Fiction and the Final Solution

Laurent Binet, Jonathan Littell and the Holocaust novel.

Laurent Binet seems to see his recently-published novel HHhH as an implicit critique, in the form of a novel, of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. In an interview with Jonathan Derbyshire for the New Statesman, Binet said he was “disturbed” by The Kindly Ones, which was published in France in 2006, and in particular criticised Littell’s apparent aspiration to take us inside the minds of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. “When I read Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones I don’t get any access to the consciousness of a Nazi,” he said. “I just have access to the mind of Jonathan Littell.” Binet says he was consciously taking a different approach to fictionalising the Nazi past. “I felt Littell was doing something I didn’t want to do”, he said. “His method was not mine.”
 
Binet’s novel is all about the difficulty of telling the story of the assassination by the Czech resistance of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942. Whereas Littell’s story is told from the perspective of an SS officer who remembers in perfect detail his exploits on the eastern front, Binet writes from his own perspective – in other words, that of a young French writer struggling at the beginning of the 21st century to understand the Nazi past. Binet’s narrator agonises over how to tell the story. But although he frets about speculating beyond what he knows to be true, he speculates anyway; although he promises the reader he will avoid imagining dialogue he cannot know to be accurate, he goes ahead and imagines. He finds himself “banging my head against the wall of history” and “fighting a losing battle”.
 
Perhaps, however, Binet has misunderstood Littell’s novel. He – and a lot of critics – seem to take at face value the narrator Maximilian Aue’s promise at the beginning of the novel to tell the reader “how it happened”. They therefore see The Kindly Ones as a more or less successful realistic novel (Binet compares it to War and Peace). But is this not to make the old mistake of confusing the author and the narrator? As an SS Sturmbannführer (equivalent to a major) involved in the Final Solution, Aue surely has every reason to lie, evade and obfuscate. So, even though he was there, why should we assume Littell would want us to see him as a reliable source on the Holocaust?
 
In fact, as I described in another blog post, Aue’s account is both anachronistic and full of gaps – for example about the murder of his mother. As the 900-page novel progresses, it becomes harder for the reader to believe anything he says. It seems to me therefore that Aue should actually be seen as an unreliable narrator. Aue’s postmodern tone, which Binet correctly identifies (his narrator describes The Kindly Ones as “Houellebecq does Nazism”), is surely a clue to the reader. By the end of the novel, when Aue bites Hitler’s nose in the Führerbunker, I even wondered whether perhaps he is a fantasist like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
 
Perhaps The Kindly Ones and HHhH are therefore not so different after all. James Lasdun contrasts Binet’s novel with Littell’s, which he says attempts to “feel its way into the inner psychological textures of Nazism”. But maybe, like HHhH, it actually illustrates how hard it is for us to do exactly this. The more we know about the Nazi past, the less we feel we understand it. In other words, although written from different perspectives, both The Kindly Ones and HHhH do the same thing: explore the impossibility, as the Nazi past recedes, of fictionalising and understanding “how it happened”.
 
SS men shoot Jews at Babi Yar, Ukraine in 1941 Photograph: Getty Images
Still from Being 17
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A guide to the top ten London Film Festival screenings you should go and see

Some of the most-celebrated films on at the 60th year of the BFI London Film Festival are sold out. Here are the ones that are still available – and worth seeing.

Feeling panicked because you haven’t booked any tickets yet for the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which is now less than two weeks away? Confused because you don’t know your Chi-Raq from your Paterson? Fed up that the movies you have heard good things about (La La Land, Toni Erdmann) are all sold out? Sick to the back teeth of being asked rhetorical questions which presume to know your state of mind?

Fear not. Below is a handy, whistle-stop guide to ten promising festival screenings for which, at the time of writing, there are still plentiful tickets to be had.

Being 17

Veteran director André Téchiné delivers what is rumoured to be one of his best films: a tantalising and exuberant tale of two teenage boys engaged in a mysterious mutual antagonism.

Elle

All hail the return of master provocateur Paul Verhoeven with this highly-regarded psychological thriller starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman whose response to being attacked is unorthodox and full-blooded.

Frantz

The mischievous writer-director Francois Ozon is always a good bet. I’ve heard two things from friends and colleagues about his new film, a wartime drama. First, that it’s brilliant. And second, that it is best watched without knowing anything about it beforehand—not even the name of the play on which it is loosely based. So I’m passing on those tidbits to you.

Heal the Living

Love Like Poison was a subtle and deeply affecting coming-of-age story set in rural France. Now that film’s director, Katell Quillévéré, returns with a drama about the emotional complications arising from organ donation.

King Cobra

A real-life murder case was the inspiration for this seamy but sensitive journey into the world of gay porn, in which a deadly tug-of-war ensues over a hot new teenage star. The cast includes James Franco, Christian Slater and Alicia Silverstone.

Mindhorn

Anyone who saw Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt in Will Sharpe’s brilliant Channel 4 show Flowers earlier this year will know that he has developed new muscles as an actor. That bodes well for this comedy, which he also co-wrote, and in which he plays a washed-up actor recreating his best role – a detective with a robotic eye.

Moonlight

The acclaim from the Toronto Film Festival for this story of an African-American boy growing up gay in 1980s Miami has been deafening.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart gave a revelatory performance as personal assistant to a lofty actor (Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Now she’s sticking with Assayas and keeping it personal by playing a shopper to the stars, with a supernatural element thrown in – she’s a medium hoping to make contact with her dead twin brother.

Raw

Universal Pictures has snapped up this bizarre-sounding French-Belgian drama about a teenage veterinary student turned cannibal.

The Reunion

I’ve heard only good things about this tender love story set in Madrid, with one colleague even describing it as a Spanish Before Sunrise. Praise doesn’t come much higher.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 5-16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.