December 26, 2002
Hollywood, History and the Holocaust
Two celebrations took place in Los Angeles recently, and "Max," a new film about the young Adolf Hitler, opens today.
In a peculiar way, all three events are related.
The first celebration seems straightforward enough -- at least on the surface. Sara and Charles Levin, who preferred not to give their real names, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November, along with their three children, their spouses, their grandchildren and about 40 friends.
The guests, aside from sharing their affection and pleasure at being together for the anniversary, were silent about a central fact: Sara Levin and her husband are survivors. When Sara was 13, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Dr. Josef Mengele stood at the receiving line scrutinizing each person; some he sent directly to the gas chambers, others to the work force.
It is a story whose details Levin sometimes shares with schoolchildren and other visitors to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, where she volunteers three days a week as a docent. But it is a story she has never told her three children. She came close years ago when her oldest son, then 10, was watching a television drama about the Holocaust. "That could have been your mother," she told him, pointing to the screen; she was horrified when he burst into tears.
She and her husband decided never to tell the children a word about those dark teenage years in Europe. Instead, she recounts it in a low, calm understated voice to strangers -- keeping the memory alive of those who survived, as well as of those who perished.
The second celebration is also a personal story, but in quite a different vein. On Dec. 5, the Shoah Foundation and founder Steven Spielberg celebrated the foundation's eighth anniversary with a grand dinner that raised more than $500,000.
Today, Spielberg is both Hollywood's most influential director and one of the city's leading Jewish figures. It is no exaggeration to say that his film, "Schindler's List," had a tremendous impact on his own life. He used the profits to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 which videotapes and preserves the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.
The foundation also produces documentaries -- eight thus far, including the Oscar-winning "The Last Days" (1998).
Ironically, Spielberg's "Schindler's List," along with other American portrayals, has turned out to be the most effective educational narratives produced about the Holocaust -- even though the U.S. relationship was a distant one, while the European connection was far more direct and involved. Nevertheless, such American films as "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," and the television miniseries, "Holocaust," have been far more influential and have made a much deeper impact, here and abroad, than any European film.
"There is a sense, and the reception of Spielberg's film confirms this, in which one thing doesn't have reality in this culture until Hollywood says it does," Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic's literary editor, told a television interviewer.
Years ago, Elie Wiesel registered his objections to the American films about the Holocaust: The experience had been too horrific, and television and movies only led to banality. He denounced the television miniseries, "Holocaust," as soap opera, but then was shocked to discover that a New York Times poll (later declared inaccurate) had shown that 22 percent of American adults had doubts about the genocide. Better to establish the Holocaust as a cultural fact in the American landscape than worry about trivializing it, he concluded.
But now we have a new film, "Max," which presents us with a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a young German war veteran struggling to become an artist in 1918, befriended by a fictitious Jewish art dealer, named Max Rothman.
Historians have objected to the portrait as being sympathetic because it concentrates on Hitler's personal anguish as a young rejected artist, and not on the destruction he left behind in Europe, or the genocide that followed from his commands. "Max" seems to explain his subsequent behavior and, in the process, comes to rationalize it. Others have complained that the film only serves to distort history and to trivialize the past.
The process of changing Nazi history in films and television actually began some time ago in films and television. From Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" to "Hogan's Heroes," from Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be" to "The Grey Zone," World War II and the Holocaust have been told almost solely from the point of view of the victors and the victims.
Now the story is beginning to shift once again, in a way that is disturbing, but perhaps inevitable. Films like "Max," and the planned CBS miniseries on Hitler's life, will examine the Holocaust from the point of view of the perpetrators. We, the consumers of mass culture, undoubtedly will have to learn to live with this fact.
The cultural reality of our lives is that we must learn to come to terms with Sara Levin and the Shoah Foundation's eyewitness tapes, no less than the dramatic Hollywood fictions that inevitably fight to replace history itself.
Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.