When I hear the accents, my heart sinks.
One character speaks English with a thick German accent, while another answers in a Masterpiece Theater British accent, and a third sounds American. These accents are just a small part of what makes the most recent crop of Hollywood Holocaust/Nazi movies - Valkyrie, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Good, Adam Resurrected, Spring 1941 and Defiance - so annoying.
For the record, the one with the British accent is usually a high-ranking Nazi official, the guy with the American accent is generally an A-list star who can't be bothered and the German accent belongs to the actor playing Adolf Hitler.
Cynics have said there's no business like Shoah business, and this year, they're certainly right. The Holocaust and the Nazis are such a riveting, dramatic subject that filmmakers can't keep away from it. As Hollywood executives play it safe by going with surefire action/superhero movies and dumb and dumber comedies, it's gotten harder to make any serious films. So anyone who wants to make a real adult drama, particularly the kind of film with serious roles that showcase acting talent, has to have a gimmick, an issue so important it can't be ignored. And that's where the Holocaust comes into the picture. For filmmakers and audiences, there's nothing more dramatic and certainly no better way to angle for Oscar consideration than to go back to World War II. And in fact, Kate Winslet just won her first Best Actress Oscar for The Reader, which was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Stephen Daldry) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
But there's a problem with the recent crop. Several, in fact.
First of all, and let's be honest about this, the really good stories have already been told. Anne Frank's diary was found and dramatized half a century ago. Steven Spielberg made Schindler's List, probably the quirkiest and most fascinating Righteous Gentile tale, in 1993 (and it's still the only one of his films to win a Best Picture Oscar). But due to the reasons I've outlined above, they still keep making these movies. So filmmakers search frantically for some riveting story that hasn't been told already.
Three of these films - Defiance, Adam Resurrected and Spring 1941 - deal in very different ways with the experiences of Jews during the Holocaust and I will discuss them later. But the other four films - Valkyrie, The Reader, Good and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - can be grouped in a category I'll call "A Few Words from the Nazis." I can just imagine the Hollywood pitch meetings for these Nazi-centric feature films. "It's not just another Holocaust movie - this time, the hero is a Nazi. We'll get inside his head, expose his conflicts. It's complex," the filmmaker says, and walks out of the meeting with a signed contract.
The Nazi point-of-view films can probably be traced to the success of a 2005 German film, Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, based on the memoirs of Hitler's secretary, which detailed the FÃ¼hrer's last days in his bunker. It also incorporated several story lines about ordinary Germans whose lives were adversely affected by the war. Not surprisingly, Downfall was the biggest box-office hit in German history. It was a well-made and well-acted film, with a single scene that said far more about the essence of National Socialism than all these recent English-language dramas: Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler's top aide, Joseph Goebbels, knowing that the Allies were days away from Berlin and not wanting her children to grow up in a world without "Uncle Adolf," calmly poisons the kids as they doze off at bedtime.
But other than that striking scene, the rest of the movie was essentially an apologia for Nazis, as are, to different degrees, these four recent Hollywood dramas. In Downfall, Christian Berkel plays a wise, caring SS physician who tries to convince Hitler and his minions to end the war before more Germans suffer. Oddly, the same actor appears in Valkyrie, playing a high-ranking officer who assists Tom Cruise, and the message of the two films is largely the same. Cruise portrays Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler in 1944, and the one who actually smuggled and detonated the bomb that just missed killing him.
VALKYRIE, DIRECTED by Bryan Singer, who made the X-men films (and which was cowritten by Christopher McQuarrie, Singer's collaborator on The Usual Suspects), is an effective thriller, surprisingly gripping for a film in which the ending is a foregone conclusion. It portrays Stauffenberg and all those involved in the plot as heroes, although their primary motivation for undertaking the scheme is that Hitler was losing the war. Presumably, had the Germans been winning, they would have seen no reason to oppose Hitler. Cruise's character is given a glimmer of an ideological motivation in one line, early in the film, in which he writes a letter criticizing various aspects of the Nazi program, including "the mass extermination of the Jews."
Anyone who sees Valkyrie and knew little about the war would come away with the impression that a large percentage of the German military actively opposed Hitler. But anyone who doubts that the Wehrmacht carried out many atrocities against the Jews and Eastern Europeans should see Michael Verhoeven's riveting documentary, The Unknown Soldier (which raised a controversy in Germany, as many Germans felt it sullied the image of a noble group of soldiers).
Valkyrie, thanks to the presence of Cruise, may be the highest profile of all these films, but Stephen Daldry's The Reader is the most problematic. Based on a highly praised novel by Bernard Schlink, with a screenplay by playwright David Hare, The Reader tells the story of a German, Michael Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes as a middle-aged adult and David Kross as a teen and university student). As a teenager, he met an older woman, Hanna (Kate Winslet), by chance. She is a ticket-taker on a bus line, while he is from an educated, middle-class family. They have a passionate affair, and before they make love, she always has him read to her. One day, he comes to her apartment and finds she has disappeared.
Years later, while he is a law student, he attends the trial of several concentration-camp guards and discovers, to his surprise and dismay, that she is one of them. He is riveted by the testimony of survivors, who tell how she used to ask them to read to her as well and he realizes she is illiterate. The key issue in this trial is an incident in which, when she and other guards were leading their prisoners on a forced march toward the end of the war, the Jews were locked in a church that caught fire (due to an Allied bombing raid, of course) and the guards let them burn to death. Winslet's character takes the rap for all of the guards and gets life in prison, even though the others were involved. But for her to exonerate herself, she would have to admit that she can't read, and that would be too embarrassing.
The problem with this plot turn is almost too obvious to point out. Mark Weitzman of the the Simon Wiesenthal Center summed it up in a quote in article on DigitalSpy.com: "Essentially it takes a woman who serves in, is responsible for, is complicit in, you pick the words, the deaths of at least 300 Jews - and her big secret shame is that she's illiterate."
Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum wondered why the scene at the church was not shown in the film: "As I learned from the director at a screening of The Reader, the scene was omitted because it might have 'unbalanced' our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills."
Watching as the delicately beautiful Winslet stomped around and tried to coarsen her expression and her accent, it seemed that she was being portrayed as a helpless, uneducated working-class woman who only became a concentration-camp guard because it was one of the few careers open to an illiterate (although the movie actually makes the point that she was employed when she joined the SS). Her poverty is contrasted throughout with her young lover's privileged upper-middle class existence in the beginning, and later with the learned judge's haughty accent as he interrogates her, and the chic, slim survivor who accuses her. It's the Nazis as the proletariat: You would have thought the Holocaust was a class war, with the Jews, and later the prosecutors, as upper-class oppressors.
The falseness of this paradigm certainly comes through with Good, the movie directed by Vicente Amorim and based on a play by C.P. Taylor, which stars Viggo Mortensen as a struggling academic who is recruited by the SS because of his views on the validity of assisted suicide. Good substitutes its own false paradigm for the one in The Reader. In Good, joining the SS is simply the only way for a shy academic to get tenure. Even with Mortensen's star power (and a strong supporting performance by Jason Isaacs as the professor's Jewish war buddy), Good didn't fool anyone. The film has struggled to get recognition and has not been a box-office success.
Another movie that has had a blessedly limited release is the odious The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. This is the movie that asks: Can a concentration-camp commander's son find happiness as the playmate of a Jewish inmate? Does anyone really want to have that question answered? Like Valkyrie, this movie sends the message that many Germans opposed the Nazis, particularly the Final Solution policy, throughout the war. In this family (in which everyone speaks lovely British English), the concentration-camp commander's mother vocally opposes the Nazis, and when his wife learns that Jews are being killed in the camps, she turns pale. She just had no idea - although, apparently, her mother-in-law knew all about it.
The commander (David Thewlis) and his wife (Vera Farmiga) keep their children so sheltered that their son thinks it would be fun to crawl under the fence and join the Jewish boy he has been playing chess with across the electrified barbed wire. And when he does, it turns out that the camp is being liquidated and the commander's son is gassed along with everyone else. The commander and his family are devastated when they learn of his death, so it's a learning experience. If more children of the SS were gassed, the movie seems to be saying, maybe they would have thought twice about killing Jews. Wait a second - oh, never mind.
THE MESSAGE of these four Nazi movies is quite contradictory. While Valkyrie, Good and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas seem to be saying that many Germans did oppose the Nazis, The Reader says they didn't, but were really victims of poverty. Which version is more upsetting? It's a toss-up, although watching the films, I found The Reader infinitely more offensive, probably in part because it was a better movie and so came closer to making this central idea of German martyrdom credible. But Hollywood often gets muddled when it comes to ideas and is more comfortable with emotion. The emotion it tries and may have succeeded in evoking in these movies is empathy. Not for the victims, but for the victimizers: They suffered, too, apparently.
After seeing all these lovable-Nazi films, it was something of a relief to watch Edward Zwick's Defiance, which has nothing in common with these other movies except the annoying mishmash of accents. Zwick actually found a gripping Holocaust story that had not been told on film, about the Bielski brothers, Jews who fled the Nazis into the forests of Belarus. They used their cunning and bravery to shelter and save more than 1,000 Jewish refugees from nearby ghettos, all the while carrying out armed raids against the Germans. Daniel Craig, best known these days as James Bond, stars, along with Liev Schreiber as his brother. While Defiance is not a great movie (the New York Post headline writers nailed it with: "Resists Nazis, not clichÃ©s"), it tells a fascinating story.
Adam Resurrected [see "Not just another Holocaust movie," Up Front, February 20] has a far less coherent story to tell. Paul Schrader, the director, was drawn to Yoram Kaniuk's magic realist novel about a cabaret entertainer in Berlin in the 1930s who survives the concentration camps by entertaining a high-ranking Nazi with his dog imitation, then is hospitalized in Israel after the war and is healed when he meets an abused child who pretends to be a dog. The resulting movie, which stars Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe, is an absurdist collage, much of which doesn't work.
Spring 1941 is the third movie in this recent batch of World War II films to deal with the Jewish experience. Like Adam Resurrected, it is a literary adaptation, based on the stories of Ida Fink. But unlike Adam Resurrected, it is not ambitious, and unlike Defiance, it is not interesting. Instead, it's a routine soap opera transposed to and complicated by its setting. Joseph Fiennes plays a Jewish doctor in Nazi-occupied Poland who takes his family to hide with a peasant woman who was his patient. She is in love with him and seduces him. Is he carrying on the affair with her because he enjoys it or to save his family? That's the icky question this movie asks, and it asks it in the most clichÃ©d manner imaginable. Director Uri Barbash was considered one of Israel's leading filmmakers when he made Beyond the Walls in 1984, but that was a while ago.
While it's still true that Shoah business is good for business, we can only hope that audiences are sophisticated enough to reject the beatification of the Nazis that the four Nazi movies attempt. The real test of this will only come this summer, when Quentin Tarantino's long-awaited Inglourious Basterds is released. The tag line for this movie is "Once upon a time in Nazi-Occupied France" and it tells the story of a fictional unit of Jewish-American soldiers who are given the task of torturing and terrorizing Nazis. In the trailer, their commander, played by the usually politically correct Brad Pitt, orders them each to obtain "100 Nazi scalps."
Reportedly, Germans were scandalized by the negative portrayal of Nazis in the script. It will surely feature Tarantino's usual cartoon-like violence, but maybe, just maybe, seeing the Nazis portrayed as evil enemies again will be a corrective experience for American movie-goers.