Why is Holocaust the filmmakers’ beacon? - analysis

Holocaust pictures would always be made, just as in the olden days Hollywood churned out cowboys vs Indians sagas.

IN THE CZECH film ‘The Painted Bird,’ Petr Kotlar plays a Jewish boy wandering through a desolate post-World War II Eastern Europe. (photo credit: Courtesy)
IN THE CZECH film ‘The Painted Bird,’ Petr Kotlar plays a Jewish boy wandering through a desolate post-World War II Eastern Europe.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
LOS ANGELES – With all the confrontations and horrors in the world – and given the general short memory of the masses and media – why do novelists, researchers and particularly filmmakers return to the topic of the Holocaust year after year?
In numerous interviews with Jewish film producers and directors, my leadoff question was: “Assuming that Albanians or Swedes, instead of Jews, had founded Hollywood and continued to make many of the creative decisions, would we still get such Holocaust-centered movies as Schindler’s List rather than epics of the Vikings or the Balkan wars?
The answer always was that yes, Holocaust pictures would always be made, just as in the olden days Hollywood churned out cowboys vs Indians sagas.
So to test the question and answers on a global scale, I started to analyze films submitted annually to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences competition for what used to be called “Best Foreign Language Picture,” but was changed this year to the less chauvinistic “Best International Feature Film.”
For this year, 93 countries, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, entered their “best” films, of which two were eliminated for exceeding the limits on English dialogue.
The selection committee qualified 10 entries as semifinalists, of which two (or 20%) focused on the Holocaust as its main theme.
In The Painted Bird, submitted by the Czech Republic, an unnamed young Jewish boy goes through a litany of horrors, according to its synopsis.
His parents send him to relatives in Eastern Europe to avoid antisemitic persecution. The boy’s aunt suddenly dies and he has to fend for himself in a wild, dangerous and hostile world.
The Painted Bird is directed by Vaclav Marhoul and adapted from the novel of the same title by Jerzy Kosinski. It has been shown at international film festivals in Minsk, Cairo, Berlin and Palm Springs, California.
Also among the 10 shortlisted entries is Hungary’s Those Who Remained, which is about the romance between two concentration camp survivors, one a middle-aged doctor, the other a 19-year-old Jewish girl. In 2015, Hungary won an Oscar for the movie Son of Saul, set in a death camp.
Worth noting are some of the films that were eliminated in the first round, including Latvia’s The Mover, in which a Latvian dockworker saves 60 Jews during the German occupation, with the help of his family and friends.
PROF. DEBORAH LIPSTADT of Emory University in Atlanta, the author of numerous scholarly books on the Holocaust, said that she was not surprised “by this fascination with the most extensive genocide in history, one committed by a country that was considered to be the most advanced, cultured and educationally accomplished country.”
“It happened in the heart of a continent that considers itself to be enlightened. The Germans did not act alone. From France to Latvia, the Netherlands to Norway, they had accomplices. They numbered in the hundreds of thousands. As a result of this genocide, one out of every three Jews on the face of the earth was murdered.
“Is there any wonder that creative people are perplexed by this unprecedented phenomenon?”
Also commenting was Prof. Holli Levitsky of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who founded and heads the university’s programs in Jewish and Holocaust studies. For reasons of space, her comments have been abbreviated.
“The strongest case why the memory of the Holocaust increases rather than diminishes in power over time is that each generation re-witnesses the events and thus reproduces the trauma,” Levitsky wrote. “The further we get away from the event itself, the more generations feel its effect – and most strongly by those who illuminate history and culture for its citizens – such as novelists, researchers and filmmakers.”
Emeritus Prof. John K. Roth is the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College in California. He has authored and edited hundreds of articles and more than 50 books in his field. His lengthy letter responding to questions has been compressed for space reasons.
“For a time it was hoped that calling attention to the Holocaust might curb, if not eliminate, antisemitism, keep genocide at bay and raise the ethical quality of human life.... These assumptions are proving too optimistic in retrospect.... So what can calling attention to the Holocaust do?” he wrote.
“The Holocaust, as Michael Berenbaum said, serves as a negative absolute... and shows how much truth and right matter. It is for these fundamental ethical reasons that scholars, novelists and filmmakers return again and again to the Holocaust, especially when times are fraught....
“Attention to the Holocaust is an act of resistance; it works in spite of forces that wreck human flourishing.... The Holocaust and other disasters do not have to happen. It does not follow that Holocaust studies and education are sufficient to prevent human-made catastrophes, and the suffering they inflict, but it can help, and we ignore the Holocaust at our peril.”