Ralph Fiennes in Schindler List.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is the question that has been nagging at me ever since I saw The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, based on the remarkable book by John Boyne:
What is the ethical position of someone who catches himself enjoying a Holocaust movie? I'm not actually referring to the film of The Boy - about which more later - but to the inner dialogue that seeing it provoked.
More specifically: Suppose a Jew gets up from watching a movie about the Shoah feeling all the familiar pain and outrage tinged with near-disbelief that such things can occur - but also the pleasure imparted by a well-conceived, beautifully made, superbly acted film. What does it say about that Jew? And about that film?
Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful, to take two well-known examples of the genre, are movies that leave me, a member of the second generation who lost many close relatives in the Shoah, with such mixed feelings.
And that inevitably adds another feeling to the mix: guilt.
SO: You have two movies whose subject matter is the cold-blooded extermination of six million Jews. How does this jibe with any suggestion of enjoyment when the hard, historical facts of the Holocaust evoke only sorrow and rage?
I can cite two impeccable firsthand sources that vouch for the authenticity of the Spielberg movie: the late, former Israeli Supreme Court justice Moshe Bejski, one of the most prominent "Schindler Jews," and my 83-year-old uncle, Ernest Levy OBE.
Shortly after the release of the film, I attended a lecture by judge Bejski at Jerusalem's Great Synagogue in which he testified to the realism of Spielberg's portrayal of the Plaszow concentration camp. He voiced just one reservation, flatly: The director had not conveyed the unremitting fear that gripped the camp's inmates.
My Uncle Ernest, author of Just One More Dance and The Single Light, survived no less than seven concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where in 1945 Anne Frank died of typhus just yards away from his "block." Himself helped, he told me, by "a Schindler-like figure," my uncle also described the film as "very realistic."
INDEED, Schindler's List contains no shortage of harrowing scenes.
But suppose Spielberg had set out to convey the horror of the Shoah in the unwaveringly singleminded manner of some TV documentaries aired on Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day - would the film have garnered the worldwide acclaim it did? Would it have had the same matchless educational value?
It wouldn't, that is certain.
A graphic chronicler of Stalin's labor camps - most likely Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, though I couldn't pinpoint the reference - openly confessed to lying about the number of prisoners forced into a single tiny cell. The actual number, he said, was much higher than the one he cited in his book; but "if I had told the truth, nobody would have believed me."
While Spielberg, to all appearances, didn't feel the need to "sanitize" the Holocaust in his movie - he included difficult-to-watch, historical footage of Allied soldiers forcing SS camp personnel to bury the piles of Jewish corpses - he realized that general audiences also expect to be entertained.
And he gave them a story which does just that.
A MAJOR reason people enjoy Schindler's List is because, historically, all 1,200 "Schindler Jews" - among them the small group of individuals whose travails we follow with such trepidation throughout the film - emerged from their ordeal alive. It's the stuff of all good adventure stories, the proverbial "happy ending."
And then we get that magnificent final scene in which the action shifts to modern Israel, blossoming into full color, and we see the crowd of many thousands stemming from the original group of Jews saved by Oskar Schindler. What Jewish heart could fail to exult at the sight?
Of course, we are aware that millions of other Jews weren't so lucky. But a great movie draws us deep into its own orbit, and within its confines we just can't keep that "yay!" feeling down.
In Life is Beautiful Roberto Benigni creates a situation in which the hellish reality of the concentration camp is skillfully overlaid with a veil of comedy that lasts until the shocking (offstage) elimination of the movie's central, beloved character. Here too, the film ends with a heartwarming scene: the hero's young son realizing his dearest wish - to ride atop a tank; as it happens, an American one.
Their grim subject matter notwithstanding, these two films leave the viewer with a sense of satisfaction because both end in an upbeat way; Schindler spectacularly so.
ALL of which brings me back to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
This movie, with its deceptively simple plot, its events viewed from the perspective of an eight-year-old German boy, is visually rich. The acting is faultless and affecting. The early scenes in the Nazi commandant's two houses - one in Berlin, the other on the edge of Auschwitz - overflow with opulence, color and music. And the cinemagoer soaks it all up.
But, perhaps partly because I had read the book, my heart grew heavier and heavier as the innocent Bruno, like the young hero of a Greek tragedy, determinedly followed his predestined path to its awful end. By the final scene, my heart was in my boots, where it remained for some time.
And that, to me, is the film's outstanding achievement.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which according to author Boyne remained pretty faithful to his book, may not achieve the fame of Schindler's List or Life Is Beautiful. But by refusing to give the viewer any crumb of comfort or hope, it rams home an essential truth in a way those films do not. By not pandering to the craving for a "happy ending," it leaves us, distant as we now are from the historical reality, with a taste of the genuine, unadulterated horror of the Shoah, of the human loss, inflicted by humans, that can never be made good.
For a brief space of time - until daily life claims our attention once more - two small boys, Bruno and his Jewish counterpart, Shmuel, swell into the Six Million and all the others swallowed up, willy nilly, by a monstrous machine of scarcely imaginable evil.
DID I enjoy this film?
I enjoyed the inspired performances of Asa Butterfield as Bruno, Vera Farmiga as his mother and David Thewlis as his Nazi father; just as I enjoyed those of Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, and all their wonderful supporting casts. I enjoyed the sure touch - and cunning touches - of director Mark Herman, who also wrote the screenplay. I enjoyed the attention to detail of the period, the color, the music and the camera work.
The ending - well, I've already hinted at its horror. But I was grateful for the honesty of it, and for the director's courage, and his trust that I could handle it.
My dictionary defines the word "catharsis" as "a purification or purging of emotions that brings about spiritual renewal."
Perhaps that is the gift this movie offers.
And gifts are there to be appreciated.