I’ve been obsessed with the Holocaust—again—because it keeps turning up in all those newly released, award-hungry films. And I’m torn—again— by the call of some critics for a moratorium on Holocaust movies to prevent the trivialization of a horror that remains inexplicable.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, according to Seinfeld creator Larry David. He was responsible for the single funniest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm—where a young, dim, contestant from the TV show Survivor (“We had very little rations, no snacks”) is paired with an elderly, shrunken former inmate of the concentration camps (“Snacks, what are you talking snacks? We didn't eat, sometimes for a week, for a month....”) at a dinner party. A screaming match follows, with each insisting he is the genuine survivor, which, trust me, makes for a breathtakingly hilarious moment. The laughter is astonishingly liberating.
Even though you go into Valkyrie knowing how it will end, the details of history are still plenty engaging. I found myself hoping they’d get the S.O.B.
The current spate of Holocaust films are not funny, and are not meant to be. But I think there are enough new moviegoers who were not raised on either tales of the terror or blue collection boxes for Israel, that I’d still make the case to keep the genre, and the memory, alive.
The jewel in the crown of new Holocaust films is Waltz With Bashir, which just won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film. Israeli-born Ari Folman’s haunting animated documentary recalls the nation’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the complicity (largely unsuspecting) of the Israeli Defense Forces in the murder of innocent Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila camps. The graphic images of unarmed women and children being marched off to their death remind Folman—and us—of “those other camps.” An Israeli TV reporter likens the helpless surrender of Palestinians to the famous photograph of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto surrendering, hands held high. The film is a brilliantly executed examination of memory—particularly those of the soldiers, stunned into trauma—but it also make us reconsider our own sense of what occurred in the light of events forty years earlier.
Steven Daldry’s The Reader also tries, far less successfully, to make the audience squirm by asking that eternal question: What would you have done when commanded to carry out Nazi orders? On trial for war crimes, a former concentration-camp guard (a sumptuous Kate Winslet) undercuts her own case by feeling more shame in her illiteracy than in her acts that led to annihilation. And her much younger lover, born during the war, seeks to enlighten himself with a quickie tour of Auschwitz that feels tailored for the Travel Channel. But guilt is always worth exploring, even though the boy—who grows up to be played by Ralph Fiennes—is later put in his place by a survivor (Lena Olin): “People ask me all the time what I learned in the camps,” she tells him. “Go to the theater if you want catharsis. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps.”
Well, maybe. I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau several years ago, not expecting to understand, but to pay my respects, to touch what I had been spared only because my grandparents had left Eastern Europe when the tyrant was the Czar, not Hitler. I came home convinced that everyone ought to visit. To feel. To bear witness. To mourn. To make what happened part of their own lives.
Which is, of course, what these filmmakers have done. Edward Zwick takes the journey to new dramatic heights in Defiance. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber portray two of the relatively unknown Bielski brothers, gutsy Belarussian Jews who not only resisted the Nazis, they saved more than 1,000 others while living in the woods for three bitter winters. Their Robin Hood-like existence and far-from-Merry Men personalities may have been tarted up for the box office, but it’s based on a true story and not a bad way to revise our understanding of what some could do in the face of the German war machine.
Valkyrie reminds us of what even the powerful could not. This oddly emotionless story of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler is a military tale, not a human one. There are no camps, no emaciated civilians, no boxcars. And we never quite understand the passion of Tom Cruise’s Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg—and other traitorous members of the high command—to stop the Fuhrer. But even though you go into Valkyrie knowing how it will end, the details of history are still plenty engaging. I found myself hoping they’d get the S.O.B. Now that would have been catharsis.
Perhaps the least known of the new Holocaust films is Blessed Is the Match, a deeply affecting documentary (now shortlisted for an Oscar) about 23-year-old Hannah Senesh, the Jewish Joan of Arc. A poet who emigrated early to Palestine, Senesh parachuted into her native Hungary in 1944 for a rescue mission and was captured, tortured, and put to death. For years, Senesh has been honored in Israel; this film should give her considerably wider recognition. At a screening I attended in Lower Manhattan last week, director Roberta Grossman said she’d been fascinated by Senesh’s story since she was a teenager, and wanted to, yes, make the story her own. She’s cast it as a mother-daughter tale, since Catherine Senesh lived to tell the story after a harrowing period when both were imprisoned by the Nazis. The movie utilizes a riveting combination of re-enactments and actual World War II footage to put the audience directly into the moment.
Most compelling are the scenes of the young pioneers who first settled in Palestine, an inspirational sequence of refugees-turned-farmers and, alas, soldiers, in the early 1940s. Their spirit, indeed Senesh’s entire brief story, as Grossman pointed out, “reminds us why Israel was established in the first place: to be a safe haven for Jews.” That’s not just looking back to an unthinkable time; it’s also a sobering lesson for today, as the hideous fighting in Gaza continues. The Holocaust as history may be an irresistible subject for filmmakers, and it may be difficult both to replicate, and to watch. But sometimes, comparisons with today’s realities are equally uncomfortable. We need it all.
Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. At ABC’s 20/20 news program, Sherr specialized in women's issues and social change, as well as investigative reports. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is just out in paperback.