Monday, May 05, 2008

“Holocaust Movies” and Holocaust Denial: Creating False Images

Yesterday I watched “The Counterfeiters,” which recently won the Oscar for best foreign film. It is a tale of a group of Jewish prisoners the Nazis forced to forge foreign currency. This past week was the annual memorial day of The Holocaust, an apt time to point out certain problems in some “Holocaust movies.”

Movies about the Holocaust are often thought important in battling Holocaust denial, teaching and introducing the Holocaust to many who otherwise would have never learned of it and are thus susceptible to revisionist falsehoods. To an extent this is true. However, at times these movies function as a two-edged sword, serving those accounts of the Holocaust that attempt to present it as an aberration in human history, existing out of time, having nothing to do with normal people, improbable, monstrous and inhuman yet still always filled with fantastic stories of perseverance. This might lead some to believe not only that it could never happen again but also that the false claims of its exaggeration, fabrication and even impossibility contain an element of truth. Not all Holocaust movies suffer from these ills, but many of the more famous ones do.

Examples: (1) The main theme of many popular Holocaust movies is one of survival. While survival may make for better drama and storytelling, survival is not the story of the Holocaust, it is the deviation. (2) German characters often appear in Holocaust movies in one of two pairs: the sadistic monstrous Nazi vs. the brave benevolent German, and the perverted evil Gestapo officer (often with a limp or one eye) vs. the German solider who is simply fighting for his country. In fact, the Holocaust has little to do with these archetypes; the story of the Holocaust is the story of the vast majority of Germans who occupied the space between these two caricatures. It was normal people like you and like me who carried out the crimes and allowed them to happen. Once again, both the sadistic monsters and the angelic saviors were the digression. (3) Some of these movies have dramatic shower scenes – the protagonists are led into a structure, told they are about to shower. The suspense is built on the audience’s expectation that the characters are in fact led into a gas chamber, but then, rather than deadly gas, water pours out of the ceiling. In fact, the Nazis would lead their victims into gas chambers under the pretext of having them shower. These movies reverse the facts – the lie is turned into the reality and the historic reality remains an unrealized fear. While perhaps good for dramatic suspense, these images, implanted in the minds of the viewers – many of whose only encounter with the Holocaust is through such widely distributed movies – are known historical falsities. In reality the gas chambers could not even function as showers at all. It is a fallacious image.

These narrative structures, images and character types, when presented to those who are ignorant of the Holocaust, fit much better with the narrative of denial than with the historical truth. For the great majority who learn most of their history from film, if the main images they are offered of the Holocaust are of inhuman acts, non-realistic monsters, gas chambers that turn out to be showers (rather than the other way around) and where the protagonists survive, for all the good intentions the more plausible story might turn out to be the false one, that of denial, exaggeration and fabrication. At the end people remember the drama, the images, the main narrative and characters, not the background.

Posted by Ori Herstein


Michael C. Dorf said...

I don't disagree with anything Ori says here about Holocaust films in general and I'm not sure how much of what he says is meant to be true of The Counterfeiters (which has a gas chamber turns out to be shower scene). I do want to offer an explanation of one point, though: It's inevitable that Holocaust stories (whether written, spoken or visualized) will be mostly survivors' tales. We have some first-person narratives from people who did not survive, but they are distortions too, the Diary of Anne Frank being the most famous: because the Diary ends before she is taken to a death camp, it seems hopeful, and the stage play based on the Diary is a tale of triumph of the human spirit, rather than its defeat. But most of the victims did not leave written records and so the stories we have are mostly survivors' stories. These are necessarily atypical precisely because the people telling them survived. For example, my mother-in-law, who spent the war variously in a ghetto in Poland and then with false papers in Slovakia, repeatedly escaped capture through what looks in retrospect like divine intervention---but only because the much larger number of Jews who weren't as lucky did not live to tell their tales.

Unknown said...

Good post, Ori.
I completely agree with Prof. Dorf's factual point that stories of survival are the ones most readily available; memoirs of the deceased are few and far between. However, Ori touches, I believe, upon a different notion - that of the optimism in most cinematic portrayals of the Holocaust; this point does not necessarily emanate from the identity of the narrator. Stories of survivors are not always optimistic; in fact, they can be - and usually are - far from it. This should be obvious to anyone who has read the accounts of Ruth Bondy, Primo Levi and countless others; anyone who has watched Claude Lanzmann's Shoah; anyone who has heard multiple first hand accounts from survivors.
Nor is this a limitation of the medium. In fact, the post reminded me that Ori and I attended Antony Sher's "Primo" a couple of years ago, and we both found it astonishingly effective (as well as an amazing performance); no optimism, not even anger, just despair and horror at the doings of men and wonder at the few who survived. Surely a play and a movie are not THAT different?
So why is this element of horror missing from movies? I'm not sure I can entirely explain it, other than by reference to prosaic reasons such as the economics of making movies. That, however, cannot be the whole story; a middle ground between a project like Shoah and a feature movie that portrays the Holocaust in the bleak, terrible colors of realism must exist.

Ori Herstein said...

Perhaps the point about the false optimism is simply explained by the fact that most of the best-known holocaust movies are ones directed at wide audiences. Movies you can have dinner after, even if a reflective dinner. Also, many of them are Hollywood movies…

The most difficult and perhaps the best movie I have seen on the war is “Come and See” (or “Go and See”). It is not a holocaust movie, but more on the Nazi atrocities in Belarus. Actually the main character survives, but it is not an inspiring story of hope, or on the triumph of the human spirit etc., not at all.

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