It’s called “Holocaust exhaustion” — the feeling that there have been so many films about the destruction of European Jewry that it’s time to say “enough already.’’ Or is it?
“It is true that, in recent years, there has been a considerable output regarding the Holocaust,” says Gilles Paquet-Brenner, director of “Sarah’s Key,” which opens Friday, stars Kristin Scott Thomas and deals with the roundup of French Jews during World War II. “But I don’t think there is exhaustion, because we must not forget that the public has the choice to ignore the information that is available, and what may be familiar to adults isn’t necessarily well known by the younger generation.”
“There’s always more to reveal,” says Raye Farr, head of film and video at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The Holocaust is such an idiosyncratic set of events, with so many individual variations of time and place. I think the possibility of making good and important films about that period of time is still there.”
The Holocaust has, in fact, been a prime source of material for documentary filmmakers since the end of World War II, but it wasn’t until the 1960s, with such films as “The Pawnbroker,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” that it began creeping into mainstream cinema. Since then, literally hundreds of movies have been made about the Holocaust, even though, says Aaron Kerner, author of“Film and the Holocaust,” “there traditionally has been a very conservative attitude about representation of the Holocaust, that it should be represented authentically, as it really was, and artistic intervention is a manipulation or distortion of the Holocaust.”
What this means is that for a long time, Holocaust films seem to have been narrowly focused, concentrating on death camp imagery and the Jew as victim. “It was really a Jewish story for many years,” says Susan Barocas, director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. But because of massacres in such places as Rwanda and the Balkans, the Holocaust has now “provided a resource for people trying to be analytical about genocide.”
Yet Lisa Rivo of the National Center for Jewish Film points out that there are aspects of the tragedy that the film community has barely touched. “The experience of women has been less attended to,” she says, “and you’re talking not just about the 6 million Jews who were killed, but many millions [of Catholics, gays, politicals, the mentally and physically handicapped] across all of Western and Eastern Europe.”
Other elements that have hardly been explored include the stories of children, rescuers and onlookers; the Holocaust as it played out in such countries as Romania and Denmark; and Jews who fought back (such as 2008’s “Defiance”).
“Sarah’s Key” is a prime example of a story about an event that has been ignored for years. It tells of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of July 1942, when 20,000 Parisian Jews were detained by French police and members of the local Fascist party before being transported to internment camps and then Auschwitz. The details “were mostly unknown in France by the general public, and totally ignored by the rest of the world,” says Paquet-Brenner. “It was time to clearly illustrate the responsibility of the French state in the deportation of the Jewish population, and this allows us to shake the narrative where the Nazis were the only culprits.”
Although the film moves from 1942 to the roundup’s effect on a 21st-century French family, it is still a traditional Holocaust tale of victimization — and this in an era when, for better or worse, the Final Solution has been appropriated by pop culture in unconventional ways.
“X-Men: First Class” opens in Auschwitz, where the future mutant leader Magneto encounters the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. “Inglourious Basterds,”which begins with French Jews hiding under the floorboards from a Nazi officer, has an American Jewish soldier toting a baseball bat inscribed with the names of Nazi victims.
There is also the Oscar-winning 1997 film “Life Is Beautiful,” which used humor in a Holocaust setting. And in “The Pity Card,” a short film on YouTube starring Simon Helberg of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” a woman is turned on to her Jewish date after he takes her to a Holocaust exhibit.
Whether representations like this trivialize the event is a matter of some controversy. But, Barocas says, “it’s all about context. Just because it’s a comic-book figure [like Magneto] doesn’t bother me. It can become something that keeps the reality of the Holocaust alive, so we can keep learning from it.”
Rivo adds: “As time progresses, there is freedom in being farther away from [the Holocaust], but there are also dangers. It does give you a freedom to break boundaries, but if you’re no longer tethered, you have to make sure the history is accurate, the sensitivity is still there. Not that everything has to be serious.”
Besides, she says, there are a lot worse things than black humor and death camp mutants. “I have problems with Holocaust beauty,” Rivo says. “When the shots are too carefully constructed, when the camera soars above. To make something beautiful out of a scene at a death camp is more egregious than a bad joke.”
Beale is a freelance writer.
opens July 29 at area theaters.