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Cuddly Nazis and Sympathetic Ghouls
A meditation on movies after reading Rich Brownstein and Alyssa Wilkinson
The opening number of “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers (1967)
A friend pointed me this morning to two interesting articles about film that wound up intermingling in my mind in a peculiar way, and I’m going to find out here whether I pull anything interesting out of that mental mash-up.
The first is an interview with Rich Brownstein about his new book, an encyclopedia of every Holocaust film ever made, containing “statistics on the content of the films, essays on their methods, descriptions and capsule reviews and information for educators looking to use Holocaust films in their curriculums.” His insights into why Holocaust films are made, why they come out the way they do, whether they are generally of decent quality (notwithstanding his many criticisms, he thinks that on average they are much better than most films, because fewer are made and they are made with generally greater care), and where they do go wrong, are all worth engaging with.
But of course what people are going to be most interested in are his criticisms of popular and venerated films like Schindler’s List:
The glorification of Nazis, I’m going to say, the humanization of barbarians is a hard no for me. I’m gonna hold the line there. And that’s my main complaint about “Schindler’s List.” Oskar Schindler was a repulsive, repugnant, horrible human being while the first five-and-a-half million Jews were killed. He didn’t care; he participated. And then all of a sudden, he grew a conscience, so he became a normal person. He didn’t become a good person. You would think somebody who was a cog, who had been participating with the Germans since 1936, that guy doesn’t get elevated.
Weirdly, I’ve never seen Schindler’s List; it came out before I felt obliged to see things just because of their cultural significance, and I haven’t gotten around to seeing it since (and I suspect it has become something of a perverse calling card with time to be able to say I haven’t). But to be fully honest, I’ve also probably avoided it because I am not drawn to Holocaust stories that are moral fables. Two of my personal favorite Holocaust films are probably Enemies, A Love Story and Europa, Europa, both profoundly ambiguous films—not about the Holocaust, which was of course absolutely evil, but about the people who were caught up in it. I haven’t seen The Grey Zone, which Brownstein touts as the greatest Holocaust film ever made, but I have now put it high on my personal to-watch list, among other things because it sounds like it is all about those ambiguities in the most extreme situation that the perpetrators of the Final Solution put human beings in.
And yet, I found myself uneasy with Brownstein’s judgments. Is it true that Schindler’s List is bad because it humanized a man who was indifferent to the murder of millions until he wasn’t? I thought it was because it made him a hero, because it used Auschwitz as the locale for a story of heroism and redemption, which can’t help but be pat. And yet Brownstein himself objects to other films (like Jojo Rabbit) that give an unrealistic picture of how many Germans did anything to help Jews, because in reality there were very few who did. Doesn’t that make Schindler’s actions more significant, even if Spielberg tried to force that significance into an overly simple moral framework? Meanwhile, even if only a very small number of Germans took any real risks to save Jews, does that mean that the vast bulk of the German nation were not human? Surely we don’t want to say that. Surely it means: this is part of what it means to be human, that you and virtually everyone you know could be indifferent to mass murder.
Then I read the second piece, by Alyssa Wilkinson at Vox, which uses the much-panned film Dear Evan Hansen based on the stage musical as a jumping-off point for meditating on what makes art good or bad, what the significance is of being moved by art you know on an intellectual level is bad, and related topics, enlisting Penny Lane’s latest documentary, Listening to Kenny G, on the side of complication and questioning of the validity of judgment itself:
His music refuses to engage with the history of jazz. It’s facile. It’s febrile. It’s beloved by authoritarians (one of his songs has been used for years to signal the end of the workday in China). It’s weirdly inauthentic. In one sequence, Kenneth Gorlick (the saxophonist’s real name) demonstrates how he produces his music, which involves a lot of cutting and pasting of recorded individual notes into one another via production software, totally upending the fundamental jazz value of live performance and risk and rough edges.
Kenny G’s music is sanded smooth, which is probably why he is so well known and successful. I don’t have to tell you that he’s popular, because you (like me) probably have at least one or two relatives who dearly love him, and who, perhaps, drive you mad.
Or maybe it’s you who loves Kenny G! Maybe you walked down the aisle to his music, or associate it fondly with chill evenings spent at home with a loved one. Maybe you’ve paid to attend a Kenny G concert unironically. What right do I have to tell you you’re wrong?
That’s the question Listening to Kenny G raises and doesn’t try to answer outright. Instead, I think, it focuses on a vital secondary question: Is there a dividing line between “I like this” and “This is good”? And should we care?
It’s a good question, and I’ve been a fan of Penny Lane (the director) since I saw her crazy early film, Nuts!, described as “The mostly true story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric genius who built an empire with his goat-testicle impotence cure and a million-watt radio station,” so Listening to Kenny G is now also high on my personal watch list. But I am not going to see Dear Evan Hansen, since I deliberately didn’t see the stage show precisely because I thought it would get on my nerves. A feel-good story about teenage suicide in which the protagonist becomes an unlikely hero because of a misunderstanding that he encourages by lying to everyone? Why would I want to sign up for that? I was as repulsed as Wilkinson was when she first heard what the show was actually about. I knew I wasn’t going to like it, and I knew I was going to be right not to.
But, then, how am I different from Brownstein? Aren’t my anticipated objections to Dear Evan Hansen ultimately of a moral character? If so, why did I enjoy Jojo Rabbit, a film Brownstein eviscerates? Why on earth, to stick the knife in deeper, was I moved by The Reader, a film he decries as one of the most bizarrely awful Holocaust films?
I know the answers in each case. I enjoyed Jojo Rabbit in part because I didn’t think it was fundamentally a film about the Holocaust as a historical event. It’s set during the Holocaust, albeit one portrayed in the candy colors that reflect the mentality of its ten-year-old protagonist. But it’s really about kids today, kids who have been known to find themselves drawn in to neo-Nazi circles because they feel rejected and misunderstood. Heck, there are neo-Nazi groups that are run by teenagers. For Brownstein, Nazism might be obviously evil, but for plenty of people Nazism is mostly cool. The film is a comedy about that phenomenon, and why it might still hold true, and seduce into evil, very much including people who don’t seem likely candidates to become Nazis at all. In a world where My Little Pony has become a neo-Nazi emblem, I think Waititi may be onto something with the tone of his film.
Does that mean he should be free to do whatever he wants with the Holocaust? Well, my own hard line is that I don’t impose those kinds of “thou shalt not” on art, not even Holocaust art. I am not crazy about the way the character and situation of the hidden Jewish girl are used in the film, not so much because her situation is unrealistic (which it is) as because she herself exists largely for the purpose of educating the young boy at the center, and that’s the great sin of most sentimental Holocaust art. But I kind of appreciate that for once a Holocaust film with the mentality of the kids’ film is actually a kids’ film, and not just infantilizing its audience. And look, if cuddly Nazis are a problem, I’ll point out that the only actual Nazi in The Producers, Kenneth Mars’s Franz Liebkind, is pretty cuddly too.
And what about The Reader? The thing about The Reader is that it isn’t really Kate Winslet’s film; it’s Ralph Fiennes’s film. That is to say: while Winslet is the focus of the camera’s attention, we don’t ever really get at her from the inside. Rather, we understand her through the eyes of the teenager she seduced. The soft focus on her culpability in the murder of 300 Jews is a function of the fact that, for Fiennes’s character, she’s the woman who inducted him into sexual life, and who, as a consequence, both permanently wounded him and left him permanently in love with her. Leaving aside whether this is supposed to be a metaphor of some kind—I do think that might be an important dimension of the film, with Winslet standing for some aspect of the German soul—I was drawn in to that situation. We feel bad that Winslet gets punished (alone) for crimes that she committed (with others) not only because she’s Kate Winslet and because she’s beautiful and sexy, but because the film has brought us to feel for her what Fiennes’s character felt for her.
Does that justify humanizing a mass-murderer (which is what Winslet’s character is)? I don’t know. I’m reluctant to say you can’t humanize a mass-murderer; every mass-murderer, after all, was human. But isn’t the story of loving someone, and then, years later, discovering they did something monstrous, and looking in their eyes and seeing: oh, they never really understood what they were doing, they still don’t understand; they haven’t really understood anything, all along; they didn’t even understand what they were doing to me, and yet, I love them—isn’t that a quintessential Holocaust story, actually? Not to mention a quintessential story about certain kinds of sexual initiation? I wonder sometimes whether The Reader might be best shelved not with other Holocaust films but with films like An Education, Rambling Rose and so forth, and their ferocious antidote, The Tale.
Speaking of which: I do like how Brownstein classifies Harold and Maude as a Holocaust film, which it is. But it’s also a story about the impact a relationship like that—intense, intimate (in this case sexual as well), with someone much older who has been through profound trauma—can have on a young person. As anyone who has grown up around Holocaust survivors can attest, the answer is complex and ambiguous. When I watch The Grey Zone, for example, I’ll be thinking of my grade school teacher who had been a Sonderkommando, and his impact on my life. While in middle school, I wrote and directed a play about Emanuel Ringelblum, which we staged for Holocaust Memorial Day. I was quite proud of the work, but I will never forget how pained and angry it made Mr. Borovik, how he shook with outrage that we kids were running around, laughing, high on the adrenaline of the stage, on such a solemn occasion, as though we had learned nothing from the play we ourselves had performed. What was it Theodore Adorno said? “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” Not a sentiment Ruth Gordon’s Maude would agree with, but that’s what makes horse races, even among Holocaust survivors.
In any event: I can understand and even partly agree with Brownstein’s moral objections to those films, even as I see why I appreciate them anyway. But if I’m taking the side of ambiguity, even of sympathy for the devil, then why on earth did I so viscerally not want to see Dear Evan Hansen when it was on Broadway?
I’m not sure I know. I worry that the answer is that everybody was saying it was great. If the consensus had been, oh, this is a train wreck because it’s a musical about such a creepy character in a queasy situation of his own making, it’s likely I would have been curious, even drawn to the subject and impressed by the bravery of the creators for daring to do something so edgy and unlikely to be commercial. The very fact that it was a hit, in other words, made me suspicious of it, that it must be handling its material poorly, sentimentally, in a manner that obscured rather than revealed what it was really about.
So what I guess I want to add to Wilkinson’s excellent meditation on the subject is that we’re not just attracted by some things that we know, on some level, are bad or objectionable; sometimes we are repelled by things that, when we articulate the reasons for our repulsion, turn out on paper to have similar characteristics to things that we love, even the things we love best. Sometimes the very worst art, from a subjective perspective, is something very nearly doing exactly what you think most needs doing, but doing it wrong, wrong in such a fundamental way that feels not only like a failure but a betrayal.
That certainly seems to be how Brownstein feels about some Holocaust films. And I appreciate that stance, even as I may differ from him in his judgments.