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Arts & Culture As Recent Spate of Films Shows, Focus on Holocaust Still Thrives

February 14, 2003
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With the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the fall of Berlin, the Holocaust and Hitler’s reign came to an end almost 58 years ago.

Yet the fascination of filmmakers in Hollywood and Europe with the horrors and moral complexities of this tragic era has only intensified with the passage of time.

A case in point was the Los Angeles opening on the same night last week of three films dealing in different ways with the history and legacy of the period.

The Costa-Gavras film “Amen” indicts the silence of the Vatican as 6 million Jews were murdered.

“Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” is a 90-minute documentary, in which Traudl Junge, the fuhrer’s private secretary from 1942 to his suicide in 1945, recalls the daily, often banal, routine of the man who terrified the world.

The French import, “God Is Great, I’m Not” by Pascale Bailly is set in the present and tracks the ups and downs of an interfaith romance.

Even here, though, much can be understood about the male protagonist by knowing that he is the son of Holocaust survivors.

The simultaneous opening of the three films is largely coincidental, but they extend the seemingly endless production of movies, television specials, plays, novels and scholarly works using Holocaust as their dramatic focus.

One explanation for this attraction comes from Costa-Gavras, the creator of such political thrillers as “Z,” “Stage of Siege,” “Missing” and “Music Box.”

“Every year we discover new elements about that period,” he said recently by phone from Paris. “Every writer and director in every generation will revisit it and try to understand how a cultured country was able to create officially an industry for killing other people.

“Other countries under Nazi occupation were a party to this crime, so we explore it again and again. We try to understand how 40,000 people, men and women, for four years got up every morning and then spent the day killing Jews.”

A central character in “Amen” is an SS officer known only as “The Doctor,” modeled on Dr. Josef Mengele, known in Auschwitz as “The Angel of Death.”

He is the only completely evil person in the movie, because “the most cynical people of all were the doctors,” Costa-Gavras said. “They were trained to help people and used this knowledge to destroy them.”

“The Pianist” by Roman Polanski, nominated this week for seven Oscars, dramatizes one man’s survival in Warsaw and its ghetto during their destruction by the German army.

To the film’s producer, Robert Benmussa, “The Holocaust was the most important moment of the 20th century, maybe in all of history. When you make a movie about it, it’s not just a film but a testimony for the next generation.”

The passage of time lends perspective, noted filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.

“The farther we move away from the Holocaust, the better we can measure its scope and magnitude,” he said. “I could not have made ‘Shoah’ after only 20 years had passed,” referring to his nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust.

However many movies are produced about the Holocaust, the stories and complexities appear inexhaustible.

Even for Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who has devoted his life to writing about the Holocaust he experienced himself, there are unanswered questions.

“Something is still missing,” he said. “We have answered many of the historical questions, but I still need to know more about human behavior, about the working of mass psychosis.”

Another attraction to moviemakers is the dramatic tension inherent in the confrontation between good, or at least innocent victimhood, and evil.

“In an age of moral relativism, the Holocaust is the absolute standard, the personification of absolute evil,” according to Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

He agrees with critics who charge that Hollywood’s treatment has sometimes trivialized the great tragedy, but maintains that the effort “has been mostly for the good.”

It is these dramatic values that some Jewish producers and directors say attract them to the Holocaust “story,” but cultural critic Neal Gabler believes it goes beyond that.

The author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” observes that after decades of suppressing their Jewish identity, starting with Hollywood’s founding fathers, their present-day descendants now freely acknowledge their heritage.

“The Holocaust has been the dominant experience of Jews in the 20th century and there is no Jew alive who doesn’t respond to it,” Gabler said. “There is a moral obligation to remember the Holocaust felt by every Jew, and by artists most of all. Steven Spielberg had to bear witness by making “Schindler’s List” and Roman Polanski is continuing the tradition.”

There is widespread agreement that the spate of Holocaust-themed movies, though occasionally descending into “Holokitsch,” has familiarized millions of people with the “Final Solution,” who would never crack a book on the subject.

One dissenter is Austrian director Andre Heller of “Blind Spot.”

“I have little faith that art can enlighten people,” he said.

A relatively new sub-genre of the Word War II era probes the personality of Hitler himself.

More recently, interest has shifted to Hitler’s early adulthood as a struggling artist in Vienna in the film “Max” and an upcoming CBS-Television miniseries, a trend headlined by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal as “Prime Time for Hitler.”

Both the film and the miniseries have been criticized as attempts to “humanize” Hitler, but Berenbaum of the University of Judaism thinks that it is Hitler’s very humanity that makes him such a truly demonic figure.

The dilemma has been studied at considerable depth by Robert Lifton, visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard and a pioneer in analyzing the psychological dimensions of history.

“Hitler symbolizes pure evil and we would be more comfortable thinking of him as a non-human being,” said Lifton. “Indeed, anything we perceive as absolute evil engages and fascinates us. To some, such as neo-Nazis, this even appeals to their own sadistic and destructive inclinations.”

In analyzing Hitler, or Nazi doctors accused of war crimes, Lifton finds that he has to maintain a delicate balance.

While probing the psychological roots of Hitler’s evil genius, he said, “We must not for a moment suspend our moral judgment. That would be very wrong.”

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