Holocaust films keep coming, despite prediction of their demise

"Inglourious Basterds" features Brad Pitt as the leader of a band of American Jewish soldiers wreaking havoc on the German army. (Universal Pictures)

“Inglourious Basterds” features Brad Pitt as the leader of a band of American Jewish soldiers wreaking havoc on the German army. (Universal Pictures)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — At least once a year over the last quarter century, a respected critic will prove conclusively that films about the Holocaust and the Nazi era have reached a saturation point and that movie and television audiences are suffering from a terminal case of Holocaust fatigue.

Ignoring such earnest arguments, Hollywood and other movie makers in the United States and Europe regularly roll out new slates of films on these topics.

This summer is no exception.

Hollywood kicks things off Aug. 21 with the opening of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” featuring Brad Pitt, in which American Jewish GIs terrorize the German army and almost singlehandedly wipe out the Nazi leadership. At least another five Holocaust-related films from around the world are set to see wider distribution in the coming months.

A similar list, and perhaps even more impressive, could be compiled for almost any other recent year. Going back less than 12 months, Hollywood alone released “The Reader,” “Valkyrie,” “Defiance” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”

So why the continuing flow, and public acceptance, of films about the gruesome events of more than 60 years ago?

Filmmakers, distributors and scholarly experts agree on some reasons and to a lesser degree on others.

“The Holocaust has 6 million compelling stories, and Hollywood is always desperate for a good story,” said Meyer Gottlieb, president and chief operating officer of Samuel Goldwyn Films and a child survivor of the Holocaust. “It is only the media that think the public is tired of the subject.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founding dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and producer of several Oscar-winning documentaries on the Holocaust, insists that films and books about the Final Solution will never be out of vogue.

“Why sit through something about the invasion of aliens from outer space when the reality was so much more incredible and frightening?” he asked.

Howard Suber, a UCLA professor considered among the top film teachers and consultants, believes that all Holocaust films are variations on “the world’s greatest storyline”: A character is trapped in a certain situation — will he have what it takes to get out?

He adds that “the moment a Nazi storm trooper or a swastika appear on the screen, the audience knows a survival story is coming."

“That story always works, from baby Moses floating down the Nile and Joseph and his brothers to ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and the TV ‘Survivor’ series,” said Suber, author of “The Power of Film.”

Considerably more touchy is the thesis that the prominence of Jewish studio heads, producers and directors in Hollywood and European movie centers tilts their professional judgment toward films on the extermination of 6 million fellow Jews.

According to this theory, the question is: If the founders of Hollywood and their modern-day descendants had not been Jews, but instead had come from Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia or Darfur, would we be watching films about genocides in their countries?

Sharon Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, is convinced that personal ties and family experiences strongly influence later professional decisions.

“At least once a week I get a pitch by someone who feels that he or she must make a film about parents or grandparents who survived the Holocaust,” Rivo said.

“I believe there have been only two feature films about the Armenian genocide, neither one with much impact,” she said. “I would love to see top dramatic films about the suffering and genocides of gypsies or Rwandans, but they need to be familiar with the levers of production in this business.”

Even as consummate a professional as Steven Spielberg believes that personal background counts. Well before the release of “Schindler’s List,” he told JTA that he learned to count numbers by tracing the scratches on the forearm of a survivor befriended by his parents.

Suber holds a strongly divergent view, asserting that ethnic or other kinds of sentiments play no role in the tough, bottom line-obsessed entertainment business. Forty years ago, tackling the subject in a study on the interaction between Jewish culture and film culture, he concluded there was none.

The Eastern European immigrants who founded the film industry went out of their way to downplay their Jewishness, he recalled. Even today, Suber maintained, “Hollywood Jews are secular Jews, they are American businessmen who don’t put their race or religion first.”

Whatever the reason, a new wave of Holocaust films is hitting theaters in the coming months:

* In “Inglourious Basterds,” Pitt is the leader of the ferocious band of American Jewish GIs, and writer-director Tarantino infuses the film with his stylized camera work and violence — his GIs don’t take prisoners but slowly scalp the German soldiers or crack their skulls with baseball bats. Along with “Defiance,” which glorified the Jewish partisans in World War II, “Basterds” may mark a new sub-genre in which the Jews are no longer the victims but the pitiless avengers.

* A slyer and less bloody satirical fantasy about turning the tables comes from Germany in Dani Levy’s “My Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler.” With the Third Reich crumbling, Hitler’s henchmen figure that only a fiery speech by the Fuhrer on New Year’s Day 1945 can rouse the German masses and turn the tide. But Hitler is in a funk, locked in his room, and only the great acting coach Adolf Grunbaum, currently in a concentration camp, can restore the dictator to his old form — and in the process extract his own form of revenge. The German import, previously seen in this country at a number of Jewish film festivals, is opening its first American theatrical run in various cities.

* Due in the fall is “Four Seasons Lodge,” a feature documentary about a community of Holocaust survivors who come together in New York’s Catskill Mountains every summer to celebrate their lives.

* In "Tickling Leo," three generations of a Jewish family, with roots in Hungary and branches in New York and Israel, try to connect its members to each other. The key to their reconciliation involves the still controversial World War II "Rudolph Kastner Affair" in which a Jewish leader bargained with Adolf Eichmann, the "architect of the Holocaust," for the lives of 1,000 community leaders in return for money and supplies for the Nazi war machine.

* “Being Jewish in France” details the love-hate relationship between the French and their Jewish compatriots from the anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s to the present. Excellent archival footage strengthens the focus on the World War II era, when the Vichy government and the French police did much of the dirty work for the German occupiers. The three-hour documentary is now on the film festival circuit but is worthy of wider theatrical distribution.

* Denmark, which saved nearly all of its 7,500 Jews, contributes “Flame & Citron,” based on the true story of two legendary Danish resistance fighters who sabotaged the Nazi occupiers and assassinated their local collaborators. The film was released  last month.

* Waiting in the wings are two completed independent films on little-known aspects of the war.

Karin Albou’s “Wedding Song” follows the story of two 16-year-old Tunisian girls, one Muslim and the other Jewish, whose lifelong friendship is tested by the six-month Nazi occupation of their country. “About Face” is a well-researched documentary by Steve Karras about young Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who fought their one-time tormentors by joining the U.S. Army and an elite British commando unit.

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