Thursday, February 12, 2009

Holocaust What?

Hollywood loves to remember the Holocaust. That was the adventure when Americans discovered unfathomable evil, and then eradicated it. Never mind that confrontations with death camps too often lead to the same old homilies about courage under fire, or the power of the imagination, or the role of America as the world's last, best hope.

Portraying unfathomable evil on film is tricky...because it can't be fathomed. Instead, the Nazi aesthetic is conjured in a trice to serve as shorthand for the ultimate foe. Claude Lanzmann in his nine-hour documentary Shoah never showed any archival footage of concentration camps--the only reality was the testimony of survivors and perpetrators.

Would that Spielberg, Benigni and now Stephen Daldry had learned from this restraint. A backlash is mounting to the Oscar nominations of The Reader, which forgives Kate Winslet's war crimes by sympathizing with how hard it is to learn to read in prison.

The Reader is far from the most hackneyed Holocaust retread of the award season. That would be Valkyrie, which features Tom Cruise as a treacherous Nazi would-be assassin with an eyepatch. Let's not forget about "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Defiance," and "Adam Resurrected." In these films, the Nazis are outdone by the innocence of childhood, an ass-kicking Jewish resistance, and the psychic powers of Jeff Goldblum, repsectively.

Will a film ever tackle the subject of the unpunished Nazi doctor, and the postwar world that allowed him to go on with his life? It could be a sort of anti-Munich, emphasizing the shape-shifting nature of evil. Heroism and perseverance, moviedom's prized virtues, would not come off well in that story.

American memory of the Thousand Year Reich is crisp and unambiguous, which clashes sharply with the European experience of surrender, collaboration and annihilation. Jews are Hollywood's favorite victims, but what about the French, Norwegians, Dutch? The Spaniards, whose fascist dictator was never deposed? Or the country that lost 26 million people to the war, and of course never saw a dime of the Marshall Plan.

For my money, the one Holocaust film to stick in a time capsule is Errol Morris' Mr. Death, about an execution specialist from New England traveling to a concentration camp to deny the Nazis' crimes. Fred Leuchter Jr. is an eccentric on a picaresque journey that, midway through the film, turns into a ridiculous nightmare that destroys him.

But Leuchter's failure to understand the severity of the Holocaust is our own. We prove our inadequacy of confronting genocide with each new tearjerker that arrives at the multiplex.