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29 May 2024

The films changing how we understand the Holocaust

The genocide has been endlessly churned through the Hollywood machine, resulting in melodrama, insensitivity and triteness. Three new films attempt to correct that.

By Miriam Balanescu

In a 2005 episode of Extras, Kate Winslet, cameoing as a caricature of herself, infamously joked that “if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar”. Just a few years later, she was duly nominated for her role in The Reader, an uneasy romance between a former concentration camp guard (Winslet) and a 15-year-old German boy (David Kross). Years after their relationship, the young man, now a trainee lawyer, is called to observe her trial for war crimes, watching her wistfully and feeling increasingly sorry for her. The film, with its sympathy for a perpetrator of the Holocaust, was subject to accusations of revisionism and Nazi apologia. But amid this controversy, Winslet won the award – with Extras writer Ricky Gervais quipping at that year’s Golden Globes that he told her to do a Holocaust movie.

It’s not the first controversy in a sprawling – and often fraught – history of films about the Holocaust. Criticisms have been levelled at many of them. The infamous Seventies film The Day the Clown Cried, about a circus entertainer imprisoned in a concentration camp who lures children to the gas chambers, had a premise so offensive it was never released. The definitive Holocaust film of the Nineties, Steven Spielberg’s garlanded Schindler’s List, has had as many vilifiers as admirers: Tablet magazine critic Liel Leibovitz called it “astoundingly stupid”, “a moral and an aesthetic disaster” for its easy dichotomies of good and evil. The infantilising 2008 film The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas, adapted from the saccharinely sentimental John Boyne novel, was criticised by the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum, which said the film “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches the history of the Holocaust”. In Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (2019), the director stars as a Nazi youth’s zany imaginary friend – a hallucinated apparition of Hitler himself. The film’s slapstick version of Nazi Germany fails to engage with its true horrors: the Telegraph critic Robbie Collin claimed the film “sentimentalises and trivialises the Holocaust”. The genocide has been folded into existing genres: such as Holocaust thrillers, from Black Book to Inglourious Basterds. There’s even a micro-genre of “Nazi zombie” films.

Winslet’s glib Extras gag makes a serious point: the Shoah has loomed large in the global cultural imagination. The sheer volume of films made about the subject is almost unprecedented – meaning an inconceivable tragedy has been endlessly churned through the Hollywood machine, often veering into melodrama, insensitivity and triteness. Few grasp the full complexity of the genocide: including how and why it happened. Many of these films begin in medias res, and lack any historical depth. The result limits our understanding of the Holocaust, reducing it to a series of satisfying story arcs and tropes.

In his 1979 essay on the TV series Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss, the author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes, “It was predictable and obvious that the blood, the slaughter, the intrinsic horror of what happened in Europe in those years would attract myriad second-rate writers looking for easy subjects, and that that vast tragedy would be tampered with, chopped into pieces, arbitrarily sorted through in order to obtain fragments suitable for satisfying the turbid thirst for the macabre and the obscene that is supposed to dwell in the depths of every reader and consumer.” The roots of Nazism and anti-Semitism, Levi writes, are “remote and complex”, and “cannot be understood without knowing anything of the wound inflicted on German pride by the 1918 defeat, of the successive revolutionary efforts, of the catastrophic inflation of 1923, of the violence of the ‘Free Corps’, of the dizzying political instability of the Weimar Republic”. Without such context, the viewer is left with “the impression that Nazism sprang out of nowhere, the diabolical work of cold-blooded fanatics like [Reinhard] Heydrich or sinister cutthroats with a swastika on their sleeve, or that it was the product of some intrinsic and unexplained German wickedness”.

Three new films released this year take a radically different approach. Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film, not for its subject matter but for its treatment of it. It captures in sun-bleached hues the bucolic life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss’s family, living on the other side of the camp’s wall. Eschewing the narrative of the Martin Amis novel on which it is based, there is little traditional plot here. We do not see, but hear what is happening over the barbed-wire wall. The atrocities happening inside the camp leak out in other ways, too: such as the furnace ash the house servants are forced to scrub from the bathtub.

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Ordinariness, even beauty, is tainted by moral ugliness. Glazer’s film documents the family’s humdrum routines: it was filmed mostly using hidden cameras like his previous feature Under the Skin. Those familiar with Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil” will immediately recognise many of the hallmarks here: the dutiful, deadly decision-making; the euphemistic, bureaucratic uses of language; the unthinking bowing to authority. Sixty years on from Arendt’s report Eichmann in Jerusalem, the ideas in Glazer’s cold and unflinching film are not new. But the rapt critical response to a work that is so different to other Oscar-winning films suggests otherwise, as if viewers have been jolted awake.

Glazer’s Nazis are depicted as ordinary people committing extraordinary atrocities. It’s a sharp contrast to most cinematic conceptions of the Holocaust’s perpetrators. In Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 masterpiece Rome, Open City, Nazi occupiers are slimily subhuman. (Ralph Fiennes’ cartoonishly evil Amon Göth in Schindler’s List ranks 15th in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest villains of all time.) But such cartoonish villains enable audiences to overlook the real, disturbingly normal, motivations of power-wielders and absolve ourselves of complicity.

Holocaust films have also often been plagued by non-Jewish saviour narratives. Schindler’s List, Jojo Rabbit, The Book Thief (2013) and the recent Anthony Hopkins-starring One Life celebrate heroic individuals who demonstrate unwavering courage and kindness amid widespread inhumanity. It’s telling that the emphasis always falls on these feel-good stories of resistance, rather than the far more frequent stories of those who witnessed the persecution of the Jewish people and failed to act. No dramatisation has been attempted of the disastrous 1938 Évian Conference, in which 32 nations – including Britain – unanimously decided they couldn’t take Jewish refugees. Or the 1943 Bermuda Conference, where the same decision was reached, a member of the Jewish advisory body to the Polish government-in-exile Szmul Zygielbojm taking their own life in protest of its outcome. But this is where the real story of the Holocaust can be found. Today’s anti-refugee policies in Britain are a chilling echo of these events.

There are no such saviours in The Zone of Interest or Ava DuVernay’s Origin, also released this year, which takes the shooting of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin as its starting point before venturing into the past of Nazi Germany and to India’s treatment of “untouchables”. Adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s non-fiction book Caste, the film finds the connective tissue between different systems that rely on scapegoating a particular group, regardless of race. As Isabel travels from the US to Germany, she investigates the mechanisms that enable systems of oppression. Moving between Isabel’s present-day examination of archives and documents to flashbacks showing this history, she unearths historical ties between the American legislation behind slavery and segregation, and German laws that initially segregated Jews but culminated in their extermination. When she travels to India, meeting Dalit professor Suraj Yengde (played by himself), he draws direct parallels between segregation, India’s untouchables, the Holocaust and the plight of Palestinians. Though Origin is flawed – the film’s structure also follows Isabel through two personal tragedies, leaving little space for in-depth probing of Wilkerson’s thesis – it tussles with the reasons why, which so many Holocaust films gloss over in the interest of easy storytelling.

Holocaust films can often flatten the Jewish lives at their centre, especially those not told from Jewish characters’ perspectives: uninterested in their lives before genocide, such films allow Jewish characters to exist on screen only to be persecuted, tortured and slaughtered. One Life recently came under fire for omitting in its marketing materials the fact that most of the Czech children rescued by Nicholas Winton were Jewish, calling them “central European” instead. In films like Where Hands Touch (2018) or The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (2009), Jewish characters are defined by their suffering, and only seen as victims. Though resistance and uprisings were widespread and well-documented, it’s rare to see Jewish people fight back on screen.

Michael Winterbottom’s biopic Shoshana, also released this year, is a much-needed counter to this. From its outset, the title character Shoshana Borochov (played by Irina Vladimirovna Starshenbaum) is engaged in resistance, navigating quagmire-like politics in 1930s Palestine. She is the daughter of the socialist Zionist Ber Borochov, and a fierce opponent of her father’s politics: the film charts her relationship with the British police officer Thomas James Wilkin, an adversary of Zionist paramilitary groups, further complicating her relationship with fellow Jewish migrants. Shoshana examines Britain’s role in the Holocaust as the occupiers of Mandatory Palestine. Heavy-handed police stoke existing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, while desperation escalates around Britain’s refusal to allow those fleeing the Holocaust into the country. In the end, the main objective of both Palestinians and Israelis becomes to rid themselves of the British colonial forces. This, the film suggests in its disturbing closing shot of guns trained on Palestinians, fuelled the ever-more urgent situation in the region today.

Primo Levi acknowledges that even the most historically curious and informative works on Nazism may fail to understand our fundamental questions about how it happened. In his essay on the Holocaust programme, he writes: “This explains the reason for the innumerable phone calls that flooded the TV stations in the countries where the serial has been shown so far. Most of the callers were asking ‘why’, and this ‘why’ is gigantic and as old as humankind. It’s the ‘why’ of evil in the world.”

Not all of our “why”s can be answered sufficiently – but the question itself is crucial. Where other films have been more concerned with turning the Holocaust into a universal template of the human struggle, creating new myths and misconceptions about the genocide as a result, these new films explore the events that gave way to unconscionable mass violence. As the Holocaust moves out of living memory and into history, an awareness grows of genocides that have been forgotten and ignored and further unfathomable horrors unfolding in the present day. These films, which dare to ask why, have never felt more urgent.

[See also: The myth of progressive Catholicism]

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