Glaring Witness: Film’s Ongoing Dilemma With the Holocaust

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Adrien Brody in Roman Polanski's Academy Award-winning 2002 Holocaust drama 'The Pianist.'Credit: AP

The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo is best remembered for two powerful films, “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) and the Marlon Brando-starring “Burn!” (1969). But in 1960 he directed another very important film, called “Kapò.” It was important for two reasons: It was the first prestigious European movie set in a concentration camp; and the criticism written about it had a formative influence on film criticism ever since.

Pontecorvo’s film told the story of a Jewish girl (the American actress Susan Strasberg, who a few years earlier played the lead role in the original Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”). The girl is sent to Auschwitz with her parents. After they are killed, she tries every possible way to survive, including becoming a kapo.

Goeth (right) in the film "Schindler's List."Credit: IPTC

The movie aroused controversy as soon as it was released. The few feature films before it that had dealt with the memory of the Holocaust – such as Edward Dmytryk’s “The Juggler” (1953), filmed in Israel and starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor struggling to overcome the aftereffects of the war, or “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959) – did not depict life in the camps.

Film critics, having no experience tackling a film of this kind, largely denounced “Kapo” as an exploitative, sensationalist melodrama. Although nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, it has hardly been screened since its original release, only becoming known again in the past decade thanks to a U.S. DVD version.

But “Kapo” remained firmly etched in the memories of two very important French film critics.

In 1961, Jacques Rivette published a review in pioneering periodical Cahiers du Cinema, where he talked about a scene in which a female prisoner (Emmanuelle Riva) commits suicide by throwing herself on the electrified barbwire fence that surrounded the camp (Rivette was one of a group of young critics that included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, that changed the face of postwar film criticism, and like them also became one of the most important directors of New Wave cinema): “This man [Pontecorvo], who decided at this moment to use a tracking movement to bring the camera up close to the corpse, and to situate the corpse in the frame so that her outstretched hand is carefully placed in the upper corner of the picture – this man is deserving of the deepest scorn.”

This sentence was read by 17-year-old Serge Daney, who would go on to become one of France’s premier film critics (he also edited Cahiers in the 1970s, together with Serge Toubiana).

Many years after reading Rivette’s piece (and not long before his death from AIDS in 1992 at age 48), Daney published an article entitled “The Tracking Shot in ‘Kapo’,” in which he declared that it was after reading that sentence that he decided to become a film critic.

Potential moral weight

It wasn’t Pontecorvo’s movie that interested Daney; he hadn’t seen the film when he first read Rivette’s article, nor did he see it later. Daney was so inspired by this line in Rivette’s review because it was the first time he had ever encountered the assertion that the form and means of expression in cinema can have moral significance. (In his article, Daney notes that Rivette was not the only one of his generation to assign such significance, and cites Godard’s famous remark that “The tracking shot is a moral question.”)

This recognition of cinema’s potential moral weight takes on even keener significance in movies that deal with the Holocaust, whether or not they take place in the death camps. It’s no coincidence that it took many years before the movie industry really began to produce films about the Holocaust and its memory.

Polish director Andrzej Munk’s “Passenger” (1963, released two years after the filmmaker himself died) and Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” (1964), about a Holocaust survivor in New York who has flashbacks to his days in the camps, are two of the most important films in the evolution of Holocaust cinema.

But they essentially remained singular events until Steven Spielberg came out with “Schindler’s List” in 1993 and opened the floodgates. Before the 1990s, the paucity of films dealing with the subject wasn’t just due to a long-held feeling that the Holocaust was somehow an event situated outside of history, and so beyond the bounds of artistic representation, but also from the feeling that there was no appropriate way to tell the story and document the memory of it.

It’s possible that the decades separating the events depicted in “Schindler’s List” and the movie’s release is what enabled the production to be such a success (it won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director) and even an object of humor, as in the famous “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry is caught making out with a date during the movie and castigated for it by everyone he knows.

One might think that time would dull the problematic nature of films about the Holocaust, but in fact it only underscores it, and raises the moral issue cited by Rivette with even greater urgency.

Every movie, whether a wacky comedy or bleak drama, is a source of entertainment. Dealing with this fact, with the experience and pleasure that every movie seeks to provide, is the paramount issue with which creators of films about the Holocaust must grapple – and most end up failing.

In recent years, a majority of the movies produced on the subject have suffered from melodrama, sentimentality, banality, kitsch and superficiality.

At the top of the short list of good recent Holocaust films I would put these two: Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” (2002) and Hungarian director Lajos Koltai’s “Fateless” (2005).

These are the only ones that succeeded not just in telling a story – both were based upon autobiographies – but in depicting on screen the real essence of the personal and historical memory presented by the story.

And at the risk of horrifying some readers, I would add to these Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), whose exploration of the way that history and mythology become intertwined in popular culture – and he took this as far as it can go – made it, in my view, a significant work in the study of collective memory and how it grows.

'Not about the Holocaust'

The discourse in the relationship between cinema and depictions of the memory of the Holocaust is, I believe, the most important and influential discourse in the history of cinema since World War II, since it takes to the extreme all of the ethical, ideological and aesthetic questions that have guided the art of filmmaking since that time.

Therefore, every new film dealing with the memory of the Holocaust continues to draw my interest. “Schindler’s List” is certainly a key work in the evolution of this discourse.

I won’t elaborate here on the film’s obvious problems, but each time I watch it, I can’t help but think of Stanley Kubrick’s wise comment, in the course of a discussion of Holocaust films with Frederic Raphael (the screenwriter of his last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”) that, in his opinion, “Schindler’s List” is not a film about the Holocaust. Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, Kubrick told Raphael; “Schindler’s List” is about 600 Jews who were saved. Therefore, “Schindler’s List” is not a film about the Holocaust.

And so, from Rivette to Daney and Kubrick, the discourse goes on. And this is as it should be. For memory hinges on such discourse, and memory must also go on.