Warning This post contains opinions of a sensitive nature, focusing specifically upon the Holocaust. While I am in no way disputing the events as history sees them I recognise that talking irreverently about such a subject can create controversy and cause upset. This is in no way my intention, and I apologise if my following writings are seen that way.
Actually I think they might have more to do with current media practices than the horror that occurred almost a hundred years ago. But that’s just me.
In memory to the 11 million people murdered in the systematic extermination of minorities during that terrible time.
I thought I’d put the above in as a mark, my own mark, of respect to such things. I can also see the parallels to the title cards that precede the movie Dogma (1999) (platypi have feelings too); the idea that withholding true reverence to an event suggesting an indication that you do not respect it being a poor one.
Last Tuesday was recognised as the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Known officially as ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day’ here in the UK, its primary focus is the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next, whilst gaining first-hand insight from those survivors who are still alive, allowing them to actively speak about their suffering.
In addition it also recognises the atrocities committed in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda. All times when a certain subset of people thought that massacring another subset of people was not only permitted but was actually a good idea.
But this day was all about the Holocaust (note the capital H). Or specifically, it was all about the Auschwitz liberation, the date used to group everything together on the subject, even though many incidents predate the 27th Jan 1945 in their horror and triumph (I prefer to focus on the latter) of the liquidation of European Jewry by German National Socialists.
Given the age and frailty of those still alive the Polish government encased the entire entrance of the Birkenau sub-camp in an insulated and heated marquee. Polish winters are brutal, and neither was it for the benefit of the elderly and infirm. Speakers and representatives from two dozen countries would be attending, together with the global press, to give their own stoic and rousing speeches about the event and what it means for today’s world.
I first heard about “what happened in the war” when I was about five or six. My mom was getting me changed for my swimming lesson at the nearby leisure centre. Very seventies in the decor, cheap wooden cubicles with coated blue fabric sheets that could be pulled up and toggled to give privacy. The adjoining showers were just one long bank of heads popping out of the wall at intervals, everyone up-close-and-personal with each other, with or without costume, either washing hair or washing off chlorine. No wonder we all got verrucas in the eighties.
I remember my mom telling about gas chambers disguised as showers, and how they killed people in the war that way. Obviously I didn’t understand it, but I was more interested in Care Bears at the time so it wasn’t gonna get a lot of thought. And it was never spoken of again.
Then I got to high school and Schindler’s List (1993) hit at the Oscars and the box-office. And this is what rankled me about the media coverage of the anniversary last Tuesday. Steven Spielberg was there in person, and the media proclaimed him as the spokesperson to the whole process of remembrance. I forget their exact quote but I remember my reaction.
“Really? Spielberg? What, I’m guessing you didn’t know who Claude Lanzmann was then?”
I like Steven Spielberg but I’m not going to genuflect in front of him. I like Schindler’s List but I’ve read about a lot of directors and documentarists who don’t. Primarily for reasons of simplicity; Schindler’s List screams Hollywood more than it screams Holocaust. It’s simple in places, it’s overly heroic and inspiring and while it is wonderful in script, camera and construction after viewing the movie you can get the impression that as long as you were smart and/or lucky anyone could survive such persecution and horror.
Sir Ben Kingsley once commented on the movie, paraphrasing that it was like observing the entirety of the Holocaust in all its mind-numbing, soul-burning horror, erecting a door ahead of you, peeping through the keyhole and seeing one small incident that is actually blessed with specificity that is more positive than negative.
I’ve read Schindler’s Ark, the book by Thomas Keneally, and it is more insipidly graphic than the movie. Stanley Kubrick hated it, primarily because it forced him to cancel his own movie, an adaptation of ‘The Aryan Papers’ on the grounds that he could never measure up to Spielberg’s submission.
It was almost like Hollywood needed a box to be ticked on the subject and, now that it had it, it was less than enthused about funding future projects with similar themes. In fact it wasn’t until Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’ (2002) that Hollywood became interested again. Also adapted from a novel of the same name it had the added benefit of being directed by an actual survivor (the fact that the man is still forbidden to enter the US on account of a 40 year old charge for sex-offences was ignored) and it’s story was more personal than Spielberg’s, choosing to focus on a single Polish family rather than a German profiteer who happens to discover his humanity midway through the mountains of cash he was raking in.
I began to read about the Holocaust when I was in college. I’d ignored it for a long time. You knew Spielberg’s movie, what was the point of knowing any more than that?
Well, as it turned out I didn’t know anything. But at the same time, and this is something I’ve heard many people say, both who have relatives involved in it and those who didn’t, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, is that they wish they could “un-know” what they read. They didn’t want such knowledge in their heads. It was corrosive.
The worst example of this corrosion in film being Nathan in Sophie’s Choice (1982). Played by Kevin Kilne (his debut) he is an American Jew obsessed with what happened, and it soon becomes clear to all, both the audience and other characters that his obsession is beginning to unhinge him.
What I found unusual though was, in recent years, there has been a glut of highly praised foreign films made. Watchmojo.com presented a run-down of the Top 10 movies late last year and while Spielberg was predictably (but quite rightly) number one there were very few other English speaking movies present. Life is Beautiful (1998, Italian), The Counterfeiters (2007, German) were two of the more recent ones present, and I’d love to see La Rafle (2010, French) which is the film about the round-up of French Jewry in the summer of 1942.
I don’t know what such a high number of foreign films means. Maybe Hollywood is no longer interested in such stories? But the production companies that produce these movies still get their money from the LA studio system, so maybe it’s more a case of companies making movies that are guaranteed to make money by showing things that explode (Transformers I’m looking at you here) than telling historical stories that may not be uplifting in their entirety? It also could be the brutal subject matter maybe, seeing a depressing, tragic tale of suffering and death isn’t something the multiplexes can easily promote…
But the subject happened. It can’t be rewritten for the sake of the audience. So Hollywood shelves the scripts it thinks it can’t make money from. And besides you’ve got Spielberg, so what more does the public need?
Some of my favourite Holocaust stories:
Uprising (2002). TV movie but based on Leon Uris’ novel ‘Mila 18’. Stars Hank Azaria and David Schimmer as the driving force behind the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. Shallow in places but still shocking, especially when the deportations begin, the sense of abandonment all the characters feel when they discover that no one outside Poland is going to help them is palpable.
Escape from Sobibor (1987). TV movie but Rutger Hauer got a Golden Globe for his role as a Soviet prisoner sent to the death camp. The story of the uprising and one of the few movies to talk about the ‘Reinhard Three’ it’s brilliant in its construction, and has some genuinely unsettling bits that wouldn’t look out of place in the television of today.
The Grey Zone (2001). A dark movie, about as far removed as the John Williams’ scored masterpiece as you can get. This is Birkenau in high gear in the summer of 1944. A morality tale, it’s more about staying true to your own conscience than survival. Showing the crematorium uprising of that autumn and the massacres that followed it goes beyond other movies by having real actors playing corpses, the gas chambers before and after and the moral agony of all those involved, wanting to live even at the expense of others. Not the happiest viewing, but a definite change of pace if you want to see more, but really watch at your own risk.