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.
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At the moment, films on Holocaust themes are thriving. "The Believer," about a contemporary neo-Nazi, and "The Grey Zone," set in a concentration camp, opened earlier this year. Others will arrive in coming weeks.Skip to next paragraph
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• "The Pianist," directed by Roman Polanski, is based on concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's book about his experiences in Warsaw. Played by Adrien Brody, the protagonist lives in the infamous Warsaw ghetto, escapes deportation to a death camp, and survives in hiding as Nazis occupy his beleaguered city. It won the highest prize at the Cannes film festival.
Mr. Polanski has close connections to this story. He escaped from the Krakow ghetto as a child, lost much of his family to Nazi brutality, and reportedly turned down the opportunity to direct "Schindler's List" because he felt filming on location in Krakow would be too emotionally painful.
• "Amen." looks closely at the Vatican's failure to take an uncompromising stance against Nazi genocide. Based on Roch Hochhuth's controversial play "The Deputy," it tells a sweeping story with two central characters. One is a young German engineer who joins the Nazi ranks, motivated by patriotism and duty. The other protagonist is a young Jesuit priest who strives to make his superiors hear and heed the German's urgent message, running into resistance at almost every step.
• "Max" explores the roots of the Holocaust in the demented ideas of the Nazi Party - and just as crucially, in the overall nature of German culture after World War I. John Cusack plays a Jewish art dealer who fought for Germany in the war. Returning to Munich, he befriends an eccentric artist named Adolf Hitler, thinking he can moderate the young man's anti-Semitic attitudes by encouraging him to stick with his painting career.
• "Blind Spot - Hitler's Secretary" continues the imposing lineup of Holocaust documentaries. It presents an interview with Traudl Junge, who worked for the dictator and resided in his fortified bunker. Ms. Junge, who refused to share her memories for many years, is strikingly candid, acknowledging Hitler's personal charm and confessing her complete failure to grasp the true evil of his activities.
Not all of the new Holocaust movies are free from controversy, as the debate over "Max" illustrates. Insdorf calls the film a "provocative drama ... with wonderful performances."
Taking a different view, Jewish Defense League spokesman Brett Stone writes on the organization's website that the film is "a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community," fearing the film's portrait of Hitler as a young, idiosyncratic artist will serve to "glorify or humanize him in moviegoers' eyes."
Remarks like these continue a line of discussion that has gone on for decades among commentators on Holocaust films. Some feel any reproduction of Holocaust material risks giving some degree of aesthetic pleasure to those who view it.
One such critic is Susan Sontag, who wrote in 1980, "The display of atrocity in the form of photographic evidence risks being tacitly pornographic." Some makers of Holocaust documentaries, such as Claude Lanzmann in "Shoah," refuse to present "atrocity footage" at all.
While they may take different forms and spark debates, Holocaust movies will continue to pour from directors who respect the potential of film for keeping the past alive and staving off callousness in the present. "The Holocaust not only provides a dramatic context [for stories]," Insdorf says, "but cautionary tales, as well. A sad basic fact that connects World War II to our own time is indifference."