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.
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."
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.
• "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."