Arts & Culture

There is No Business Like Shoah Business

Anthony O. "Tony" Scott recently published a thought-provoking essay in the New York Times on the romance between the film industry (most notably Hollywood) and the Holocaust. The catalyst for the piece is the plethora of Holocaust-related movies that are … Read More

By / November 27, 2008

Anthony O. "Tony" Scott recently published a thought-provoking essay in the New York Times on the romance between the film industry (most notably Hollywood) and the Holocaust. The catalyst for the piece is the plethora of Holocaust-related movies that are about to hit theaters near you.

These include:

Defiance: Based on a true story of three Jewish brothers (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell) who took matters into their own hands and fought back against the Nazis.

The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas: A tale of an unlikely friendship between the son of a high-ranking Nazi official and a young Jewish prison.

Adam Resurrected: The story of a charismatic patient at a survivor’s asylum in Israel during the 1960’s.

The Reader: Based on Bernhard Schlink best-selling novel, the film explores the trail of a woman (Kate Winslet) accused of working as a concentration guard officer*.

Valkyrie: Based on the true story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) and the courageous plot to assassinate Hitler. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, and Superman Returns).

As Scott points out in his article, the film industry has had a long-standing fascination with the holocaust. So much so that today we can speak of the Holocaust movie as a genre in the same way we can speak of the Western or the Action Movie. Moreover, Holocaust films are not just any genre, they are the royal road to the academy awards [e.g. Sophie's Choice (1982), Schindler's List (1993), Life Is Beautiful (1997), The Pianist (2002), etc.] Therefore it should come as no surprise that Hollywood is issuing five new Holocaust movies during Oscar season.

Yet the union between Hollywood with its proclivity for feel-good stories and the Holocaust with its indictment of humanity has resulted with the latter caving in to the demands of the former. “Hollywood”, Scott writes, “trades in optimism, redemption and healing, and its rendering of even the most appalling realities inevitably converts their dire facts into its own shiny currency.”

Case in point: Schindler’s List. There is no doubt that Spielberg’s movie gave us a very powerful account of the horror of the Krakow ghetto (and it deserved every accolade it got). Yet it did so within the context of a heroic story of redemption and survival. As another journalist has noted, Spielberg made “a movie about World War II in which all the Jews live. The selection is “life”, the Nazi turns out to be the good guy, and human nature is revealed to be sunny and bright.” In other words, instead of leaving the viewer pondering the darkness that lies at the heart of the human soul (the dominant lesson of the Holocaust), the movie leaves the viewer feeling and thinking, in the words of Anne Frank, “in spite of everything … people are really good at heart.”

But if ‘Hollywood Holocaust’ is distorting and oversimplifying the memory of the Nazi era, what is the alternative? Nine-hour French documentaries (How many people actually saw Shoah)? How about movies that drown the viewer in a sea of nihilism? Probably not. One cannot, for example, picture Hollywood doing a film on the life of Polish intellectual and Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski who came to the conclusion that the world outside of camp was essentially no different than the world inside of camp – a realization that led him to gas himself to death at the age of 28. I simply don’t see Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig lining up for that role.

Hollywood does not do nihilism even if life occasionally does. One can only hope that this new batch of Holocaust-related films were done with some sense of humility – after all, these actors, directors and producers are stepping on ground where it isn’t just angels who fear to tread. The challenge is to be fair and honest to the experience. Stories like Schindler, with their emphases on survival, morality and redemption, should be told. They are an important testimony to how, to quote a Buddhist saying, “the lotus can blossom in the mouth of a dragon.” Nevertheless, I am afraid that when dealing with such dragons as the Holocaust, we can ill-afford to put so much emphases on a lotus. To do so is to transgress the 11th commandment, “Thou Shalt Never Forget.”

* This article originally and incorrectly stated that the Winslet character was Jewish.