A writer in NJ Jewish News rambles (albeit intelligently) on the new crop of Holocaust-related films. I’ve gotten into this business myself with a review of “Defiance,” to be released commercially on Dec. 31. “Defiance” is based on a great story, which is somewhat demeaned by its conventional Hollywood treatment.
A writer in the UK Times worries that most of these films offer a sympathetic portrayal of Nazis, but I think he’s being at least a little unfair. “The Reader” is a very absorbing film. There’s nothing in it that absolves the Hanna Schmitz character, memorably portrayed by Kate Winslet. In fact, I think it contains a subtle indictment of German culture, particularly the characteristic that is commonly observed of many Germans to this day of a rigid obedience to rules and a narrow-minded devotion to one’s “job.” (I know that this is a stereotype, but my experience tells me there’s some validity to it.)
By the way, any temptation in this time of renewed carnage to compare Israelis with Germans, would get it wrong; Israelis tend to suffer from the opposite of this “German trait.” Israelis are generally anarchists in spirit who hate to follow rules.
“Valkyrie” depicts the nearly successful assassination plot against Hitler in July 1944, about a month after D-Day. I’ve never heard that the would-be assassin, Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise), was antisemitic (a point made by the UK Times reviewer), but this would hardly surprise me. Still, the History Channel claims that von Stauffenberg was moved to resist Hitler at least in part by his revulsion at the Holocaust. And if he had succeeded, ending the Holocaust would have been high on the plotters to-do list. Von Stauffenberg was a tragic hero who almost killed Hitler; other than the fact that he didn’t succeed (and that the film’s probably not so great), where’s the problem?
Hanna Schmitz became a concentration camp guard because it was a job she could retreat to, rather than to take the promotion she was offered at a Siemens plant because an office position would have revealed her great shame in life – that she was illiterate. She even takes the rap as the leading criminal at her trial – more than the other guards – rather than to admit that she was illiterate and therefore not the author of the guards’ report of the incident in which 300 prisoners burned to death in an Allied air raid (that the others accused her of writing). She is clearly both a criminal and a tragic figure.
The UK Times writer apparently hasn’t absorbed the lesson Hannah Arendt provided in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” her world-famous book about the Eichmann trial. She got into trouble for the sub-title, “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” because she drew a picture of a careerist bureaucrat with blinders on; he was a monster because of the work he did, not because he was inherently evil. On the other side of the coin, von Stauffenberg was a flawed human being who almost succeeded in doing something immeasurably good.
I can’t comment on the other films mentioned: “Good” and “The Boy in Striped Pajamas.”