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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Holocaust Meditations (originally published 3/03)

Rarely, if ever, has a historical event burned its impression into our collective consciousness as forcefully as the Holocaust. Since that time, artists in virtually every medium have assumed the burden of keeping that memory fresh in our minds, lest we should ever be tempted to permit its like to happen again. This is a noble task. Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" (1997) was an inspiring, and inspired, fairy tale, but we do occasionally need to be reminded that its comparatively benign concentration camp was a drastically sanitized version of the actual horrors of which the Nazi regime was capable. In his recently released film "The Pianist," Roman Polanski has restored some perspective to that grisly topic, drawing upon Nazi atrocities he witnessed firsthand as a youth in his native Poland.

Needless to say, Hitler's Germany has figured into many, many motion pictures over the years. Most of them took the easy way out, using the Nazis as convenient heavies without giving them another thought. Still, there have been a few films that probed a bit deeper. These films take a more reflective look at the disease that afflicted Europe during those horrible years. For a sampling of some of world cinema's finest meditations on Nazism's causes and effects, look for these titles on home video.

"The Pawnbroker" (1965). Rod Steiger plays Sol Nazerman, a concentration camp survivor who operates a pawnshop in New York City. He is a deeply embittered man who refuses to reach out to others, and lashes out savagely at anyone who reaches out to him. As the film progresses, director Sidney Lumet shows us through flashbacks the horrendous experiences that transformed Nazerman into the wounded, sullen figure he has become.

"The Damned" (1969). Luchino Visconti was one of the memorable group of filmmakers who emerged from the post-World War II Italian film industry. This sprawling, operatic film is his interpretation of the rise of Nazism. He builds his film around the decline of a family of industrialists and their ill-fated dealings with the Nazis. Visconti's point is that the rise of Nazism would never have occurred without the complicity, tacit or explicit, of the industrialists. These characters are the dark counterparts of Oskar Schindler. Whereas "Schindler's List" (1993) showed us an industrialist who emerged from his Nazi dealings with a kind of moral victory, Visconti's industrialists can only sink deeper and deeper into the morass of depravity. Speaking of which, be aware that this film received an X rating when it was released in the United States. Visconti conceived of Nazism as an obscenity and its followers as perverts, and he isn't shy about illustrating the point.

"The Shop on Main Street" (1965). This outstanding Czechoslovakian film is set in a Czech ghetto during the German occupation. The main character is Tono Brtko, a gentile peasant who is appointed the "Aryan comptroller" of an elderly Jewish woman's button shop. The half deaf old woman, blissfully unaware of the occupation of the town, doesn't understand that Tono is there to take charge. She thinks he's there to work for her. Directors Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos delicately balance the humor of the situation with the horror of Nazi occupation to produce a moving and humane film. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"To Be or Not to Be" (1942). It may seem odd to include a comedy in this listing, but this vehicle for Jack Benny and Carole Lombard has earned its place among the classic cinematic studies of Nazi Germany. For one thing, it was made when the events were still current, making it a commentary rather than a retrospective. The brilliant director Ernst Lubitsch, a German expatriate, decided to go after the Nazis using the scalpel of satire rather than the blunt instrument of melodrama. No one was better at subtle, sophisticated satire than Lubitsch, and nowhere did his humor bite deeper than in this lampoon of the Nazis' vanity and self-importance.

Having shown some of these films to various groups over the years, I've noted that most audiences still come away from a really good Holocaust film slightly stunned, and unable to talk about the movie right away. Personally, I think that's the healthiest possible response. May we never recover from it.

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