Nov 23, 2008

Holocaust Kitsch

This weekend in the New York Times, A.O. Scott discreetly explores the dilemma of the Holocaust movie. As far as I'm concerned, there are extremely few movies dealing with this topic that are any good. Most of the time, a huge cringe factor is involved when watching the fictionalization and recreation of something so grotesquely evil that people have a hard time believing it actually happened. I stay away from most Holocaust movies because I find them, even when cloaked in the best intentions, indecent. I think my favorite Holocaust movie of all time is Downfall (or as a friend calls it, "The Poor Hitler Movie"). For one, there is not a concentration camp in sight. There is not one Jew in sight. But this examination of the last days of Hitler is a powerful, chilling depiction of the psychology of depraved power and of a depraved national ideology. This is not a movie that looks to open the wellsprings of sentimentality, but a movie that asks how could an entire nation believe and follow and agree with this man (short answer: because they were much like him). Some people objected to the fact that the movie "humanizes" Hitler, as if he belonged to another species altogether. It doesn't. It really shows him for the human monster that he was. Here you will not see the pornographic obscenities that the Nazis perpetrated by stripping off the humanity of millions of people (and which you can and should see in the Holocaust museums of the world), but you will see one of the most disturbing scenes of all time, when Mrs. Goebbels proceeds to poison each and every one of her six young children, right before the fall of Berlin. In a way, this scene helps underscore the depth of the Nazi horror more than the pictures of naked, emaciated bodies of Jews. However, I must admit that, being a Jew, I have been exposed to gruesome Holocaust paraphernalia from a very early age, so after a while, it starts losing its potency. It works great on young minds -- the outrage and repulsion it engenders is long lasting and very useful. Never forget, indeed. My close second favorite movie is the amazing Mr. Death, the documentary by Errol Morris about the American creator of the lethal injection who also happens to be a Holocaust denier. As is customary with the brilliant Mr. Morris, this strange, unsettling, thought provoking film takes us straight into the stupidity of evil.Just one look at the preview for the new movie, The Boy With the Striped Pajamas, makes me want to vomit. Number one, the title is probably the worst movie title ever. Two, the image of a bald little punk sitting all by himself next to the barbed wire and having all the time and freedom in the world to play chess with a healthy little German on the other side of the wire with no attending Nazi to bash his head against a wall, already fills me with disgust. As A. O Scott observes, we are in Life is Beautiful territory; that is, Holocaust corn, and it just so happens that we have the Weinstein brothers to blame for both of these obscenities. Memo to Harvey Weinstein: please stop torturing people with indecent sap about the Holocaust. There are surely more dignified ways to win Oscars. As I was watching said preview, I also had an epiphany: I bet actors love to wear the Nazi uniform. You know, those full length shiny leather trench coats favored by the SS, the spiffy uniforms with the insignia, the great color coordination, and the stiff, shiny black boots. It's all very fetishistic, and one must admit that the fucking Nazis had a great sense of style. This may be why, I once met a Black girl who told me she had seen Schindler's List 6 times because she fell in love with the Nazi (played with great panache by Ralph Fiennes). And who could blame her? But do actors like to lose 50 pounds, shave their heads and wear soiled striped pajamas? I'm not so sure. Movies about the Holocaust exist not only because the topic is inherently dramatic, or because it's Oscar season, but because there is something inherently morbid and obscene and pornographic about the visual record of depravity and destruction left by the Nazis and people just can't get enough of it. One of my posts in this blog was a link to the recently unearthed pictures of Auschwitz commanders found carousing on weekends near the camp, having jolly picnics and playing the accordion. I titled the post "Shocking Nazi Photos" and for a while it was immensely popular. It still spikes up once in a while.

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