Will there be a special Academy Award for Best Aryan Costume Design this year? Everywhere you turn in the movies, it's swastika flags and SS uniforms. Although the Holocaust movie has been on hiatus for a while, lately it seems as if filmmakers are trying to squeeze in their Schindler's List before the funding dries up for good. But where are all the Jewish victims? The nearest thing to a traditional Holocaust movie on the menu is Edward Zwick's Defiance, about three Jewish brothers who put together a Jewish kibbutz in a Belarus forest, the better to survive the war and knock off Nazis and their Russian collaborators.
Precious few passive victims there, and no victims at all in Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, a capable, brainless thriller in which the Nazis — bless their shiny high boots — inexplicably all have posh British accents, except Cruise, who plays the really cool one-eyed, one-handed army dude who tries to blow up a depressive little fellow named Hitler. It didn't work out (bummer!), but man, those action sequences are good, and guess what? It really happened — and turns out those Krauts weren't quite as efficient about killing their own as they were at mass-murdering those they considered genetically imperfect. There's a lone Jew (a feckless playboy) in Good, a really terrible movie based on what I imagine was a far more interesting 1981 play about a German professor who writes a book about how it's all right to kill your very sick loved ones — and who ends up with a Nazi screen credit and a very bad conscience.
Jews are the least of it in The Reader, about the moral fallout from an affair between a postwar German teenager and a sexy former concentration-camp guard. And The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is actually about a cosseted little Aryan who comes to play ball with a toothless Jewish kid on the other side of the concentration-camp fence. As for Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected, in which Jeff Goldblum spends a lot of time on his knees barking, it's a classic example of how close to impossible it is to bring a complex Holocaust novel to the screen without making it look ridiculous.
Weird though it is to remove the powerless half of the catastrophic power equation that was the Third Reich, it may be time to detach the Holocaust movie from the culture of victimhood-by-association that has debased it in American popular culture. We seem to have forgotten who the victims really were, all six million of them. In a crisply lucid essay for the Jewish cultural magazine Nextbook, film critic Stuart Klawans refers us to Todd Solondz' 2001 film Storytelling, in which the members of a suburban Jewish family with no direct connection to the Holocaust come to the conclusion over dinner that they, too, qualify as survivors. Solondz rightly recognizes that the Holocaust — in large part because of the manner in which it is represented — has been cheapened and vulgarized by the victim culture it's been drawn into. In the language of Holocaust porn, it has become "my Holocaust" for those who would be victims, too.
Klawans goes so far as to call for a moratorium on Holocaust movies. Until now, I've been torn on this one. Growing up Jewish in England on a stiff diet of concentration-camp footage in Hebrew school and BBC war documentaries, I knew enough to understand there was more to the Shoah than goose-stepping aggressors preying on noble victims. But I was shocked to discover that a mere decade after the Liberation, some of my classmates had never heard of Hitler and knew next to nothing about the camps.
For that reason alone, I was a defender of the crassly reductive 1978 Holocaust miniseries, on educational grounds. But that was then, when outside of documentaries, moviemakers on both sides of the Atlantic mostly kept a reverential silence on the Holocaust, which was deemed by intellectual gatekeepers, including Irving Howe, as being beyond the pale of artistic expression. Claude Lanzmann's magisterial 1985 nine-hour Shoah was seen by a few intellectuals, but it was Steven Spielberg who broke the silence for mass audiences all over the world in 1993 with Schindler's List. That film — by no means the masterpiece it was hailed to be, but instead a decent, superbly made attempt to comprehend the heart and mind of a righteous Gentile — opened the sluice gates for fictional films about the Holocaust in and out of the United States.
Spielberg can't be held responsible for the sentimentalized atrocity that was Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, or for the staggering 170 movies made on the subject since the early '90s. In principle, nothing human should be beyond artistic expression. But why are these movies increasingly so awful? Money isn't lacking in Hollywood, and neither is sincerity. The industry is quite low on cynics, though I have my doubts about Singer, whose rabid masculinization of the plot to kill Hitler in Valkyrie — a story so thoroughly stripped of sociopolitical context that we have no idea why the "good Nazi" Claus von Stauffenberg wanted the Führer whacked — is rivaled only by his milking of the appeal of Nazism to adolescents in his 1998 Apt Pupil. But one thing Hollywood does have in plentiful supply is amateur historians bent on extracting Positive Lessons for Today from one of the great unexplainable catastrophes of history.
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