WHEN THE BOOK first arrived in the mail, I looked at it and put it aside, but the picture on the jacket stayed with me. It showed a woman with blondish hair, looking every bit like the cabaret singer she once was. She is smoking a cigarette, the smoke drifting up toward her face -- a hint of Edith Piaf in the old films. I am speaking of Fania Fenelon.Soon, she will become Vanessa Redgrave.
It is Redgrave, after all, who will play Fenelon in the CBS adaptation of her book, "Playing for Time." It is about Fenelon's experience (experience?) singing with the women's orchestra at the concentration camp complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau. She sang for the SS who wanted their Mozart and their Schubert after a hard day of killing.
". . . Sometimes they came to our barrack at three o'clock in the morning," she said in a 60 Minutes interview. "I remember singing 'Madame Butterfly' at three o'clock in the morning for a bunch of SS who were very tired of killing people."
CBS bought the book and had Arthur Miller, the playwright, adapt it for a television film. Then the network hired Vanessa Redgrave to play Fenelon. And then Fenelon screamed bloody murder.
The issue is that Redgrave is pro-PLO or anti-Zionist of however you want to put it. Fenelon is half-Jewish and thinks strongly that she should not be portrayed by someone who is an avowed enemy of Israel -- at the very least an avowed ally of an avowed enemy.
Thus far CBS has not budged. The network has cloaked itself in the mantle of artistic freedom and rejected demands from both Fenelon and some Jewish organizations that Redgrave be replaced. It has said that it will not cast actors and actresses according to their political beliefs -- the first step on the road to blacklists and, for Redgrave, the first step on the road to unemployment. There are, after all, few people with her politics.
But artistic freedom is not the point, CBS talks about the groups who oppose the casting of Redgrave and Fenelon herself as if they were one and the same. There is a difference. To cave in, for political reasons, to the pressures of some organization would be inexcusable. To bow to the sensitivities of a single woman is a different matter entirely. And it is beside the point to say that Fenelon got paid for her book. She sold a book, not her identity.
What Fenelon is saying makes a lot of sense. It is not that Redgrave is tall and she is short that matters, or that one is Jewish and the other is not. What matters is that the reality of Fenelon will change the moment the film is shown on television. Whatever image I have of her now will fade the moment Redgrave appears on the screen. Fania Fenelon will become Vanessa Redgrave or the other way around. It does not matter. What matters if that the film and not life becomes the reality.
This is why Fenelon continues her crusade. She accuses Redgrave of being an anti-Semite and Miller of being a hack writer and CBS of crass casting. Only the last charge rings true. Miller needs no defense from anyone, and as for Redgrave, there is nothing on the record to indicate that she is an anti-Semite. What she is is an arch anti-Zionist.
You can understand, though, why Fenelon finds Redgrave repulsive. Lots of people do, but someone who has spent time in a concentration camp has more reason than most. To some people, the single greatest justification for the state of Israel is the Holocaust -- the systematic extermination of something like 6 million Jews. Fania Fenelon has come by her sensitivites the hard way.
Now she is about to lose her identity. This is what the movies do and this is why the Sundance Kid will always be Robert Redford, and why actors who play cops in the movies do commercials for burglar alarms. It is why the Congress of the United States confused the roles John Wayne played with the person he might have been and gave him a medal, and why Al Jolson will always be Larry Parks.
It will work the same way with Fenelon. She is right in fighting Redgrave. She is right because Redgrave will play her and maybe make a film for the PLO or give a speech and it will be in some way as if Fenelon had done it -- as if Vanessa Redgrave had some special credential because she was seen singing for her life at Auschwitz.
The movies are our updated version of the Faust legend. They don't buy your soul, they buy your identity, and in the end this is what is going to happen to Fania Fenelon. It is something not even the concentration camps could do.