was supposed to cry. “At last we understand! Here, take this piece of land in the Middle East and live in peace and security!”
Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe star in Adam Resurrected.
What shock, what outrage, when the cry did not arise. You may recall the three days’ scandal that erupted when black kids from an urban school were bused to a theater to study Schindler’s List and responded as they would have to anything they identified as an action movie: They laughed.
To some commentators this was evidence of moral depravity or intractable black anti-Semitism, or (at best) a tragic sign of desensitization to violence. But maybe it proved only that people long ago stopped jumping out of the way of projected images of oncoming trains. As the kids knew, a movie is a movie, even when it’s about the Holocaust, which means that viewers who do not already feel claimed by these events may take the reality effect as optional.
It’s an option that audiences seem to be exercising more and more stubbornly as more and more Holocaust movies are released. To give a rough estimate of the numbers: The standard work on Holocaust cinema, Annette Insdorf’s Indelible Shadows, catalogued 272 titles in its second edition. Though not comprehensive, the list accounted for the great majority of Holocaust films from 1939 to 1989, as well as quite a few pictures (such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God) that were about the Holocaust only by implication. By the time of the third edition, in 2003, Insdorf had added 170 titles to the filmography, nearly all of them made since 1989 and nearly all directly concerned with the Shoa.
In that time, I did not perceive an accompanying 62 percent rise in solicitude toward the Jews.
This isn’t to deny the possibility of moral persuasion. Certainly you could find young Christians — Muslims, too — who saw Korczak or Anne Frank Remembered, or even Life Is Beautiful and felt a new understanding, just as there must be young Jewish viewers who watched such films and then concluded that they had to do something for the people of Darfur. For the most part, though, the mounting volume of this material seems merely to have allowed people to think of the Holocaust as another choice on the entertainment menu, another imaginative world to inhabit at will and then abandon.
Where does this lead? Todd Solondz showed us in his 2001 feature Storytelling (a movie that Insdorf’s filmography skipped) in a corrosively funny scene set at a dinner table in New Jersey. A family of suburban Jews, all of them born in the United States well after 1945, are drawn into a discussion of the Holocaust, and by the end manage to conclude that they, too, deserve to be called survivors.
The new films
Loss of urgency, loss of documentary conviction, and loss of recognition, offset by a net gain in jokes about the Hitler Channel: These are the outcomes we may expect as the pace of Holocaust film production continues. These will be the consequences of an end-of-the-year schedule that brings Defiance, Valkyrie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader, Adam Resurrected, and Good because only the most determined optimist would expect all of these movies to aspire to the condition of Yad Vashem.
In fact, some of them can scarcely bring themselves to put a Jewish character on the screen. Valkyrie, for example, is based on the true story of Colonel von Stauffenberg and the plot to assassinate Hitler, which means the exciting foreground of the movie can be filled with German staff officers, while the victims of genocide linger in the rear as a kind of atmospheric effect.
This is convenient for the director, Bryan Singer, whose 1998 Apt Pupil delved into the awful fascination that Nazism exerts on young minds — the better to fascinate an audience with the exact same thrills. I predict Valkyrie will offer you even spiffier uniforms, louder commands, bigger guns, and, with the presence of Carice van Houten of Black Book, maybe a little sex. The action should be everything you’d want from the maker of X-Men.
The Reader, based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink, will lack the adrenaline rush of Singer’s shoot-’em-up but promises to make up for it with a lot of sex. Those who have seen the ads may anticipate the sight of a wet and naked Kate Winslet. Those familiar with the book will know she’s in this accommodating state because of a small, contrived interpersonal dilemma that somehow calls for more of your sympathy than does the continent-wide atrocity in the backstory. Look for a visit to Auschwitz to add oomph to the drama. Try to decide whether you’re seeing the real death camp or a production designer’s replica, and ask why in this case it would matter.
Must I go on with the list? More to the point, must we?
If there’s a reason to say yes, then I discovered it when I saw Edward Zwick’s new film about the Bielski brigade, Defiance, at a preview at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where a fellow reviewer and I discovered that we were the only critics in an auditorium otherwise filled with surviving partisans and their descendants. It took no great deductive skill for us to figure this out. A son of the late Tuvia Bielski himself, Robert Bielski, took the stage at the start of the evening to welcome the various families, who rose to applause in threes or fours, or clusters, or entire rows.
“Oh, crap,” I finally said to my colleague. “Everyone here except us has actually done something.”
There was no way to abandon this chastening thought, given that the film so moved its viewers that one of them began crying “Tuvia! Zus! Asael!” as the actors who played the heroes each appeared on the screen. This audience, with its special moral authority, clearly did not care that the true story of the Bielski brothers was being filtered through calculated performances, invented speeches, dramatic conventions, and cinematographic effects. What mattered to them, as people irrevocably claimed by these events, was that their past was real, and so was the movie that acknowledged it. The ovation at the closing credits was a thunderclap, shot through by the bolt of a voice shouting “Never again!”
Yes, never again, I thought. Now that these partisans and their families have had cinematic justice, we can remember to forget about Holocaust films.
Stuart Klawans is the film critic of the Nation and author of the books Film Follies and Left in the Dark. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.