February 19, 2009
Holocaust Movies: Winners and Losers
Are Holocaust movies good for the Jews? Or even, for that matter, for society at large?
This year’s offerings include “Defiance,” a story of a group of Jews who were heroic resistance fighters; “The Reader,” a story of post-war revelation about a Nazi woman who beds down with a German boy; “Good,” about the moral compromises of a German university professor in the Nazi era; “Adam Resurrected,” based on Yoram Kaniuk’s novel about a demented Holocaust survivor living in Israel; “Valkyrie,” about the Nazi plot to murder Hitler; and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” about the friendship between a German officer’s son and a Jewish child in a concentration camp. The lineup even includes a horror movie, “The Unborn,” which features a Mengele-Auschwitz plot point. And then there’s Roberta Grossman’s documentary, “Blessed Is the Match,” about Hannah Senesh, which was on the early lists as an Oscar contender.
These Holocaust-related movies so crowded the end-of-year releases that at one point it seemed that on any given weekend you had to choose which Holocaust movie to see. However, come award season, with the exception of “The Reader,” most of them have faded — not only commercially, but also in terms of critical accolades and award nominations.
Why? Theories abound.
One issue is the quality of the films: For any movie to garner Oscar acclaim, it needs to transcend its subject matter by virtue of the pedigree of the filmmakers involved, as well as the acting, and it must feel triumphant; it needs to become a “must-see movie,” as did “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Among this year’s Holocaust-related offerings, only “The Reader” seems to have risen to both those challenges.
But right now, there’s also the anxiety of the economy, and audiences today are eager for stories of hope — whether in the candidates we elect for public office, the heroism of a pilot safely landing a plane in the Hudson River, a movie about a mall cop saving the day or, as concerns this year’s Oscars, a movie about an 18-year-old boy from the slums of Mumbai whose quest to be reunited with the girl he loves involves becoming a quiz show millionaire.
So, more Holocaust movies but fewer awards. So, will this year’s bountiful crop mean fewer Holocaust movies in the future? And if so, is that a bad thing?
In my travels in Hollywood, I have always heard how hard it is to make a film about the Holocaust. Some of the arguments have to do with cost — period movies are expensive — and there’s the matter of accents and foreign languages, not a big favorite among American audiences. Also, it is fair to ask: Who is the audience? Are Holocaust films going to attract teenagers (the largest segment of the viewing population)? Do they contain too much violence for women? Is the subject too sentimental or emotional for men? Will the films only appeal to Jewish audiences? Many Holocaust movies, made even after a great struggle, have not fared well at the box office. One very successful producer who made a Holocaust drama that failed vowed to me, “Never Again!” It was just too much work for so little return, he said. He decided to concentrate on more commercial fare.
Yet despite all this, many movies about the Holocaust era continue to be made, for myriad reasons, but most often because someone — an actor, a director, a financier — is passionate about a story, or because the story has the potential to become an “important” film (and is most often based on a best-selling and/or award-winning, attention-getting book).
I grew up one generation removed from the Holocaust, among survivors, and as a creative person, former movie development executive and still-aspiring film producer, I understand the irresistible pull of the most powerful story of our era. The pull of wanting to tell it, of feeling that there are important stories not yet told or fully understood, that there are still important truths that need to be stated. Everyone who has ever heard a Holocaust survivor speak knows that each story of murder or survival contains more nuance than any film will ever be able to do justice to — and yet each story clamors to be told to the widest audience possible.
My father, Bruce Teicholz, was, in fact, portrayed by name by the actor Ralph Arliss in the 1985 NBC miniseries, “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story,” which starred Richard Chamberlain, and I confess that I rather enjoyed seeing him portrayed this way, as did my father, with whom I watched the show. My father enjoyed the attention, as well as the attention given to Wallenberg.
But herein lies the conflict: Films tell stories, and they can move and educate people and sometimes even change them. But the Holocaust is a reality and not a teaching story or an action adventure. The reasons a film does or does not work and the reasons we find it a credible rendering of some aspect of the Holocaust exist on separate tracks that of necessity must overlap to make a successful film.
And there’s the rub. Because good filmmaking is not about historical accuracy; it depends upon fakery and invention.
A movie, even a documentary, generally conforms to what audiences have come to know. A film has a certain length and a certain narrative structure. There are heroes and villains, often played by movie stars. There is conflict; there is drama; there are love stories; and there is often a point to be made. A work that “breaks the rules” still does so in the context of a set of expectations — and that format doesn’t by its nature fit the facts of the Holocaust.
For example, “Defiance” is about the Bielski Otriad, Jewish partisans who survived in the Byelorussian forest. It is a story that Edward Zwick, who wrote, directed and produced the film, and whose important historical work includes “Glory,” has wanted to tell for a long time. Clayton Frohman wrote the original script, based on the book by Nehema Tec, more than a decade ago.
Indeed, the story that Jews fought back, that Jews rescued Jews, that Jews served with the Red Army in fighting the Nazis deserves to be known; it demands to be part of our collective knowledge of the Holocaust, and it is all the more remarkable because of how the Bielskis created a society of their own in the forests of Byelorussia and were responsible for rescuing some 1,200 Jewish men, women and children.
The movie conveys these important facts, but it also casts the plot in terms of a conflict between the two older Bielski brothers, Zus and Tuviah, who differed philosophically on whether to fight and kill for revenge, or to resist and behave ethically. The film also tells the story in terms of sibling rivalry, ego and faith, through the brothers’ romances and their human weaknesses.
As a result, “Defiance” had moments when I became choked up by the heroic nature of what the partisans faced, but also many more moments when I was too conscious of the movie-making, such as in a “Godfather”-esque sequence that intercut between a Jewish wedding and a murderous attack on a Nazi stronghold. In the end, I felt I was watching a story and not immersing myself in history, and the personal dramas meant to engage me didn’t transcend the moviemaking. In the end, the movie is smaller, less important and less interesting than the story it attempts to tell.
“The Reader” presents a different dilemma. Its story takes place after the Holocaust, and the film uses Holocaust events to pose questions about guilt and shame, and how that damage, too, is part of the Holocaust story. Based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink, the film sets out to create a hall of mirrors in which secrets carry consequences and assumptions are constantly upended. In many ways, we are made to feel that the Holocaust-era events — as terrible as they were — are just one of many insolvable mysteries of human behavior. “The Reader” feels important and provocative in ways that could have garnered award attention — but it is only tangentially a Holocaust drama.
One of these movies, therefore, is about an important chapter of the Holocaust, but does not succeed; the other one succeeds, but is not really about the Holocaust — it only uses the Holocaust as a dialectical tool. Each disappoints in its own way.
Because the generation of Holocaust survivors will soon be gone, there is an urgency to tell these stories, particularly the innumerable personal tales that haven’t yet been told. At the same time, perhaps because the distance of time has diminished the number of actual witnesses among us, storytellers in all genres are now feeling more free to use the Holocaust as dramatic material in ways that have as much (if not more) to do with storytelling than accuracy. Moreover, the more we acknowledge that the totality of the Holocaust escapes interpretation, the more irresistible it becomes to explore the questions it poses as compelling drama.
Holocaust movies will always be hard to make, but no doubt there will always be creative artists with a passion to tell the stories that took place during the Holocaust.
Yet movies also get made because a financier, a star, a director, a successful writer (or any combination of those) is convinced that they can make at least some money doing so. And it is a reality that they become successes more often than not, not because a story is of historical impact, but because leads are attractive, or perhaps because the characters they play are flawed or heroic.
There always will be winners and losers among Holocaust films. Some may be memorable and may indeed have a large impact on how history is perceived. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that these films, by their very nature, are — like the shadows in Plato’s cave — mere projections, personalized recantations or reinventions of an epic series of events.
So, there cannot be a “good” Holocaust film, only a good film about Holocaust-related events.
Still, despite all this, should we be any less proud if one of these films wins an Oscar?