We have, for unknown but somehow appropriate reasons, been treated to a small boom in Holocaust films lately. Last fall, films like Werner Herzog's "Invincible" and Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone" were released, to no particularly notable box office response. Closer to year's end, we had Menno Meyjes' "Max" and Roman Polanski's "The Pianist." The former -- perhaps just because of its unique take -- was a critical hot spot for a couple of weeks, while "The Pianist" did very well in the year-end critics' polls. Still to come is Costa-Gavras' "Amen" and the documentary, "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary."
None of these films, with the exception of "The Pianist," which might win a few Oscar nominations, has made much of a dent on the public consciousness. Once again, as in the cultural valleys before the "Holocaust" TV miniseries, and in the years before the release of "Schindler's List," the contemplation of the Holocaust is an art film kind of business, the preoccupation of a small group of people -- like many people reading this, I'll assume -- whose idea of a night at the movies or at home in front of the set includes films like "Night and Fog" or "The Sorrow and the Pity."
For Thane Rosenbaum, writing on the Opinion Journal site, everything changed with Spielberg's film. Once, Rosenbaum writes, "to speak of the Holocaust demanded great humility, which almost everyone exercised -- artist and layman alike... But 'Schindler's List' slowly domesticated and democratized what had once been forbidden."
I would probably add that two Meryl Streep vehicles -- "Holocaust" and "Sophie's Choice" -- softened the ground for Spielberg's film, but the point is true enough, if only because Spielberg made the Holocaust a subject worthy of Capital-E cinematic Emotions and production values, and the simple fact that his film was by far the biggest critical and box office success in the then-modest history of Holocaust movies.
And yet, there were many people -- myself included -- who hated "Schindler's List," and Rosenbaum does a nice job of explaining precisely why the film, skillful as it was, rang so false: "The problem with 'Schindler's List' is that the Holocause is not about rescue and redemption, while the movie is... You can't claim to make a Holocaust movie if an audience leaves its seat feeling hopeful about humanity. The impulse to honour the good in man is noble, but disingenuous and misapplied when depicting an atrocity."
"Unfortunately," Rosenbaum writes, "we live in an age where people learn their history from feature films." The new spate of Holocaust films "are each largely original, ambitious undertakings," but each is based on some subtly revisionist imagining of history that ring as falsely as Spielberg's film.
Herzog's "Invincible," set in the period just before the Nazi assumption of power, imagines a quasi-historical figure , a Polish-Jewish strongman, who realizes at the last moment that militancy and strength, not assimilation, are what Jews need to survive the horrors that lie ahead. It's Moshe Dayan in the shtetl, and the motivating energy behind the film is Herzog's fervent and palpable desire that such a thing could have happened, a stymied sort of "what if?".
"The Grey Zone," a taut and powerful piece of acting, is set in Auschwitz, where "a group of street-hustling, foul-mouthed" Hungarian Jews, who have compromised themselves by working with the Nazis as part of the death camp's human machinery, are planning a final, doubtlessly futile rebellion. It's a bleak and brave piece of work, "shifting the moral choices away from the Germans, and onto the Jews themselves." Dramatically, it's a gripping, unprecedented coup, but its moral weight is hopelessly, even irresponsibly skewed, concentrating on "what would you do to survive?" while ignoring the overwhelming question: "Why would anyone do this?"
Rosenbaum doesn't have much time for "Max"; "...anything that humanizes Hitler and his prior friendships with Jews is like fictionalizing Osama bin Laden as a former struggling waiter in Windows on the World, waiting to get home to his MTV." As for "The Pianist," while Rosenbaum admires Polanski's skill in depicting Wladislaw Szpilman's nightmare life in occupied Warsaw, he thinks the film cuts too much moral slack to non-Jewish Poles, "most of whom were either complicit or indifferent to the fate of their Jewish neighbours."
Costa-Gavras' "Amen" gets a bit more credit. The story of two religious men -- an SS scientist and a Jesuit priest -- who try, and fail, to protest the extermination of the Jews, also concentrates "on the redemptive, heroic rescuer... but at least the film doesn't sugarcoat the ultimate result."
"Authenticity and history is a hard sell in a motion picture," Rosenbaum writes, suggesting that the Holocaust, while proving more of a tempting setting with the passage of time, will never inspire anything like a truly, morally satisfying movie. Schindler's List "widened the lens," making it possible to dive in and explore aspects of the Holocaust. "The question is whether that is such a good thing."
Rick McGinnis is a Toronto-based writer and photographer.