Holocaust's Lessons Explored
NEW YORK — AS change has swept across Eastern Europe in recent months, memories of World War II and the Holocaust have inevitably been stirred up. This is to the good, since the need to remember - so the horrors can never be repeated - is as important as the memories themselves. As cinema scholar Annette Insdorf remarks in her recently republished Vintage book, ``Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,'' the key to illuminating the Holocaust is a twofold one: to ``keep it visible and render it meaningful.'' Three current films attempt to do this, in ways so different that they vividly illustrate how many perspectives can be taken on an event so vast and so overwhelming in its effects. ``Triumph of the Spirit,'' the first movie filmed on location at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, plunges us into the Holocaust itself. ``Enemies, a Love Story'' deals with Holocaust survivors in the years immediately following their traumatic experiences. ``Music Box'' focuses on the residues of guilt and shame that persist, in the United States as well as Europe, to this day.
`Enemies, a Love Story'
Of these pictures, the one that's proving most popular with audiences and critics is ``Enemies, a Love Story,'' based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel of the same title. Its protagonist, Herman, lives in New York City during the late 1940s. But a portion of his mind and heart dwells in a hayloft in Poland, where he hid for three horrible years during the Holocaust.
Herman has built a new life working for a rabbi, ghostwriting articles. He has a non-Jewish wife, who was once a servant in his parents' home. He also has a Jewish girlfriend, who'd like to marry him. Herman manages to juggle the two women. What throws him wildly off balance is the sudden appearance of his first wife, whom everyone thought was murdered by the Nazis years ago.
In the past, Singer works like ``Yentl'' and ``The Magician of Lublin'' have not fared well when Hollywood has motion-picture-ized them. ``Enemies'' is better. Its director, Paul Mazursky, has a long-time interest in Jewish-American life, and he develops the complexity of some characters to an impressive degree - particularly the women, who are often more interesting than Herman himself.
The movie is also well-acted. Anjelica Huston gives a superb (and daringly unglamorous) performance as the original wife. Margaret Sophie Stein has a wonderfully offbeat presence as the non-Jewish wife. Swedish actress Lena Olin keeps up with both as the mistress. Ron Silver is believable, if a bit subdued, as the ``hero.'' Alan King is just right as the go-getter of a rabbi. Phil Leeds is perfect as the little man whose nosiness forces Herman's story to a conclusion.
What's missing from the picture is the depth of Singer's vision. We don't get under the skins of the characters the way the Nobel Prize-winning novelist does in his book. Most important, the movie doesn't give us a full realization of how totally haunted they are by a tormenting mystery: How could God have allowed a people to suffer so?
The complicated relationship between Herman and his wives makes a strong metaphor for the emotional devastation the characters have suffered. But still more tangled are their post-Holocaust feelings toward the ancient Jewish tradition, and even toward God - whom they deny in one breath, then argue with or bow to in the next. The movie suggests these levels of the tale, but it doesn't explore them deeply enough.
``Music Box'' takes place in the present day. Jessica Lange plays a lawyer whose father (well portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, a West German actor) is accused of hiding his past as a butcher in a Nazi death camp. Convinced of his innocence, his daughter undertakes his defense. Questions immediately arise, however, making us wonder if this kind and gentle grandfather has an unblemished past.
The picture was directed by the Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras, who numbers ``Z'' and ``Missing'' among his many works. (He's also responsible for the recent ``Betrayed,'' a badly misfiring movie about American neofascists.) ``Music Box'' lacks the sense of urgency and inevitability that marks his best work. It finds relevancy, though, in issues of lingering secrecy and culpability related to the Holocaust.
`Triumph of the Spirit'
``Triumph of the Spirit'' prides itself on authenticity. In addition to its use of real Auschwitz locations, it takes its story from the true experiences of Salomo Arouch, a Greek Jew who was imprisoned at the camp along with his family. He now lives in Israel, and served as an advisor on the production.
As the movie tells it, Mr. Arouch made his living as a prizefighter. When he landed in Auschwitz, the Nazis discovered his talent for boxing and offered him a strange and horrible way to survive: fighting other inmates to the death, for the sadistic entertainment of his keepers. As long as he won, he would be allowed to live. Thinking not only of himself but of his family - and the woman he loved, also in the camp - he accepted the challenge.
``Triumph of the Spirit'' doesn't dwell exclusively on camp horrors. It begins with Arouch's life before the war; it shows his capture in the Thessalonica; it visits his family. Although the story is often appalling, it's made bearable by the hero's courage, and by his survival of everything the Nazis can inflict on him.
Still, the movie has a lot of serious flaws. For one thing, it undercuts its own realism by using famous actors like Willem Dafoe, Edward James Olmos, and Robert Loggia in key roles; the story would have more impact if it used unfamiliar faces and voices. More important, the film becomes very melodramatic when tragedy strikes members of the hero's family, as if these people mattered more - because we know them - than other people dying every minute at the camp. From this attitude, however unwittingly taken, it's not a long step to the Nazi position that some lives are worth more than others.
And finally, there's something creepy about bringing a place like Auschwitz back to life, even for to condemn it. Maybe there are some films that should be made in studios - not on the spot where the crime of the century took place.