Tag Archives: Holocaust

Life is Beautiful

life is beautiful(0)Life is Beautiful (1997) is not a Holocaust movie, even though half of the film is set in a concentration camp.  Roberto Benigni, who co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film is one of the great comics of Italian cinema.  He has made a fable about the salvific powers of love and laughter.  The movie won the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor, and Best Music in 1999, as well as over 50 other awards.

Commentary

Many critics described the film as brilliant, but there were also dissenting voices:  Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chonicle wrote that it is an “ambitious film” but that in the end, “it doesn’t work.”  Charles Taylor of Salon.com flatly writes that the film is “in offensively poor taste.”

I agree with Charles Taylor; I found it more and more difficult to watch this film in its second half, which is set in a concentration camp.  The idea that everything in the camp could be explained away as a “game” is beyond my suspension of disbelief.  The “humor” and “love” in the film are portrayed with no regard for the countless families ripped apart and destroyed by the Nazi machinery of death.  I do not find Life is Beautiful funny, and most definitely not “beautiful.”

One other thing:  I can imagine that someone out there might think that this film is “Holocaust lite” and therefore suitable for children.  Even if you accept the sophisticated view of the film prize awarders, and see this as great comic cinema, it is not a film for learning about the Holocaust:  the Holocaust is incidental to it.   Please don’t take a child to it.

Black Book

blackbookBlack Book (2006) is a World War II film about the Dutch Resistance, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, and Halina Reijn. We originally meet the central character, Rachel Stein, when she is  living in hiding on a Dutch farm.  When the farm is distroyed by American bombs, she is forced out into the open to survive on her own.  She finds her way into a Dutch resistance cell which is troubled by a turncoat, an ongoing mystery in the film:  who is it that keeps ratting  to the Nazis?

Rachel serves the cause by sleeping with the enemy:  she dyes her hair blond, becomes the mistress of a powerful Nazi, and reports back to her cell what she learns from him.   No fool, he figures out that she is Jewish, and chooses to overlook it for the time being.  Verhoeven suggests, through his characters and others in the film, that it is harder than we like to think to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

This is absolutely not a film for children or for the sensitive; it contains a lot of graphic sex and violence.

Commentary

You may recognize the name of the director:  he also directed Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls.  Verhoeven is known for making violent, lurid films and this one qualifies on both counts.  The screenplay is stuffed with handy coincidences, and when the opening credits claim that it is “based on a true story” one should reach for a box of Morton’s Salt.  There was a lawyer in the Netherlands who kept a “black book” like the one in the film.  Beyond that, the film is fiction.

So why include it on this list?  Why might this film be worthwhile for some viewers?  Black Book makes the point again and again that anti-Semitism was not the sole province of the Nazis.  Many Christian Europeans felt that Jews had brought their troubles upon themselves by failing to become Christian; others believed that Jews could not be trusted, were driven by a desire for money, etc., etc.  Verhoeven’s moral relativism may go too far when he suggests that there were “good Nazis” but he acknowledges something that most Holocaust films do not:  that the Holocaust was not a Nazi aberration, but an extreme expression of themes that had long been part of European Christian culture.

Is this a great film?  No.  It’s a thriller-melodrama with a lot of slick sex and violence. I include it here because it also contains some kernels of truth about things that nice people don’t want to discuss.  Leave it to Verhoeven to go where nice people won’t.

Defiance

defianceDefiance (2008) tells the story of the four Bielski Brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, who gathered and led a 1200-member community of Jewish resistors in the forests of Belarus during the Holocaust, preserving their lives. The film was directed by Edward Zwick, and stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schriber.    It opened to mixed reviews and some controversy:  reviewers tended to credit Zwick with a high degree of historical accuracy, and some controversy.

Polish commentators argue that while the film acknowledges that the Bielskis allied their group with Soviet partisans in the area, it fails to reveal the significance of that alliance:  this was not the regular Soviet Army, but an NKVD group (NKVD being the precursors to the KGB.)  The Soviet Union had NKVD operatives in the area to murder Poles in preparation for a Soviet invasion.

While the film doesn’t engage with this particular controversy, it makes no bones about the fact that often the group had to operate in ethically questionable ways.  The Bielski brothers managed to save over 1000 Jewish lives.  Whether that outweighs their methods and choices is a question worth discussion.

Commentary

As history, Defiance is a success; it tells the story without significantly changing it.  However, as a drama it received mixed reviews.

Reviewer Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out that this is a problem of the “Holocaust genre” as it has developed in American film.  According to LaSalle, successful “Holocaust drama” has good guys (Jews, or a Christian trying to save Jews) bad guys (Nazis or collaborators), and ultimately an upbeat ending in which the good guys survive to tell the tale.  Given that we are talking about the Holocaust, the “upbeat ending” requirement is more than a little ridiculous.

The good guys of Defiance are the Bielskis, who steal and kill in the interest of preserving the group.  At least one of them is more interested in revenge than survival.  The way the film is cut, the main conflict in the film is not Jews-vs-Nazis or even Jews-vs-Death, but brother-vs-brother as Tuvia and Zus wrestle over the question of revenge versus community organizing.  Given the backdrop of survival in the forest with Nazis circling behind every rock and tree, there is a feeling of disconnect through the film:  why are these guys fighting?  Don’t they realize who the real enemy is?

Still, Defiance is well worth watching because it is an accurate account of one of the cases in the Holocaust where Jews fought back and did so successfully.  The fact that the filmmaker chose fidelity to history is really rather remarkable, given that, as LaSalle pointed out, were the film to fit the genre, the Bielskis would have been re-visioned to paint them as saints.  They weren’t saints; they were human beings in an inhuman situation.  Their choices, and our discussion of their choices, can make for genuine learning.

Questions:

What choices did the Bielskis make in order to survive?  What options did they refuse to take?  Could you say that their choices were informed by Jewish values?  Why or why not?

What other Holocaust films have you seen?  Did they fit Mick LaSalle’s description of the genre?  Given that many Americans get most of their Holocaust education from the movies, what consequences do you see for the “happy ending” requirement?  What are the consequences of changing the details of stories so that the Jews make no ethically questionable choices, and appear “saintly”?

Shoah

200px-Shoah_filmShoah (1985) is a documentary about the Holocaust made by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.  The film is 9 1/2 hours long, and it includes interviews with survivors, guards, and townspeople, forty years after the events it describes.  It focuses on the death camps, and on what happened in them.  Lanzmann did not use any archival film footage:  every moment of the film was shot in the 1980’s.  (He insists that because there is no archival film, the film is not a documentary.  However, it is almost always classified as such.)

Commentary

There is an eerie quality to the ordinary middle-aged and older faces as they speak:  they look utterly ordinary but they say extraordinary, dreadful things.  Lanzmann presses his subjects to go into minute detail about their experiences, and while any small part of the film is “too much information,” the sum total of it is horrific and hypnotizing. And just as the faces are ordinary, the areas in which the camps were located is quite beautiful; we see scene after scene of lush European forests and countryside.  In many cases, what is left of the camps is just foundations, or memorial stones.  The only evidence for what happened there is in the voices of the interviewees.

In the case of the Germans who were interviewed, most of them were filmed secretly; they believed they were providing information anonymously.  Lanzmann also interviewed Polish bystanders, people who did not work in the camps but who were aware of them nearby.  He interviewed bystanders more for their attitudes about Jews than about details of the camps.  What emerges is a picture of a populace who had some idea what was happening, and who might have had some vague misgivings about it, at most.   Some bystanders say on the record that they are less ambivalent:  they disliked the Jews in their towns and were glad that something bad happened to them.

This is not a film for the faint of heart, nor is it a film which children should see.  The details reported by survivors and guards are horrific; the attitudes expressed by bystanders are equally so.

One of the challenges in watchng Shoah is that interviewees spoke German, Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish.  Lanzmann interviewed them in French, through an interpreter.  When the interviewees are speaking, we hear them in their own language, at length, without subtitles.  The subtitles come during the French translator’s speech.  This slows down the film considerably, but it allows the viewer to focus on the faces and facial expressions, which are sometimes more eloquent than the words.

The question remains:  why make such a film?  Why watch it?  Lanzmann was making a record of the workings of evil, interviewing survivors who were already aging, most of whom are dead at this writing.  This is an attempt to capture what can be captured before the witnesses are gone.  The film is an excellent way to get beyond the soft-focus treatment that Hollywood inevitably gives the subject.  Shoah is in no way entertainment, and it is absolutely not for children.

Schindler’s List

schindlers-list-DVDcoverSchindler’s List (1993) is the most successful and famous of Holocaust films.  It is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, an Austrian Catholic businessman who preserved the lives of over 1,000 Jews by putting them to work in his factory and then using his influence and his fortune to keep them from the death camps.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally, and the film was directed by Steven Spielberg.  It is meticulously researched and produced, and the end product is a searing film that merits its “R” rating.  Liam Neeson stars as Schindler, Ben Kinglsey as Yitzhak Stern, his bookkeeper, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Amon Goeth, one of the most reprehensible and terrifying figures in film.  This is not a film for children, but it is a truly great film.  It won 7 Oscars out of 12 nominations in 1994.

Commentary

This film has been the beginning of a Holocaust education for many people around the world, simply because of its availability and popularity.  It is an excellent source, but I would approach it with some caution:  it is NOT suitable for children, or for someone who gets nightmares from upsetting films, and while it is a good beginning of a Holocaust education, it should not be the end of anyone’s education.

I have been told by more than one survivor that Spielberg put on film what audiences would stand:  the real historical events were more horrible than anything that should be available on film.  Moreover, while narrative tells us a great deal, we also need to talk about the circumstances that came together to create the events we call “the Holocaust.”  Good as it is, the film does not say enough about the events it covers to be the final word on the subject.

All of that said, I would have tagged this film a “Must see!” were it not for the difficult content.  See it if you can, and discuss it with others.

Double Feature

For a non-fiction treatment of the topic, and especially of the details of the death camps, the 9.5 hours of Shoah are incomparable but horrific.   (I am not suggesting that one watch these two films as an actual double feature, in one sitting — I fear  that it might lead to suicidal depression and despair!  “Double Feature” is just a way of signifying in this blog that two films are related.)