[4 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“This is too important of a historical document to ban from classrooms. While there’s no doubt that Holocaust atrocities are displayed, if teachers feel their students are ready to understand what happened, it’s essential that young people are giving the opportunity to see this film. Why deny them the chance to learn about this critical part of our human history? I understand that the MPAA wants to protect children’s eyes from things that are too overwhelming, but they’ve really gone too far this time. It’s bullshit.”
The words of Beastie Boy and Oscilloscope Laboratories/Pictures mogul Adam Yauch couldn’t be more clear—the guardians of taste re: American cinema, the Motion Picture Association of America, is pigheaded. Their decision to award the 2010 Holocaust documentary A Film Unfinished an “R” rating recently means several things. First off, the pseudo censors have deemed that the project contains images and ideas that they consider inappropriate for anyone under 17—and one a certain literal level, they are right. Consisting of horrific propaganda items discovered in a Nazi vault after World War II, the film depicts the deplorable conditions in a Warsaw Ghetto before and during one particularly gruesome phase of the Final Solution. Even worse, the Germans filmed “fictional” material showing that, while their friends and loved ones suffered, certain Jews enjoyed socializing and holding lavish dinner parties.
Of course, it was all a ruse, a ridiculous approach by the Reich to defame a race and win favor for its semi-secret system of mass murder going on under the populace’s upturned noses. Director Yael Hersonski successfully contextualizes the material by doing interviews with the survivors, a few of the “actors”, and even a Nazi cameraman who explains the ‘rationale’ behind such a celluloid crime. But it is not easy going - not by a long shot. Many critics have argued that the acts depicted grow increasingly uncomfortable and harrowing as the movie goes along, suggesting that a strong stomach, as well as an equally powerful ethos, is necessary to appreciate the film’s historic impact. Many have even questioned the purpose behind the German’s message—surely such horrific imagery would defeat, not support, their perverted purpose.
But Yauch then rightfully argues that education can only begin once the truth is finally fully exposed and then explained. According to the press release which accompanied the statement, he points out that A Film Unfinished does indeed present “the raw footage in its entirety, carefully noting fictionalized sequences (including a staged dinner party) falsely showing ‘the good life’ enjoyed by Jewish urbanites and probes deep into the making of a now-infamous Nazi propaganda film.” Apparently, genocide, starvation, and skeletal bodies piled up like cordwood offended the sensibilities of those in charge of moderating content for our nation’s wee ones.
An ‘R’ means that high schools would not be able to screen the title, given the nervous trigger fingers most scholastic bureaucracies employ nowadays. Even worse, teachers who protest the decision and decide to show the film to their students risk firing—or the kind of senseless social ostracizing that we tend toward in our knee-jerk government as guardian mentality.
While not quite the stigma of something like NC-17 or X, Yauch’s point is extremely well taken. R is no longer meant for something “geared toward adults”. Instead, it’s an adolescent symbol of something that is either too violent, too sexual, too gratuitous, or too exploitive to be viewed by the majority of the mainstream. A patina of forbidden fruit is pasted on anything labeled with such a restrictive authorization. Considering the information being offered here, taking a “peek-a-boo” position thwarts at the very least the initial attempts to bring the real world horrors to those who need to understand it most.
The Holocaust is one of those historical truths that can’t be sugar coated via suggestion. As the Jewish people rightly proclaim, it remains a “never forget” moment in our collective consciousness (though currently, there are a lot of countries experiencing selective memory loss). For every powerful fiction film on the subject, nothing silences the deniers better than hard, cold evidence - and pictures are as close to reality as we can get some 65 years removed. While no one would suggest that ordinary murder be explained via crime scene photos, we are not talking about “ordinary” murder here. “Extraordinary” events demand a reversal - or at the very least, a reconsidering - of the rules. While an ensuing backlash (and JDL grievance) will probably sway the MPAA down to a strongly stated PG-13, the controversy still raises an interesting question about the value of such a system when it comes to history.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear - no one is arguing that fictional films of human suffering - historical or not - should be given such legitimized leeway. The documentary and dramatic effect are two differing things. But the lack of perspective on the MPAA’s part is shocking. In essence, they believe that any reality, no matter the historical significance or big picture priority, should be subject to their approval of appropriateness. We aren’t talking about Schindler’s List here. This is actual footage taken by actual members of Hitler’s Third Reich, the purpose of which was to sway public opinion regarding the “Jewish” problem. Parents would clearly defend the group’s right to prevent wanton or prurient material from reaching their offspring’s unprepared eyes, but as Yauch states, if a teacher believes their students are ready, shouldn’t their opinion - not that of some politicized pundits of taste - be the final word.
The “R” removes that choice. Oddly enough, parochial schools consistently inundate their classes with brutal anti-abortion imagery, suggesting that there is a moral right (and religious right/freedom issue) involved. True, since they are not considering releasing their surgical horror show to theaters around the country, the MPAA doesn’t have to sign off on the trash cans filled with fetuses. But because Yauch and Oscilloscope want to offer this important archival find to the rest of the world, through the most viable commercial means necessary, they have to put up with outdated ideas of what is and is not suitable.
Again, this will probably be resolved once the warranted media firestorm dies down. The bigger question remains - with something like A Film Unfinished, should it really have been an issue in the first place? The answer says a lot about where we are as a country, and a member of the global community, in 2010.