In a recent article called “Never Forget. You’re Reminded,” New York Times writer A.O. Scott wrote of the sudden influx of Holocaust films in Hollywood. He claimed these films were only made to be awards fodder, rather than pay tribute to the Holocaust itself. This is an issue I have long had a problem with myself.
I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I always believed that because of this, I’ve grown up with a far greater awareness of this historical atrocity than most other children my age and a deeper sensitivity to the subject.
Within the next month, three Holocaust-themed movies are being released: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Defiance” and “The Reader.” This seems awfully coincidental, especially considering it’s so close to award season.
The Holocaust is one of those “serious” subjects that filmmakers attempt to grapple with in order to gain accolades from their peers. It may seem blunt to say so, but it’s true. But, isn’t gaining Academy Award recognition for the Holocaust on the same plane as someone portraying a mentally handicapped person for the same reason? It seems exploitative to gain prestige off of someone else’s tragedy.
This is not to suggest that films about the Holocaust are an abhorrence, or shouldn’t be made. After all, as the generation of Holocaust survivors slowly begins to pass away, there is that lingering question of how the stories of these survivors will be remembered after they’re gone. Film is certainly an excellent medium to keep the stories alive, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
First, the right way: “Schindler’s List.” This film manages to be gripping, tragic and informative without veering off into actual falseness. The film’s greatest strength is its brutal honesty and unwillingness to portray the Holocaust as either an action-adventure tale or one full of schmaltz. Therefore, it’s more than just a “Holocaust movie.” It’s a harrowing, emotional tale of the brutalities of humanity, made all the more horrifying because the story is true. Unfortunately, many other filmmakers haven’t learned how to approach this subject in the same honest way.
“Life is Beautiful,” the Holocaust-as-a-whimsical-comedy movie, falls into the second category. Here’s the problem: While the great thing about Judaism is our culture’s ability to find humor to mask pain, the Holocaust is simply not funny. It never has been and never will be. Roberto Benigni made a misguided effort to inject romance and humor into the Holocaust. The problem is, once society begins to laugh at something, the seriousness is weakened. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Filmmakers realized long ago that money and prizes could be gained from the re-telling of past tragedies. Yet it seems there are few filmmakers out there who have the talent to address the subject of the Holocaust without, for lack of a better term, “Hollywood-izing” it. To imply that audiences today need action, as in “Defiance,” or cute child stars and a complete lack of reality, as in “Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” to view a Holocaust film is insulting, to both the generations who actually survived the Holocaust and their children and grandchildren.
The Holocaust as a subject is far more complicated than a Hollywood film can ever seek to capture. Yet the story must be told to ensure it will indeed never happen again. The problem lies mainly with Hollywood and its need to glam up the story with unnecessary action, sappiness or comedy. To film the Holocaust, one must be prepared to be real. Filmmakers often seem afraid to approach the subject without masking it as something else altogether. The movies that can truly express even a slight hint of the horrors of this tragedy are those that address it for what it is. It seems absurd that most filmmakers don’t seem to recognize this, as the stories of the survivors are certainly amazing enough.