‘Eva.Stories’ and Holocaust film trends

Social media venues like Instagram can be highly problematic platforms for meaningful Holocaust education.

PHOTOS FROM the imagined Instagram account belonging to Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old Hungarian Jewish girl who was killed at Auschwitz. (photo credit: screenshot)
PHOTOS FROM the imagined Instagram account belonging to Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old Hungarian Jewish girl who was killed at Auschwitz.
(photo credit: screenshot)
When lecturing to educators at Yad Vashem, I always ask: “What is your students’ ‘go-to’ Holocaust film?” For years, the answer has been either Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). Yet, recently, teachers from North American Jewish day schools surprised me with Instagram’s Eva.Stories (2019), advertised as “What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?”
Eva Heyman was a 13-year-old Hungarian Jewish girl who was killed at Auschwitz. Her diary was first published in Hungarian in 1947, and in English as The Diary of Eva Heyman in 1974. Eva Heyman was precocious, verbalized her interest in boys, could not connect with her mother, parted her hair on the side, never stopped expressing herself – and her diary ceased before Eva arrived at Auschwitz/Birkenau. Yes, Eva Heyman’s story is very similar to Anne Frank’s, becoming “Anne Frank 2.0” as some have quipped. Regardless, unraveling Eva.Stories provides an excellent opportunity to understand what has worked and what has failed in 75 years of Holocaust portrayals, as well as the current trajectory.
After my analysis of more than 500 films, miniseries and made-for-television productions with Holocaust themes, one trend is clear: Since 1945, Holocaust films have become increasingly authentic and realistic. Most Holocaust filmmakers have rejected outlandish premises that pander to audiences. The cluster of splashy outliers – Life is Beautiful (1997), The Devil’s Arithmetic (TV 1999), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) – are notable simply because they are so peculiar, not because they have been imitated.
Enter Eva.Stories, the first of a new Holocaust cinema species: the Instagram Holocaust film. According to The Guardian, Eva.Stories was “produced with a multi-million dollar budget, 400 staff and actors, and elaborate sets including tanks and trains [sic] carriages.” Eva.Stories also had a substantial advertising budget – enough for billboards in Israel, publicists, marketing and celebrity endorsements, including from Gal Gadot, Bar Refaeli, Sarah Silverman, the Instagram account of the White House, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who tweeted that Eva.Stories “exposes the immense tragedy of our people through the story of one girl.” Eva.Stories also has 1.6 million followers, according to its Instagram homepage.
The actual number of Eva.Stories individual viewers is a trickier question. Most articles written about the project state that Eva.Stories has received 120 million views, or approximately 100 times the total world population of Jewish adolescents, although only a few hundred thousand individuals actually viewed the entire series.
Eva.Stories was a big production that went out of its way to dumb down quality to appear to be made by a child. Eva.Stories is like a teenagers’ school play, inferior to most final film projects produced by Israeli 12th graders in film electives. The actors in Eva.Stories are ingenuine, almost plastic. British actress Mia Quiney, who played the Hungarian Eva Heyman, led a parade of unrecognizable and exaggerated accents. The dialogue itself is particularly stilted, both wildly inauthentic and historically difficult. The wardrobe is ostentatious. And the Instagram titles and effects are foolish, even if that was the point. Only a handful of Holocaust productions have been more affected, less believable, and as poorly developed as Eva.Stories, regardless of its true source.
ARTISTIC LICENSE ends at the spot where belief can no longer be suspended, which includes “What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?” The overwhelming reaction to the Instagram contrivance is: If Eva.Stories helps teach the Holocaust by “moderning things up,” then welcome aboard, as if it is perfectly natural to tell a true Holocaust story with an anachronistic premise propped up by silly graphics, emojis, hashtags and a rotated aspect ratio.
Eva.Stories enthusiasts, who herald it as the vanguard of Holocaust storytelling, insist that the anachronism is irrelevant to the story’s effectiveness. They suggest that the Instagram non sequitur is quickly ignored by young viewers, accepted as normal contemporary storytelling. But the Instagram platform makes ignoring its framework impossible. Instagram is not a “fourth wall,” but part of the story, with its onscreen tools that include ways of sending love to Eva. So, as long as Eva has wandered into the land of prop madness by posting to Instagram in 1944, what is there to lose by Eva also mapping out Auschwitz with Waze, ordering arms and drones with Amazon Prime, and distributing iPads to the guards who loop Inglourious Basterds?
The producers of Eva.Stories would, of course, argue that such idiocy needlessly changes the underlying story and ruins Eva’s historical integrity, as if that had not already been accomplished by the Instagram overlay. Supporters also acknowledge that the Instagram angle would have been disdainful if portraying Anne Frank, Hannah Senesh or Elie Wiesel, because we all know that they did not have Instagram. This bizarre argument implies that inauthentically portraying Eva Heyman is fair game because of her obscurity.
Had Instagram simply been used to post the story episodically – without insisting that it was recorded by Eva on her phone and then uploaded in 1944, partially on a transport to Auschwitz – the story could have more faithfully transmitted the essence of Eva’s diary. Tweaking the tag to “Messages from the Holocaust” would have avoided needlessly adding the platform’s framework into the story.
FOR VIEWERS without a Holocaust educational foundation who simply stumble across the Eva.Stories Instagram postings, it will be no more meaningful than any other visual media tragedy. Without knowing from whom Anne Frank or Eva Heyman were hiding, their diaries convey very limited history. If the goal of Eva.Stories was merely to seed the concept of the Holocaust in children’s heads, it may be a success, but without context or follow-up, the lesson only lasts until the next shiny object jumps to the top of a child’s memory stack. And, of course, for those who believe that Holocaust education is so fundamental that it must be government mandated – as required in 11 American states, representing almost half of the US population – the first Holocaust lesson should probably not be an unsupervised, passive introduction via a four-inch screen, especially without explanations.
 “If innovation were a third-rail for Holocaust education,” wrote New Jersey Jewish News editor Gabe Kahn about Eva.Stories, “we’d never have films like Kirsten Dunst’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, the play Anne Frank & Me, or Art Spiegelman’s hugely influential graphic novel Maus.” Mr. Kahn was both correct and mistaken. He correctly noted that many Holocaust content creators did not shy away from innovation. But Mr. Kahn’s examples are 20 years old or more. The heyday of graphic Holocaust novels ended almost 30 years ago with Maus. Those other attempts to represent the Holocaust, and dozens of additional forays, are now obsolete because they were ultimately regarded as novelties by a market that rejected these prototypes as aberrations.
Further, in non-farcical Holocaust films, the lethal “third rail” has, in fact, been inauthentic representations like Eva.Stories.
Lessons were learned from seeing projects critically dismissed. Both Forget Me Not: The Anne Frank Story (TV 1996) and The Devil’s Arithmetic (TV 1999) used time-travel to try to teach about the Holocaust. Both films are universally derided for losing their way by needlessly sending young adult characters from the 1990s back to the Holocaust, akin to Marty McFly. And neither film has had a lasting impact other than as cautionary tales about mixing film genres to reach adolescents in Holocaust education.
All of these and many other “new ways” have been abandoned. Indeed, Eva.Stories’ dirty-hands approach to Holocaust education is bankrupt and has long ago been rejected. For example, with the exception of the deplorable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), no fictional death camp feature has been released in the 20-plus years since Life is Beautiful (1997). Indeed, of the roughly 130 Holocaust films made since 1997, none are comedies in a camp, and no death camp films (other than Pajamas) have been based on purely fictional stories since Life is Beautiful. Notoriety, award and money still do not ultimately validate artistically discredited or obsolete approaches. Historically, the best Holocaust films do not rely on gimmickry to tell their stories.
CAN NEW ways of teaching the Holocaust emerge, even through social media? Perhaps. Holocaust education and media are constantly evolving. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Holocaust films were so gratuitously violent that, according to Commentary magazine, “Jewish heads explode in Schindler’s List at an average rate of one every 12 minutes.” Few would argue that Schindler’s List would have been less effective without most of the violence. And the great American Holocaust miniseries has also gone the way of dinosaurs since War and Remembrance, more than 30 years ago.
Even more starkly, although approximately 75 Holocaust feature films have been made since 2004, no solely American-produced made-for-television Holocaust films have been made since 2003, despite 30 American made-for-television Holocaust films having been produced from 1974 through 2003.
Why? Imagine why viewers trended away from watching made-for-television Holocaust films that were regularly interrupted to sell Volkswagens, Bayer or soap. Is there even a good product to sell after showing a gas chamber? Not really. The crass framework of commercial television often distracted from the storytelling and timing, making it far more difficult to plunge one’s self into the plot.
Instagram, with its hundreds of distinct segments buried in 30 postings in Eva.Stories and its tools framing the video, is like network television on steroids. By design, Instagram interrupts the full story and tries to distract with its overlaid tools. Far more insidious than television, Instagram’s goal is enticing viewers into clicking here and there, like subjects in a Skinner box.
Because of Eva.Stories, a few more Holocaust productions will be made for social media. They will likely refrain from placing 2020 technology into 1944 lives, backing away from the “looking glass.” Their plots will settle into more normative representations. And soon enough, as the buzz around Eva.Stories vanishes, social media-infused Holocaust education will be a memory, like Holocaust graphic novels, miniseries, extreme violence, unrealistic running-times, death camp comedies and afternoon specials.
Meanwhile, many good or great films are available for those wishing to supplement their children’s Holocaust education. For example, the most complete death camp film about a young girl who dies during the Holocaust is Anne Frank: The Whole Story (TV 2001), starring Ben Kingsley and Hannah Taylor Gordon, without a hint of contrivance.
In 2013, when visiting the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, Justin Bieber wrote in the guest book, “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.” Eva.Stories is an extension of that narcissistic belief, essentially putting a smartphone in Anne Frank’s hands, calling her Eva and then grasping forward for Justin Bieber’s attention. Even when viewed on a cellphone, the core lessons of the Holocaust taught through more worthwhile films will be remembered far longer than the flash of Eva.Stories. And soon enough, for better or worse, Inglourious Basterds will again be the placeholder.
The writer is a Holocaust educator and a lecturer at Yad Vashem’s International School of Education. The above passage is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Holocaust Film Bible: 75 Years of Narrative Holocaust Film. To pre-order the book, register at HolocaustFilms.com.