2008-12-10 (Limited release)

All across the web this past week, it’s been the subject of much metaphysical ink. As awards season slowly winds down, Hollywood is dragging out the proverbial heavy hitters, and oddly enough, quite a few deal with World War II, Nazi Germany, and in ways both direct and indirect, the Holocaust. Back in 2004, a documentary entitled Imaginary Witness discussed with great clarity and foresight the issue of bringing history’s greatest crime to the entertainment mediums. It’s important to remember that, less than 30 years ago, the amazing TV mini-series Holocaust was criticized for turning the fate of six million Jews into a commercial conceit. One wonders what the pundits in that piece would think about the current trend toward turning the Shoah into show business.

The arguments on both sides seem salient enough. Harvey Weinstein, whose company is pushing The Reader for Oscar gold, has a “more the merrier” attitude. By putting out films with Holocaust themes, he suggests, it keeps the “Never Forget” mandate alive. On the other hand, journalists like Stuart Klawans suggest that “by continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.” Since many of the movies being made are not fact based, but instead rely on the Holocaust as a fictional catalyst for plot, character, and or thematic development, the import of the event itself is being shuttled aside for the sake of standard moviemaking formula.

It’s a trend that can be traced back to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Love it or loathe it, this serio-comic take on the tragedy proved that not every story about the suffering of Europe’s Jewish populace had to be Schindler’s List. Indeed, while Steven Spielberg set the benchmark with his haunting, horrific epic, no one would argue that it was the last word on the carnage (last year’s Counterfeiter confirms that concept). But sitting through the films being offered as part of 2008’s year end overdrive, one gets the distinct impression that the death, pain, and suffering inflicted by the Nazis has gone from being a monumental human atrocity to a go-to gimmick for an otherwise vacant cinematic statement.

Take the aforementioned Weinstein effort. Without going into detail, the war crimes of one character are debated in court proceedings that do little to illustrate their vile callousness. The only real passion for the crimes comes when, during sentencing, a group of concentration camp survivors scream out anguished epithets. Similarly, a last act element that feels tagged on allows the film’s protagonist, a German man (played by Ralph Fiennes) with a horribly guilty conscience, to make with the mea culpa. As he confesses his teenage affair with the woman who was once an “only following orders” murderer, situational stand-in Lena Olin gets to pass joyless PC judgment.

Or what about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? This is one of the few films ever that takes the tragedy suffered by millions of families and gives it over to the guys in the swastikas. Throughout the course of the entire film, a young German boy and a frail Jewish prisoner become typical childhood pals. When poor little Schmuel’s father goes missing in the camp, adventurous Teutonic lad Bruno BREAKS INTO the compound, dons the inmate’s garb, and begins the hunt. Eventually, he is rounded up and sent to the gas chamber, along with his newfound friend. Horrifying yes, but where is the emotion actually laid. We don’t get anyone crying for the millions of Jews who died, but Bruno’s Nazi parents are pie-eyed over the loss.

In some instances, the films present the Holocaust as a motive, nothing more. Tom Cruise pays the situation lip service when, in the upcoming Valkyrie his Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg argues for the reasons to assassinate Hitler. Once mentioned, the liberation of the camps is offered as a possible, post-coup agenda item. That’s it. In other cases, the issue is treated with a confusing ‘direct tenuousness’. In Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, Jeff Goldblum is very good as an ex-circus performer who survived the Holocaust by being a camp commandant’s court jester, so to speak. Years later, he’s in an insane asylum in Israel, reliving his days as the Nazi’s literal ‘dog’.

But Defiance may be the ultimate example of where all this is eventually going. Edward Zwick’s epic tale of the real-life Bieliski Brothers, who escape persecution in Poland and joined up with Russian Resistance fighters to battle the Germans, is like a modern Hollywood action film with the Shoah served up on the side. What these siblings did (within the context of a fictionalized film about same, of course) is astonishing, and it’s an important part of the overall narrative of the War. But is it any more reverent to offer up shoot ’em up crowd pleasing bullet ballets as part of history rather than slapstick belly laughs? One senses that Zwick sees nothing wrong with offering violence as a viable solution. After all, who would really argue with such a Rambo-like response?

But this goes to the bigger issue of what the Holocaust is supposed to signify, both symbolically and cinematically. In The Reader, it’s a moral dilemma for a young man sexually obsessed with a fragile, enigmatic woman. In Adam Resurrected, it’s the ends to a mental means. Defiance makes it the “eye for an eye” rationale, while Valkyrie does something similar, if a lot more subtle. Only The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems to have its intentions in the wrong ethnic divide. Certainly there were good Germans (as Cruise and company try to prove over and over), but to make the death of one of the Fatherland’s own more important than the slaughter of six million others seems unconscionable.

Mind you, in all the cases mentioned, the Holocaust is not ridiculed or mocked. No one tries to argue it away, excuse it, or lessen its truly unimaginable hideousness. But we aren’t talking about a specific battle here, or an important but forgotten figure. This is genocide on a massive, premeditated, and unfathomably systematic scale. It’s as if each film here forgets what the overall purpose of Hitler’s Final Solution was – to eradicate the Jew from the face of the Earth. Does such an intention allow for what many might see as superficial treatment of the subject? And is Klawans right? Does the overexposure of the Holocaust threaten to turn it into a narrative device like drug abuse or molestation – one time hot button topics that now seem passé and predictable.

Indeed, the biggest fear here is not “forgetting”, but forgetting what’s important. Before he made Schindler’s List, Spielberg argued that he had to “grow up” as a filmmaker, maturity being the key to handling an issue this massive and important. Nowadays, all one needs is a script (typically based on a well-meaning novel of some sort) and an inferred sense of the serious to make their movie. In each way, the films here have aims that are good to grand, and in the execution no one truly stumbles. But at some point, the Holocaust will misplace its mainstream meaning, and that’s one part of this unbridled tragedy that never should be lost. Ever.