Why so many Holocaust films now, and for whose benefit?
This holiday season the multiplexes, the art houses and the glossy for-your-consideration ads in publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter will be overrun with Nazis.
A minor incursion of this sort is an annual Oscar season tradition, but 2008 offers an abundance of peaked caps and riding breeches, lightning-bolt collar pins and swastika armbands, as an unusually large cadre of prominent actors assumes the burden of embodying the most profound and consequential evil of the recent past.
The near-simultaneous appearance of all these movies is to some degree a coincidence, but it throws into relief the curious fact that early 21st-century culture, in Europe and America, on screen and in books, is intensely, perhaps morbidly preoccupied with the great political trauma of the mid-20th century.
The number of Holocaust-related memoirs, novels, documentaries and feature films in the past decade or so seems to defy quantification, and their proliferation raises some uncomfortable questions. Why are there so many? Why now? And more queasily, could there be too many?
David Thewlis, playing a death camp commandant in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," will be joined by Willem Dafoe, who takes on a similar role in "Adam Resurrected," Paul Schrader's new film. In "The Reader," directed by Stephen Daldry and based on Bernhard Schlink's best-selling novel of the same name, Kate Winslet plays a former concentration camp guard tried for war crimes. Tom Cruise, the star of Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie," wears the uniform of the Third Reich though his character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, was not a true-believing Nazi but rather a patriotic German military officer involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
And of course there will be plenty of room on screen for the victims and survivors of Hitler's regime. Adam, the title character in "Adam Resurrected," is a Berlin nightclub performer, played by Jeff Goldblum, who finds himself, after enduring the camps, confined to an Israeli asylum. And in Edward Zwick's "Defiance," Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, the real-life leader of a group of Jewish partisans who fought the Germans in the forests of Belarus. Meanwhile, the wave of European cinema dealing with Nazism and the Holocaust - most prominently represented on American screens in recent years by "The Counterfeiters," which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film back in February, and earlier aspirants like "Downfall" and "Black Book" - continued this autumn with the U.S. releases of "A Secret" and "One Day You'll Understand," two quiet, powerful French-language films exploring themes of memory and its suppression.
The moral imperatives imposed by the slaughter of European Jews are Never Again and Never Forget, which mean, logically, that the story of the Holocaust must be repeated again and again. But the sheer scale of the atrocity - the six million extinguished lives and the millions more that were indelibly scarred, damaged and disrupted - suggests that the research, documentation and imaginative reconstruction, the building of memorials and museums, the writing of books and scripts, no matter how scrupulous and exhaustive, will necessarily be partial, inadequate and belated. And this tragic foreknowledge of insufficiency, which might be inhibiting, turns out, on the contrary, to spur the creation of more and more material.
Shortly after the war the German critic T.W. Adorno declared that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." This observation has frequently been interpreted, aphoristically, as a fiat of silence, a prohibition against the use of the ordinary tools of culture to address the extraordinary, inassimilable fact of genocide. But those tools are what we have to work with. The perception that this catastrophe overwhelms conventional aesthetic strategies and traditions has led to the creation of a remarkable range of formally innovative work, including the lyric poetry of Paul Celan, the early prose works of Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary "Shoah," Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and Peter Eisenmann's Berlin memorial to the Jewish victims of Nazism.
To describe these as masterpieces is not especially controversial, but it is also, as Adorno perhaps anticipated, somehow unseemly. If the Holocaust can inspire a great work of art, then it can also incubate the ambition to achieve such greatness, and thus open itself up, like everything else, to exploitation, pretense and vulgarity. Worse, the aura that still surrounds this topic - the sense that it must be treated with a special measure of tact and awe - can be appropriated by clumsy, sentimental and meretricious films or books. Thus the immodest indecency of a movie like Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning "Life Is Beautiful" was, during its initial period of triumph, deflected onto those with the temerity to criticize it.
And a similar defense is invoked, explicitly or implicitly, so routinely that it calls forth cynicism. Why do opportunistic, clever young novelists gravitate toward magic-realist depictions of the decidedly unmagical reality of the Shoah? For the same reason that actors preen and leer in jackboots and epaulets, or for the same reason that filmmakers commission concrete barracks and instruct their cinematographers to filter out bright, saturated colors. To win prizes of course.
Winslet said as much on an episode of "Extras": "I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar." She was joking, of course, though her appearance in "The Reader" suggests that the joke is funny because it's often true. Why else do you suppose all the movies listed at the beginning of this article, including "The Reader," are coming out in November and December? Not because Hanukkah is coming.
The television miniseries "Holocaust" is nobody's idea of a masterpiece, but its broadcast, in 1979, on West German state television was a decisive event in that nation's reckoning with its culpability. It is estimated that more than half of the adult German population watched the series.
Subsequently, according to the historian Tony Judt, "Germans would be among the best-informed Europeans on the subject of the Shoah and at the forefront of all efforts to maintain public awareness of their country's singular crime." The French conscience may have been stirred by superior movies - "The Sorrow and the Pity," "Shoah" - but France was much slower to acknowledge the full measure of its complicity.
And in the United States "Schindler's List" in 1993 was a similar watershed. Though the Holocaust was not a central event in U.S. history, "Schindler's List," even more than "Holocaust," made it into one by turning it into the basis of a Hollywood epic. Buying a ticket was treated almost as a moral duty.
"Schindler's List" undoubtedly gave rise to a new pedagogical and commemorative impulse. It also, however, helped to domesticate the Holocaust by making it a fixture of American middlebrow popular culture. Which I don't mean entirely as a criticism, since that culture is better than a lot of the alternatives. But Hollywood trades in optimism, redemption and healing, and its rendering of even the most appalling realities inevitably converts their dire facts into its own shiny currency.
Thus "Schindler's List," for all its unsparing and powerful re-creations of the horror of the Krakow ghetto, is a story of heroism, resilience and survival. And a great many of the mainstream Holocaust movies that have followed, including documentaries and some foreign films, have emphasized hope and overcoming rather than despair and destruction. When death dominates these films - as it does in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," an apt successor to "Life Is Beautiful" - it is spiritualized and rendered aesthetically palatable by an overlay of maudlin sentiment.
More often the reality of mass death gives way to yet another affirmation of life, and even faithfully rendered true stories are bent into conformity with familiar patterns, themes and conventions: forbidden love; noble sacrifice; victory against the odds. The Holocaust is more accessible than ever, and more entertaining.
At the same time it is receding from living memory, which may by itself explain the recent burst of cinematic and literary interest. The movies I find most interesting, most authentic, either address this painful process directly, measuring the distance between our time and the 1930s and '40s rather than recreating that era faithfully in every detail, or else cleave to the particulars of a single story. Thus Roman Polanski's "Pianist" and Lajos Koltai's "Fateless," though both tales of survival, register the absurdity and abnormality of survival in the manner of the first-person literary works on which they are based.
"A Secret" and "One Day You'll Understand" are meditations on what it means to remember. It is no coincidence that both take place in France, where the habit and policy of forgetting endured until quite recently. In those films, full of unresolved feelings of grief, tenderness and bewilderment, French Jews born after World War II try to figure out what the annihilation of their parents' world means to them. In both cases the past is both painfully pressing and, mercifully but maddeningly, out of reach.
And in both cases the filmmakers explore not only strong feelings but also complicated ideas. The sensations associated with the Holocaust have become perhaps too easy to evoke, given the power of cinema to dispense fear, pity, sorrow and relief through sound, image and pageantry.
This has been the route taken by most English-language films about the Holocaust, and also some of their slick European counterparts, like "Black Book" and "The Counterfeiters." But "A Secret" and "One Day You'll Understand" represent another strain in European and Israeli film, one that may reflect a deeper cultural difference. In the United States the Holocaust is a mystery, a puzzle, and the obsessive interest in it testifies to its intrinsic strangeness. In France, in Germany and in Eastern Europe it remains an urgent problem that needs to be worked out - in art, in politics and in the society as a whole.
It seems right that movies about a difficult subject should themselves be difficult. But the fate of difficult movies with subtitles, usually, is to slip in and out of American theaters without leaving much of a trace. The big Holocaust movies of the big movie season will make more of an impression, allowing audiences vicarious immersion in a history that they, nonetheless, keep at a safe, mediated difference, even as they risk bathos and overreach in the process. We don't have to ask what the Holocaust means to us since the movies answer that question for us.
For American audiences a Holocaust movie is now more or less equivalent to a western or a combat picture or a sword-and-sandals epic - part of a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers. This may be the only, or at least the most widely available, way of keeping the past alive in memory, but it is also a kind of forgetting.