Aestheticzing Suffering: The Holocaust in Popular Film

The symbolic past of The Jewish Holocaust manifests itself in thousands of primary documents and resources that have been collected, archived, and in many cases used to prove Nazi crimes in the trials held after the war. Many hundreds of survivors of The Holocaust gave testimony in Nuremberg; however, in the eyes of the court film footage was a definitive factor in proving the crimes of the Nazi Regime. American and Russian film footage of concentration camps being liberated, as well as recovered Nazi footage of the camps became hard evidence in court of the Third Reich’s war crimes. The quest for justice to arguably the worst human act in modern history was achieved by a uniquely modern technology: film and motion picture. I would take that statement one step further by saying that the symbolic past of the Holocaust (primary resources, memoirs, photos, etc…) has become a text with which many influential films have since used to enter into a discourse with our collective memory of The Holocaust. The brief account of The Holocaust in popular cinema that follows is there to give the reader an idea of some narrative and stylistic themes I have observed both in U.S. and various European cinemas. I will then provide a close reading of three recent Holocaust related films that have all seen great success in both America and abroad and are films that I see as being very active in the discussion of Holocaust representation.

Since the end of World War II many film industries from around the world have dedicated reel upon reel of celluloid film to the depiction of The Holocaust. From highly stylized fantasies to tragic realist portrayals of Jewish suffering, there are literally thousands of films that deal with The Shoah. Seeing as World War II was the largest economic, military, or political event in history it is only fitting that film, the most modern, complex, and synergistic of all other contemporary art forms became the medium through which collective memory began to be stored. From all across Post-war European cinema came films dealing with events form the war and eventually The Holocaust itself; from Italy there was Kapo (1960), The Ascent (1977) out of the USSR, and Kanal (1957) from Poland. Polish film scholar Stanisław Kuszewski provides a statistical breakdown of the phenomenon, “the outstanding trait of European cinema in the years 1946-1975 is the predominance of the second world war as a film subject. One feature film in six is concerned with this event…films about the war were among the best artistic production of Polish and European cinema”(Ford and Hammond 2005, 111). It is important to note that a film about World War II may not necessarily be about The Holocaust, however, those such films still can teach the viewer something about The Holocaust because in certain instances, especially with a topic that can become as emotional as is being discussed what is left out is often as important as what is kept in the picture.

With such a massive pool of films regarding one subject one might be ambitious enough to suggest a Holocaust genre of film. Many of said films share similar character types and story arcs, however, to call the films a genre would place too much on the most dominant thread among the films—the story of Jews in World War II, as well as imply an industrial commoditization of The Holocaust, which no doubt exists to some degree but that is not the aim of this essay. Although the average viewer and consumer of films conceptualizes of “genre” as purely artistic characteristics (common story, structure, characters, iconography, etc..), the industrial side of film making uses the term “genre” more along the lines of understanding what made a certain film a commercial success and duplicating that process. This often manifests itself in “films in which the Holocaust serves more often than not as a mere backdrop to melodramatic private affairs.”(Kaes, pg. 208) Instead, I would argue that there are symbols which we have come to associate with Nazism, World War II and The Holocaust, and that the conversation of Holocaust representation in film is kept alive by the creative treatment of these symbols to bring about new meaning. The varying forms of depiction of The Holocaust on film (documentary, fantasy, experimental) also defy the generally accepted stylistic norms a genre would adhere to. An event as extraordinary as The Holocaust, experienced and perceived by so many people would by definition defy any single type of representation necessary to warrant the label genre. Rather, I see the films being discussed as entering into a dialogue with the viewers and the previous films relating to The Holocaust that have come before; tapping into a collective consciousness or shared body of knowledge that has come from various film, print, and digital media sources, thus keeping the memory of The Shoah alive. That being said, it can be observed that many Holocaust films will utilize the term “based on a true story”, syntactically placing their diegesis within real events from the war. However, what happens all too often is an idealization of an event or character that ends up favoring melodrama over meaningful commentary. As an example of such idealization one should look no further than Steven Spielberg’s representation of wartime profiteer Oskar Schindler. Schindler did save many lives of Jews who otherwise would have perished at the hands of the Nazis, and his compassion is documented (he was actually buried and still rests in Israel) yet this idea of his righteousness is so overly emphasized in the movie that one is hard-pressed to believe the reality of the situation when he reminds the Rabbi he employs to take work off early on Friday for Shabbat. It can be argued that what I refer to as idealization of a story or character is necessary for dramatic effect, for “the movie to work”, however, it is my opinion that to do so adds nothing to the conversation of representing The Holocaust, it merely arouses a rather cheap emotional response. Similarly, many scholars and critics have argued that in order for a films success it must have catharsis, an uplifting ending, or at the least closure. From the perspective of someone who has studied the events and history of The Holocaust it seems an undue service (to say the least) to the memory of the events and the people who collectively make up The Jewish Holocaust to create a film that lets audiences feel and ultimately believe everything ended okay. As viewers from the 21st century we have the luxury of temporal and spatial distance from the events, we also have quite a large voice in what we see on film and television, in the sense that producers of such projects will play what viewers want to see. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of the viewer to not only choose to watch films about The Holocaust (the act of remembering) but also to engage with them on a critical level, further strengthening and shaping our shared cultural memory. By recognizing both semantics (visual or narrative specifics) and syntactics (broader ideas and narrative arrangement) of previous Holocaust films new forms of representation (which can be met with all types of emotional response from audiences and critics, as we shall see) construct new windows with which we can view our collective past.

The three films that I have chosen to analyze more closely vary quite a bit in terms of stylistic choices; however, at the core of each film I find an interesting commentary on Holocaust representation in film, as well as other forms of art. The first film to be put under the microscope is the 2007 Austrian film, The Counterfeiters. The plot of the film revolves around a Slovakian Jew named Saloman Sorowitsch whose talents as a counterfeiter make him quite famous among the criminal underworld in pre-war Europe. After an arrest at the hands of a savvy German detective he is put into a concentration camp and eventually moved to the camp at Sachsenhausen where he is put in charge of a Jewish work detail whose sole goal is to immaculately fabricate the currency of the allied powers in order to flood their economies with fake bills and cause hysterical inflation, effectively crippling their economies and war machines. Of the three films to be discussed, I would say that The Counterfeiters has the most in common with previous films made about The Holocaust. The film is “based on a true story”, that of Adolf Burger, the real Sorowitsch, who was indeed in charge of Operation Bernhard, a failed Nazi plan to destabilize the allied powers’ economies, as well as fuel their own war machine. A similar embellishment of certain aspects of the story, as was discussed in the case of Oskar Schindler, is present in The Counterfeiters; however, in the case of the later it is employed not for simple affect, but to provide meaning. The internal struggle among the men in Sorowitsch’s work detail manifests itself in the Communist intellectual printer who continuously sabotages the forgeries out of principle and constantly tries to organize the better fed and some what equipped counterfeiters to rise up against their Nazi guards, an act of sure suicide. No doubt the melodrama that is created among the group is there to keep audiences engaged, yet the question of submission to Nazi authority or armed resistance has been one that thousands of scholars have asked themselves over the years. This theme is explicitly mirrored in two side-by-side monuments at Yad Vashem, the first showing a line of weak and meager Jews following their Nazi oppressors depicts the submission and appeasement many Jews felt would get them through the conflict. Only a few feet to the left is another monument portraying the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

The next film to be discussed is a documentary, The Rape of Europa, and deals with the theft by many high ranking Nazi Officers of nearly all of Europe’s great artistic treasures. The films title takes on a double meaning, first in reference to the Greek myth of Europa in which Zeus in the form of a bull has his way with the beauty of Europa, the second of course referring the rape of thousands of years of European culture at the hands of The Third Reich. What is so striking about this film, especially in relation to other narrative films about the Holocaust that tend to dramatize events, this film deals with actual material artifacts. The drama, irony, sadness, and longing are seen on the faces of those who worked to preserve some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, no embellishment needed. The film opens and closes with the story of a Gustav Klimpt portrait of a young affluent Austrian Jewish woman, a painting that was taken by the Nazi and now is in the hands of The Austrian National Museum who refuses to return it to the woman’s surviving family. The painting becomes a metaphor for the struggle for justice to this day for the families of those who perished in The Holocaust, a physical and quite beautiful reminder of life and loss. Using the Klimpt painting as an example, the film implies that there still are unanswered questions, missing masterpieces (namely Vermeer’s The Astronomer), and loose ends that no amount of time can simply provide closure for. It also behooves one who has studied representation of The Holocaust to understand that this film is also addressing the scope of The Third Reich’s vision, their fantasy on film. This film is not here to simply remind us of what happened, it is there to remind us or educated those who are not aware that killing people was not all that happened during World War II, that this was a war for culture as much as a war for land or people, and the future of this battle, the battle over memory will be fought by art and artistic representation. In terms of theory The Rape of Europa can be considered a mis-en-abyme­, a reflection of a reflection; the film, itself an artistic representation, is telling the story of The Holocaust through the story of Europe’s masterpieces, themselves representations. It is in this way that instead of sensationalizing mass killings or focusing on a recreation of Auschwitz, this film achieves its goal of education and affect, balanced with entertainment.

Before this discussion of representation can be complete one final film must be fleshed out. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds defies literally everything I have previously stated about Holocaust films. It has no historical basis, it is hyper stylized, and it is a stand alone in terms of originality and creativity in the field of Holocaust representation. The first title screen makes one aware they are watching a fantasy, “Once upon a time…” is connotative of a fairy tale, “…in Nazi occupied France.” In many ways, Tarantino’s film is a post-modern fairy tale. No doubt many Jews left the theatre (myself included) quite entertained at the idea of a Jewish led death squad of Nazi killers gunning down a bestial version of Hitler. But Tarantino’s work is doing much more than indulging audiences want for blood and violence. The film is very much a reflection of cinema and its role in remembering World War II and the Holocaust. Most of the film revolves around events that will take place at a movie theatre in Paris, not exactly a prime spot of battle during the war, but conspicuously the place where the art of studying film and cinephilia originated. The operation to assassinate high ranking Third Reich officials is called “Operation Kino”, a harkening to historic Soviet filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov and his theory of Kino-Eye (Kino is Russian for camera), and seemingly the only qualification Lt. Archie Hicocks (played by Michael Fassbender) has to head the operation is previous work as a film critic and knowledge of the German film community. The violent finale, itself a nod to the idea of the spectacle in cinema, is culminated by the crowd of Nazi elite being consumed by burning film as “The Revenge of the Smoke Face” is completed. The symbolism is palpable. First that nitrate film is used to kill the Nazi’s, when in real life it was exactly such films that were used to convict Nazi’s of their crimes. Second, and more powerfully, is the irony of the smoking face. The reality that thousands of Jews died in gas chambers is juxtaposed on screen with SS elite being laughed at by a disembodied gaseous figure as they scramble to their deaths. Professor of Film and Cinema Studies at UC Berkeley Anton Kaes has written widely about Holocaust representation and postmodern historiography. Writing of a 1978 avant garde film about Adolph Hitler in his essay “Holocaust and the End of History: Postmodern Historiography in Cinema” Kaes creates a paradigm for new methods of representing The Shoah: “four concerns that seem central for a postmodern historiography on film (the kind of historiography that probes most radically the limits of representation): the rejection of narrativity, the specularization of history, the proliferation of perspectives, and the affirmation of nostalgia.”(Kaes, pg. 209). It would appear that Inglorious Basterds emphatically hits every check mark on his list, and then some.

The discussion of Holocaust representation on film is one that will continue as long as movies are made. Anton Kaes writes of the curious relationship a filmmaker has to remembering an event such as The Holocaust:

“It is the filmmaker who can shed light on the social imagination, perverse as it may be, that underlies the unspeakable deeds. It is the filmmaker who can translate the fears and feelings, the hopes and delusions and suffering of the victims, all unrecorded and undocumented, into pre-verbal images and thereby trigger memories, associations, and emotions that precede the kind of rational reasoning and logical-linear discourse needed in historiograhical writing.”(Kaes, pg. 208)

The un-documentable must never become the un-representable, in fact the only way to ensure that is by continuing to add to the repository of memory that is The Holocaust on film. It will become the responsibility of a new generation of filmmakers and viewers to continue to find new perspectives and enter into a dialogue with our collective consciousness ultimately creating new meaning.

Photo Sources:

http://heirs.typepad.com/heirs_observations_on_pro/2007/05/the_rape_of_eur.html

http://www.chud.com/community/t/120630/blu-ray-screenshot-thread

Written Sources:

Ford, Charles and Robert Hammond Polish Film: A Twentieth Century History. Edited by Graznya Kudy Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005.

Kaes, Anton. “”Holocaust and the End of History: Postmodern Historiography in Cinema”” Probing the Limits of Representation – Nazism & the “Final: Solution” (Paper). By Saul Friedlander. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 206-22. Print

Photo Sources:

http://heirs.typepad.com/heirs_observations_on_pro/2007/05/the_rape_of_eur.html

http://www.chud.com/community/t/120630/blu-ray-screenshot-thread

Written Sources:

Ford, Charles and Robert Hammond Polish Film: A Twentieth Century History. Edited by Graznya Kudy Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005.

Kaes, Anton. “”Holocaust and the End of History: Postmodern Historiography in Cinema”” Probing the Limits of Representation – Nazism & the “Final: Solution” (Paper). By Saul Friedlander. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 206-22. Print