Last Sunday, A.O. Scott wrote a perceptive piece in the New York Times arguing that the recent flood of American/Hollywood films set in the Holocaust treats the Holocaust as just a backdrop. He writes, "For American audiences a Holocaust movie is now more or less equivalent to a western or a combat picture...-part of a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers. This may be the only, or at least the most widely available, way of keeping the past alive in memory, but it is also a kind of forgetting."
For a week before I read his article, I was puzzling over several recent trends in films and novels set in the Holocaust. A.O. Scott focuses on films, he doesn't mention similar trends in fiction. A very popular book right now with book clubs is The Book Thief, a story set during World War II, which largely tells the story of a young non-Jewish German girl, Liesel. I hated this book, although many people absolutely love it. When I saw the coming attractions for "A Boy in Striped Pajamas," which shares similar traits and motifs with The Book Thief, I realized why I found The Book Thief so repugnant.
There is a cloying sweetness and sentimentality to The Book Thief, which is told from the voice of Death itself--a conceit that I found unnecessary and too "cute," just as the very conceit of "A Boy in Striped Pajamas" is too cute by far--that a German boy would think that he just moved next door to a farm, not a concentration camp, and that the morose boy sitting by the barbed-wire fence is wearing pajamas not concentration camp garb. Why this insistence on turning Holocaust stories into fables?
The title of the novel on which the movie is based is actually, "A Boy in Striped Pajamas: A Fable." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a fable "as a fictitious narrative or statement," "a legendary story of supernatural happenings" or "a narration intended to enforce a useful truth; especially : one in which animals speak and act like human beings." So the very use of "fable" in the title of the book, "A Boy in Striped Pajamas," implies somehow that its story is one of fiction, moreover, that it is using the Holocaust backdrop not to tell a story about what happened in the Holocaust, to testify, but to make a point about some other "truth."
Both "A Boy in Striped Pajamas" and "Book Thief" make as their protagonists a non-Jewish child. So the viewer is made to empathize with the plight of a non-Jew during the Holocaust. There is nothing implicitly wrong with this--non-Jews certainly suffered during the Holocaust. We see how Liesel, the little girl in The Book Thief, is forced to live in poverty and with foster parents, and Bruno, the boy protagonist in "A Boy in Striped Pajamas" loses his innocence along with his life in the last few minutes of the film. But the implication of all these recent works told from the perspective of a non-Jew is that enough has been told of the Holocaust experience of the Jews, that all that is old hat, same old-same old, and that it's time for new stories, new slants on experiences during the Holocaust, to be told.
That's why we have reviews of the recent movie "The Counterfeiters," that start like this (this one is from the Daily Nebraskan): "Whenever a Holocaust movie comes to mind, it's usually the same horrendous, hopeless, desperate, atrocious, pure evil images that flash through my brain...The story of the Holocaust has been told countless times throug the medium of television, film and print; 'Shindler's List' aside, it's usually the same story of desolation and hopelessness from within the camp. 'The Counterfeiters,' however, is one of those intriguing, unconventional true stories that shows there are still more tales to be told about this heinous period of history."
You can almost taste the boredom in the reviewer's voice when he refer to the "same-old" Holocaust movie, the same-old "story of desolation and hopelessness". Audiences want something different. That's why "The Counterfeiters," an Austrian movie that focuses on a group of Jews given the task of counterfeiting German money, and therefore provided with soft bed, bountiful food and a ping pong table in the camp, won the Oscar in 2008 for "Best Foreign Language Film." The movie never shows a single visual of what suffering was like in the concentration camp for millions of Jews, it just focuses on this small group of Jews given special treatment. The assumption is that audiences are educated about the Holocaust, that they don't need to see what actually happened in the Holocaust to six million Jews, that they know enough about the horrors of the Holocaust that they can move on and now watch this movie about the privileged experience of a handful of skilled Jews picked to counterfeit money. But is that really the case? This movie was made in Austria--shouldn't Austrian moviegoers confront images of what it was like for Jews being beaten and gassed and tortured?
What's even more disturbing about this is now we are at a time when there are hardly any survivors of the Holocaust still living. So we have moved beyond the first wave of Holocaust literature, of works by Eli Wiesel and Primo Levi, both survivors, who wrote about their experiences and other Jews', depicting graphically the harrowing suffering of Jews not with a Schindler's List note of optimism but of nihilism, or of Art Spiegelman's Maus, creatively portraying the horrors of the Holocaust in cartoon form. The next wave of Holocaust depictions can be seen as represented by "Schindler's List", a Hollywood film not made by a survivor but a Jew who didn't shy away from graphic depictions of Jewish tragedy and suffering. Yet Spielberg made sure the film had some kind of sunny Hollywood ending, showing actual survivors of Schindler's list marching past his grave.
But this trend in recent fiction in film marks a third wave, a postmodern one, with stories written by non-Jews that make us empathize with non-Jewish German suffering during the Holocaust. The novel Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum, tells the story of a German woman who saved herself during the war by sleeping with a Nazi officer. (O.K., Blum's bio says she is of German and Jewish descent, but still, the novel focuses on the plight of a German non-Jewish woman.) The reader is made to see how this woman suffers, and has to compromise herself to survive--this is not a sentimental book, not in the vein of The Book Thief.
The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, translated from German in 1998 and an Oprah Book Club pick in Feb. 1999, soon-to-be-released in time for Christmas, depicts the love affair between a young German boy and a German woman he learns was an SS officer. Again, the writer makes the reader empathize with the plight of this German woman who surely would have had a better life had she had not been illiterate and chosen to be an SS officer, but very little wordage if any is spent on depicting the plight of Jews. Indeed, there is one passage in which the narrator, the German man, thinks to himself, "When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real."
Similarly, in The Dark Room,, non-Jewish British writer Rachel Seiffert writes three tales about the plight of non-Jews during World War II:
These are are "harrowing" stories, as Publishers Weekly put it, not sentimentalized like "Boy in Striped Pajamas" but similar in that they focus on the suffering of non-Jews: the middle story shows the "flight of a family of five bewildered children, led by Lore, the oldest girl, as they make their way after the Allied victory from Bavaria to their grandmother's house in Hamburg. Dependent on the charity of a fellow refugee (Tomas, a survivor of Buchenwald), the children are always on the verge of starving. After Tomas leads them to safety, Lore's gradual awareness of the Holocaust ages her beyond her years," and in the last story, set in the 1990s, "a young German teacher named Micha digs into the hidden history of his dead grandfather's wartime activity, travels to Belarus to discover the truth of Opa's SS-Waffen deeds and must grapple with the new, terrifying information he unearths."
There's nothing at all wrong with exploring the non-Jewish German experience during World War II, and telling stories about those who served in the SS. But why is there so much recent literature in this vein and not literature or film continuing to realistically depict the story of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust? Why are young Jewish writers not writing about Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, except in a magical realist way (a la Jonathan Safran Foer)?
As I said, the disturbing implication is that that particular story of Jewish suffering has already been told and that it is time to move on.
The problem is, that people today are not sitting and watching the movie "Shoah" or the miniseries "The Holocaust" or reading Wiesel or Primo Levi. Audiences today are seeing the schlock "The Boy in Striped Pajamas," or reading the magical realist "Book Thief," neither of which depicts what actually happened to Jews in the Holocaust. By giving such weight to the suffering of non-Jews in the Holocaust, the implication is that everyone suffered in the Holocaust, not Jews in particular, and this is a misleading and terribly troubling impression to give.
The danger of this is that the particularity of the Holocaust, how Jews in particular suffered, will be blurred by the weight of these works.
As Walter Reich, former director of the Holocaust Museum in D.C., said in a speech in 2005 about the dangers of distortion, trivialization and politicization in the recent "revived landscape of Holocaust memory", there is a central difference between the death of a Jew and a non-Jew during Nazi Germany: "The difference was that the first death was part of a ferocious, total, systematic and industrialized program of genocide, the most ferocious that has ever occurred, and the latter death was part of the savage brutality of Nazi Germany. It was the totality and intent of the first process that made it unique, and that the world must understand, in order to understand the nature and possibilities of murderous racism and genocide. The second process, alas, the world has seen all too much of...The difference isn't in the death; it's in the context and intent of that death. If one erases the difference by merging the deaths under the single rubric of 'Holocaust,' one erases our ability to understand the peculiarly evil nature of the mass extermination of an entire people."
Reich talks about President Carter's executive order creating the Holocaust museum, in which he insisted on referring to the "eleven million victims of the Holocaust, six million of which were Jews."
Reich explains how the eleven million figure was a figment created by Simon Weisenthal to get non-Jews to sympathize with the tragedy suffered by Jews, and says the effect of "this official conflation of historical tragedies" by President Carter's edict is "to rob us of a discrete event from which the whole world has much to learn."
What Reich worried about in 2005 has come true in recent portrayals of the Holocaust. In fact, the director of "The Boy in Striped Pajamas," Mark Herman, says in an interview in Entertainment News Wire (Nov. 6. 2008) that the film "is not specifically about Nazis." And the film's producer, David Heyman, says that while it is a "Holocaust story set in 1940s Germany, for me it is timeless." He then refers to contemporary horrors such as Rwanda, Darfur and Somalia. Reich spoke about how the word "Holocaust" has increasingly been appropriated by a "wide variety of groups to crystallize their sense of their victimization," thereby resulting in a "dilution of the term's meaning and specificity." So the director and producer of "Boy in Striped Pajamas" see their film as a fable about racism and prejudice in general, not as a depiction of what happened in particular, uniquely, and horrifically, in the Holocaust, to Jews. These are not films or novels about the Holocaust at all, but works that are using the backdrop of the Holocaust to tell a story about something general: human failing, racism, moral culpability.
While it's a free world, and art can and should be used to tell a multitude of stories and to express a multitude of meanings, in stripping away the particularity of the Holocaust, of what happened uniquely to the Jews in Nazi Germany, this rise in so-called Holocaust depictions only manages to distort and blur our collective memory.