From Reverence to Rape
Hollywood plunders meaning from the Holocaust—again

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 everyone is 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 Mr. 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 one 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 Pyjamas 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 6 million of them. In a crisply lucid essay for the Jewish cultural magazine Nextbook, film critic Stuart Klawans refers us to Todd Solondz’s 2001 film, Storytelling, in which 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 has 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. 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 high-school mates 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 rather 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 “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.

Zwick is one of them, and if there’s one instance of the road to perdition paved with fat budgets and good intentions, it’s Defiance, or, as I prefer to call it, Custersky’s Last Stand in Belarus. This fact-based story of three Jewish brothers who set up a forest community of ghetto-massacre survivors while wreaking divine justice on the Krauts and their sympathizers may look like a Holocaust movie—it has lots of extras running around with rags and hollow cheeks—but it’s really an inquiry into the different management styles of the Yiddish superhero, no victim he. Daniel Craig, playing his second Jew after Munich with gimlet blue eyes ablaze with leadership potential, stars in the do-I-have-to? Gary Cooper role. Liev Schreiber at least looks the part as the belligerent bro who’d like to see a little less agonizing and a lot more payback. And Jamie Bell, an even more unlikely looking member of the tribe, is the peacemaking youngest brother.

While Craig rides around on a white horse, mulling whether to kill it for food, Schreiber splits off and joins the partisans for some real action, only to learn the hard way that Russians are not much keener than Germans on Jews. There are subtitles and vaguely East European accents; there is romance and rebirth, tears and regular pauses for gallows humor (at which we Jews are known to be very good, on account of our long history of persecution): “Eez khard to be friend of Jew,” sighs a righteous Gentile. “Try being one!” the Jew in question snorts.

There is at least one audible theme directed at the State of Israel: Should a Jew seek vengeance, or save lives? (On this matter, there was no doubt in the minds of a crowd of older Jewish people at a screening sponsored by the Museum of Tolerance, who clapped loudly when the Jews finally stuck it to the Germans and their stoolies.) And lest it be unclear in the text, Zwick elaborates in the production notes, “It’s a story that compels us to ask ourselves: What would I have done in those circumstances?” This is a question well-worth asking in an age when we cluck passively while genocides rage all around us, though it’s hard to see how it’s addressed in Defiance. Zwick goes on, “And in that way, I think, it becomes a deeply personal experience” (emphasis mine). In what way? That we are all, by extension, victims of the Nazis?

Is it weird that the only true recent Holocaust movie that’s also pretty good, The Counterfeiters (based on the life of a Jewish forger who was far from a saint), came out of Austria, which also produced Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, a documentary interview with Hitler’s private secretary that’s far superior to the similarly themed German film Downfall and is a searing challenge to us all to ask—as Zwick tries to in Defiance—what we would have done under the circumstances? The soul of Germany under Nazism is always worth examining, but not much good will come from Good, which takes on the potentially interesting question of passive collusion with Nazism, but is so incompetently mounted by Brazilian director Vicente Amorim (it takes a clumsy directorial hand to make Viggo Mortensen come on like Sesame Street’s Mr. Noodle) as to be utterly incoherent. At the end, the stunned professor totters around a remarkably cleaned-up concentration camp, seeing the light at last. I mean, who knew?

Given the record, Klawans may be right to call a halt on Holocaust movies. We may not—indeed, we may never—be ready to understand the worst genocide in human history so far. The last word may come from the end of The Reader, whose narrator comes begging for absolution for the former camp guard he had loved, from a Jewish survivor (Lena Olin) who was her victim. “Nothing came out of the camps,” she tells him. “Nothing!”

Defiance was directed by Edward Zwick; written by Clayton Frohman and Zwick. Opens at select theaters in January.

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