The one serious subject Hollywood doesn't avoid
More than 170 films about the Holocaust have been made since 1989. Six more are out this fall.
At a time when fantasies, comedies, and frivolous fare dominate the movie marketplace, films on serious subjects often seem like an endangered cultural species. Yet one utterly serious event - arguably the gravest of the past century - retains strong relevance for filmmakers and audiences.Skip to next paragraph
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This is the Holocaust, with the evidence it contained of a bestial inhumanity lurking at the heart of contemporary life.
One sign of ongoing interest in Holocaust films is the arrival of four new movies on the subject in American theaters during the next two months: "The Pianist" and "Amen." dramatize true experiences; "Max" is historical fiction; and "Blind Spot - Hitler's Secretary" is a documentary.
Another sign is the publication of Annette Insdorf's definitive book "Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust" in a new edition next month.
The author discusses no fewer than 170 films that have been made or rediscovered since the last edition in 1989.
"I could have devoted a whole new book to the recent titles alone," said Ms. Insdorf in a recent interview.
Although the new films were made before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, they may be viewed more attentively by moviegoers because of that day's tragic events. "We are still reeling from the approximately 3,000 people killed on 9/11," notes Insdorf, "but we should recall that this is the approximate number of Jews killed every single day for around five years during the Holocaust."
Films on the Holocaust have existed since World War II, first attracting wide US interest when newsreel footage of liberated death camps appeared in theaters.
Hollywood began tackling the subject in earnest with Stanley Kramer's epic "Judgment at Nuremberg" in 1961, and Steven Spielberg renewed its impact for a new generation with "Schindler's List" in 1993, earning his first Oscar for best director.
Filmmakers have taken on Holocaust themes for many reasons, including personal ties to the subject or a wish to explore their own Jewish roots. Mr. Spielberg has said he thought of dealing with the Holocaust long before he directed "Schindler's List," but purposefully delayed this until he felt he had grown enough as a filmmaker to do the subject justice.
Insdorf's study of Holocaust films has revealed growth and change since World War II. "Movies made during or just after the war often show a belief in interfaith solidarity," she observes. By contrast, Holocaust movies of the '50s and '60s usually focus "on Jewish victims and Nazi villains, establishing basic facts of deportation and extermination."
Later releases like "Schindler's List" tend to concentrate on "resistance and rescue," in Insdorf's words. Darkly humorous films like Roberto Benigni's popular "Life Is Beautiful" and the Robin Williams comedy "Jakob the Liar" constitute another trend.
Also present are stories such as "The Pawnbroker" and "Shine," portraying survivors as mentally damaged by the torments they've undergone. Insdorf finds these "problematic" because of the stereotypes they suggest.
Why do Holocaust films have enduring interest, decades after the Holocaust took place?
"Holocaust films provide all the melodramatic scenarios that have huge popular appeal," says Harvey Roy Greenberg, a psychoanalyst and film scholar. "They have heroism and villainy, rescue and survival, voyages from terror to safety, sacrifice for redemptive causes, religious issues, love among the ruins. And these are all magnified 10,000 times because of the extremity of the situation."
The fact that most Holocaust films are made for entertainment purposes doesn't mean they're lacking in social value. "Speaking from the heart as a Jew," says Mr. Greenberg, "I think Holocaust films should be shown as often as possible. Historical memory is very short, and there's a great rebirth of fascism, fundamentalism, and anti-Semitism in the world."