Maree (ms_maree) wrote in ontd_political,

Holocaust fiction works best when it fosters understanding

The Holocaust movie is an inexhaustible genre it seems. Still in living memory, the Shoah is a totemic source of stimulation and backdrop for artists wishing to explore extremities of human nature. It is irresistible yet dangerous territory for many writers and movie-makers, with few contributions able to meet the approval of more than a simple majority.

Among its lessons, the appropriately heart-wrenching Sarah's Key, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, reminds us that the Nazis had many willing collaborators. As American journalist Julia Armond (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) uncovers the tortured history of the apartment intended for her home, I reflected on my own mostly ignorant wanderings through the Marais district of Paris and other cities. Streets and buildings washed clean of the past relate no stories to empty vessels or closed minds.

If an important criterion of art is the provocation of a response from the audience, this is especially true for Holocaust stories. They must teach or, at the very least, remind us of important truths of the kind that cannot be rationalised. Without such insights, they may seem exploitative or gratuitous. In this respect Sarah's Key is a success.

German jurist and writer Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader, which was made into a film in 2008, was, quite appropriately, exposed to the harsh light of interrogation. He was criticised for humanising Hanna (Kate Winslet's Academy Award-winning role) who, as a concentration camp guard, was found guilty of a horrific crime. Similarly, The Lives of Others (2006, set in East Germany) was criticised for humanising the Stasi officer who protected the playwright and his actress girlfriend, in so doing allegedly distorting the truth. There is an expectation that works of fiction dealing with such topics must tell the truth, whatever that is.

''My impression is that the demand for fiction to be representative by presenting typical characters and situations doesn't come out of a concern for the truth but rather for keeping up a precious image of events,'' writes Schlink in his non-fiction political history book Guilt about the Past. ''It arises from the fear that writing about Germans as victims might damage the image of Germans as perpetrators, that writing about collaboration in the German-occupied countries might relativise German responsibility.''

Schlink argues that works of fiction may be comedies, satire or fairytales; they don't need to present the whole truth (which is unattainable anyway) or be completely accurate, but a truth ''that represents or opens our eyes to what happened or could have happened''. He does not justify major omissions or harmful distortions but argues, with regards to The Lives of Others for example, that ''the film's fairytale did so much good and victims of Stasi persecution have so often been recognised that their hurt over the film can be tolerated''.

Hence, for works of fiction in the Holocaust genre, a criterion for success should be that a truth is told that somehow advances our understanding of the what, why and how questions associated with this dreadful chapter in human history, and how the answers might relate to the world today.

I left the cinema after watching Good (2008) with no doubt in my mind as to what that particular truth was. For me at least, the story demonstrated the frailty of human virtue; how easily masses of ordinary, essentially ''good'' human beings can conform to the authority of a new dominant power; how close so many of us are to making decisions we would be ashamed of in our present contexts.

It was a truth reinforced by Hanna in The Reader, but at odds with Bruno's mother in the 2008 film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Her moral awakening, confronted with the reality of the concentration camp next door and the true nature of her husband's work, seemed barely credible, as if this clearly intelligent and sensitive woman had missed Krystallnacht and every other signpost along the highway to the death camps.

Based on John Boyne's book with the same title and written for children, a familiar story-telling device is employed: the ability of children to subvert cruel and divisive barriers erected by adults. Their innocence can make them better at discerning the truth and passing moral judgment than their elders. Unlike his older sister, who swallows Nazi propaganda hook, line and sinker, Bruno's bullshit detectors are more finely tuned and a source of great confusion as he tries to reconcile, as only an eight-year-old boy could, the various contradictions he encounters. So, as the tragedy unfolds, we learn that Germans have more in common with Jews than they think. There is a lesson here for Bruno's fictional family, but surely not one for the adult audience.

However, as with most films in the Holocaust genre, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas does bear witness, in its flawed fashion, to what happened and for all the victims, living or dead. Perhaps that is enough.

The story of the Holocaust is one that needs to be told and retold so that, through coherence, the truths so obvious to Bruno will be absorbed by a critical mass of us. Then ''Never again!'' might approach plausibility.

Tags: books, history, movies, opinion piece

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