(Originally posted October 7, 2018)
Last week I was browsing in that bored-at-work way when I stumbled on the topic of Holocaust films, specifically Sidney Bernstein’s lost documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. The project was shelved because its recorded horrors clashed with Britain’s post-war policy regarding Germany, and perhaps also due to a fear of further inciting Zionist fervor. One article led to another until I found myself deep into a consideration of Hollywood’s near-obsession with prestige Holocaust movies, despite the arguable obscenity of creating something beautiful out of a topic that should, by all that’s decent, remain irrefutably ugly.
I know there are libraries of literature on this topic, but this is just a blog, and anyway I’m about talking popular culture here, the moral and aesthetic impulses that rule the entertainment business. Easy enough to understand why these movies exist: Hollywood is Hollywood is the rest of the film industry, and these are important movies, right? They force us to remember, and we have to remember, so a well-deserved pat on the back to the filmmakers and the filmgoers, too. No need to rudely dismiss such noble efforts as self-serving and pretentious Oscar bait.
Take my own introduction to the genre, the film version of Anne Frank’s fairly typical teenage journal, and the sublimity of its final expression of faith in the essential goodness of man. How beautiful is that declaration, repeated as it is at the finale against that poignant score, and that shot of seagulls soaring free above the deserted secret annex? Or how about a little girl in a bright red coat? It’s a beautiful shot. Life is Beautiful!
Should such horrors be transmuted into beauty? Is it simply a matter of degree? And what exactly does it mean, anyway, to make something beautiful? What, if anything, is objectively accomplished? Does beauty by definition make the terrible more acceptable? Does it somehow encompass and make manageable its subject? Does it reveal truths we never realized before? The below from Ruth Askew in my own novel Worthy of This Great City:
“Whatever the medium, a statement is just that – a statement. Art requires more.” The taunting was mitigated by obvious fondness but still uncomfortably acerbic. She might be furious.
There followed a lengthy pause, but Thom must have tacitly, graciously encouraged a renewed assault, because she resumed her argument with that same condescending, outsized patience. She was wearing a very unfortunate shade of bright blue. “Art has a purpose: it’s about making things beautiful so they can be grasped, incorporated, and left behind. That’s what beauty means. You can’t just appoint something art if it doesn’t work. You do not have that prerogative.”
Well, a questionable opinion from a questionable character.
Holocaust movies often invite us to identify with a victim; after experiencing one, we dutifully struggle to multiply our empathy by many millions, but the fact is we can’t, our minds refuse such alien numbers. Fictionalized accounts humanize the inhumane solely on an individual basis; documentaries that study the whole speak only in the tolerable abstract.
We’re told these films serve as a necessary reminder – but of what, exactly? Not of the events leading up to the main action: the significant political ploys and poisonous resentments that no one understood or anyway checked. And they rarely if ever visit the minds of the perpetrators, because who would pay to see that, who would dare to identify, and yet what other information is more urgently required? Movies are all about the dramatic culmination, the visual horror, the ovens and the careless piles of emaciated bodies and the extracted teeth. The possibilities, I suppose. Valid enough.
But here’s what I think: If everyone in the world were legally required to watch every Holocaust film ever made on a regular basis it would not in the least mitigate the global recurrence of genocide. Granted, probably not everyone in Rwanda caught Sophie’s Choice, but even so I feel pretty confident here. As promulgators of tolerance, as cautionary tales, these movies are utterly useless.
And I suspect that’s because it’s impossible to make the Holocaust itself beautiful. I can’t imagine what it would mean for humankind if we could: would it signify our salvation, or instead lead to the extermination I sometimes think we seek? Maybe it would it make no difference whatsoever. I wish I could claim that history offers hope, but an optimistic example eludes me right this minute.
Not that it matters: artists have a job to do, and they’re relentless. I know; I am one.
Based on which admittedly shallow analysis, supported by natural inclination, I don’t think it’s at all unforgivable to pull a work of art from a Holocaust story. For one thing, history demands constant verification these days. And movies show that this terrible thing really happened, and that it was really terrible: Anne Frank, that’s the Holocaust; that was awful, she died, but she thought people were basically good, so that makes it all very sad.
It’s only Anne’s story, you see. And it’s inadvertently, tragically beautiful, which is why we remember it.
Photos: Anne Frank; Auschwitz TSAI Project CC by 2.0