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
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era