Feb 14, 2017
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Holocaust Films/Books: What’s Been Achieved/Missed
by Doniphan Blair
In his brief Oscar acceptance speech, 'Son of Saul' director László Nemes thanked his lead, Géza Röhrig, the 'incredible cast and crew,' and said, 'in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within us, that allows us to remain human. That’s the hope of this film.' photo: Variety/illo: D. Blair
Dedicated to Pablo Royal
With the arrival of "Son of Saul", the stunning new film from first-time feature director László Nemes, which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (Hungary's second), plus the emergence in the Middle East of a mini-world war, which could culminate with an all-out attack on Israel, and the re-emergence of serious anti-Semitism in Europe…
“What more can be achieved by Holocaust films and books?” it is not unreasonable to ask.
Was Nazism cured by “art war” in addition to regular war, war crimes trials and the Marshall Plan? Were German filmmakers and authors, and artists from other countries—like The Beatles, who literally launched the '60s “romantic revolution” from Hamburg, Germany (August, 1960)—instrumental, so to speak, in that nation’s surprisingly swift recovery from the depths of depravity?
Is humanity helped by an increased awareness of the Holocaust and its Siamese twin, Nazism (pronounced NAT-zism, from Nationalsozialismus, the political party's name), or the complex context of European history? Certainly, the near-collapse of Western Civilization only 75 years ago, in 12 scant years, half of which involved vast conflagration and killing, suggests an Achilles's Heel worthy of investigation. No wonder World War Two (WWII) has become the biggest film-book cash cow in, as well as about, history, indicating an almost insatiable “Why?” with the Holocaust a bonus enigma, an extra, extreme butchery at the center of the killings of millions of other human beings.
In the end, however, can there be satisfactory answers? Can irreducible human truths be gleaned from grey-faced inmates, black-uniformed perpetrators, sardine-packed cattle cars or near-infinite brutality? If so, could Auschwitz be for psychology, philosophy, evolution theory—religion and mysticism, even, what particle accelerators are for physics?
“Thanks but no thanks,” say many perfectly decent people, including friends of mine, when informed of the next Holocaust offering, no matter how well done, which can, admittedly, make it harder to stomach. “I can’t sleep for days afterwards,” they sometimes add, or “I saw ‘Schindler’s List’  and I am still thinking about it,” or “I know all about the Holocaust.” While the last remark is worrisome, entering “anus mundi,” Latin for "asshole of the world"—as Wiesław Kielar, a Polish-Catholic cinematographer and long-term Auschwitz inmate, called it in his 1966 book of the same name—MUST BE voluntary.
'Son of Saul' lead, Géza Röhrig, amidst a back-breaking 12-hour shift emptying gas chambers. photo courtesy: L. Nemes
Still, since history is prenatal psychology, with the experiences of one generation inevitably passing to and often injuring the next, isn’t some familiarity with the subject well-advised to becoming an informed citizen of the 21st century? Traumatizing as it may be, and hard, if not impossible, to understand, with complex ramifications across the Middle East as well as Europe and even South America, “the 'show-ah' must go on,” as has been quipped by some media types (read Jews)—"shoah" being Hebrew for Holocaust, which, in turn, comes from the Greek "holokaustas," a rather precise term for “sacrificial burnt offering.” And, as with the classics of film and literature, each generation needs its own interpretation of Anus Mundi for a fresh avenue towards understanding. Now the millennials have theirs: “
Son of Saul
In addition to his innovative script (co-written with Clara Royer), László Nemes has developed a distinctive style and fantastic production values, starting with his masterful 2007 short, "With a Little Patience", about a secretary working in the front office of a concentration camp, oddly enough, also shot with a slightly bleached-blue look by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and worked on by "Son of Saul"'s Hungarian crew. Nemes did copious research, including close readings of recently unearthed caches of color photos of the ghettos and camps taken by Germans. "Son of Saul" is also well-served by its lead actor, Géza Röhrig, despite his only prior professional acting experience being on a Hungarian television show in 1989. Also a Hungarian Jew, if now residing in the modern Jewish ghetto of Manhattan's Upper West Side, Röhrig became Nemes's Hebrew everyman, or "mensch" in Yiddish, after meeting him when Nemes did a year at N.Y.U. Film School. Not only does Röhrig appear in almost every shot, filling the frame with his expression-less, yet watching-like-a-hawk face, or back of head, he was something of the production’s poetic muse. When visiting Poland as a twenty-something in the mid-1990s, he cancelled his tour to stay for a month near Krakow in the village of Oświęcim—called Auschwitz by the Germans, pilgrimaging daily to the “work camp” one mile out of town or a mile further to the “death camp," called Birkenau, to contemplate and write poetry. Evidently, Röhrig had not yet read the admonition of Theodor Adorno, the German-Jewish philosopher, sociologist and composer (1903-69):
“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
In keeping with Adorno, however, “Son of Saul” is affectless, prosaic, post-modern even, although Nemes rejects that categorization, as he does ALL previous Holocaust films! “Negative inspiration,” he called them during my December, 2015,
interview with him and Röhrig
. “It is very humanistic,” he said about his film, “pre-industrial, in a way.” Be that as it may—and “Son of Saul” does open with a long, evocative shot of the forest and returns to similar imagery in its ending, the film features a very modern technique, extreme shallow focus, which provides a crisp view of Röhrig’s Saul while pushing into blur the monstrosities swirling around him during 12-hour shifts in an unnamed camp (albeit much like Birkenau). Although the ending is modestly redemptive, according to Nemes—Röhrig disagrees, the film downplays dramatic arc, which, along with its novel focus and framing, makes the on-screen horror a tad easier to take—good news for our “holophobic” friends!
Indeed, “Son of Saul” received numerous plauditory reviews and awards, including the 2015 Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as the 2016 Foreign Oscar, and opened on January 15th, 2016, to good attendance in art houses across the United States. San Francisco’s Embarcadero Landmark Theater had better than average matinees, an employee told me, due to the older crowds, including some octogenarian Holocaust survivors straggling in to see if a filmmaker finally got their story right.
'Son of Saul''s Nemes and Röhrig ranged widely across Holocaust history, Shoah cinema and their own film in their interview with
. photo: D. Blair
Despite the blurry backgrounds, “Son of Saul” is hardly easy viewing. It takes place beneath Dante's "ninth circle of hell" among the “Sonderkommando,” internees forced to load, unload and clean the gas chambers and crematoria, collecting and sometimes pocketing the victims' valuables, while getting gassed every few months to prevent their secrets, stashes or selves from escaping, although—in a tip of the hat to traditional heroics— Nemes's Saul and his comrades plan to do exactly that. Until, while emptying a gas chamber of corpses, Saul comes upon the body of his son, the film's title character. Suddenly counter-inspired to attempt another Quixotic quest, Saul sets out to find a rabbi to perform his son's last rites in accord with Jewish law, despite the wellknown rabbinical waiver of performing rituals when doing so endangers life. In this manner, Nemes, Röhrig and associates resurrect not only the individuality and spirituality obliterated in the camps but human culture itself, which started with Paleolithic burial rites some 50,000 years ago. More precisely, Saul’s desire to reestablish Jewish “halakhic law” makes “Son of Saul” an appropriate eulogy for the Jews who didn't survive—who were torturously butchered, in fact, and whose story, according to Nemes, has been passed over by most of Shoah cinema as well as Western Civilization.
Does this mean all previous Anus Mundi movies are, well, crap?
The vast majority of Holocaust survivors I have read books by, seen or heard interviews with, or interviewed or spoken with at family gatherings, by appointment or at international conferences (which started in 1981), credit sheer luck above all. "They were going down the line, shooting every tenth man," I was told by my second cousin, Joseph Plonski, a Polish-Jewish-American survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, "I was the seventh or eighth guy." Alas, random chance doesn't make for great drama or insightful research since the dead don't add details, just "mere" statistics. Hence, almost all Holocaust films, plus much of the literary and academic work, focus on those who lived, making them de facto “survival of the fittest” stories. This puts them in odd alignment with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which was central to the worldview of the National Socialist Party, no matter how catastrophically the Nazis failed to comprehend it. Indeed, near the end of the war, a Nazi pseudo-scientist is said to have remarked something like: Hey, I just realized, if we don’t kill every single, last Jew, and the survivors reproduce, we will have bred a super-race! The Nazis also didn’t get the gist of, let alone read, Darwin’s second world-changing book, which investigates "sexual selection" and how species reproduce and nurture themselves, which is as important to evolution as simple endurance and can be called “survival of the lovingest.” Indeed, along with luck, which is a stand-in for "nature" or "god," survivors almost always attribute altruism and assistance from others, meaning "nurture."
Nemes’s youthful exuberance for his new interpretation of Anus Mundi aside, does “Son of Saul” eclipse the entirety of the enormous Shoah genre, including “Shoah” itself, the nine-and-a-half hour art house documentary by the French Jew Claude Lanzmann (1985), or “The Pianist" (2002), which figures first on many “Best Of” Holocaust film lists and took three Oscars. Based on a memoir of the same name by Warsaw pianist Władysław Szpilman and starring Adrien Brody, who becomes preternaturally thin by the end of the film, it was directed by Polish-Jewish-American-French Roman Polanski, famous for “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), the Manson murders of his wife, Sharon Tate (1969), and “Chinatown” (1974), not to mention he is a Holocaust survivor.
Pro-Palestinian protest in Paris veers anti-Semitic with chants of 'death to the Jews' and swastikas, July 26, 2014. photo: courtesy Vanity Faire
Given the release of “Son of Saul”, the revival of violent anti-Semitism in Europe (traditional hard right and left prejudices hybriding with new Muslim ones) and that the last of the survivors are now quite elderly, while kids today—although laudably familiar with the Holocaust—are not aware of how it was largely invisible before 1978 (hence could easily fade), perhaps this is a good time to sit down and take a long look at the films, books, art and philosophies of “holocology,” as the field can be called, after the emergence of a substantial academic sector in the 1980s. If we can identify the failures, chart the successes and uncover ignored aspects worthy of research, art or contemplation, perhaps critical new insights can be gleaned.
Au contraire Adorno, who was referring to poetry in its 19th century, civilization-supporting sense—and that certainly did crash and burn in WWII, if not WWI and its associated art movements (Dadaism and Surrealism), art is essential to digesting difficult experience. Long before Germany's unconditional surrender and the Allies' declaration of "victory day" (V-Day) on May 8th, 1945 (in the European theater, three months later in the Pacific), filmmakers, writers and other artists were hard at work, some even creating and secreting away art in the camps themselves. And, every few years since, as Nemes has done with "Son of Saul", they have invented new pathways into, if not through, the Holocaust’s forbidding territory. Indeed, even as the Allies were liberating the concentration camps, the beleaguered Soviet Army at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 (now International Holocaust Remembrance Day) and the much better-equipped United States Army at Dachau, near Munich, three months later on April 26th, including the highly-decorated Japanese-Americans of the 522nd Battalion, who enlisted out of internment camps (low-security prisons where 115,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated as "security risks"), Russian, English and American soldiers were shooting away—with cameras not guns—well aware that the crime scene had to be fully documented to be even partially believed.
Back in London, the cream of cinema's crop, notably Alfred “Master of Horror” Hitchcock (who came home from Hollywood precisely to assist on such a production), were certainly hard at work, editing atrocity footage into the prosaically titled “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” (see
), which English Prime Minister Winston Churchill hoped would finally answer the question of "Why We Fight", the title of an earlier newsreel series. By the time "Camps Factual Survey” was ready in September, however, replete with walking skeletons, Allied soldiers bulldozing body piles and bone-dry narration, plus the long takes Hitchcock recommended to refute accusations of image doctoring, the world was partying VERY hardy, and it continued for years. My mother, a 21 year-old Polish-Jewish survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, fondly recalled being in Paris during V-Day's second celebration in 1946, when she was "embraced, twirled and kissed;" and my father, an air force photographer in town for the third anniversary, told me festivities were "carrying on apace." After the killing comes the rebirth. Indeed, those celebrations, notably the "night work" generating the Baby Boom, equaled if not exceeded those of the '60s, which were, in fact, a gift to the post-war kids from their parents, the '40s "lost youth generation," also called the Greatest Generation.
British soldiers on body-digging duty in 'German Concentration Camps Factual Survey', an unreleased 1945 newsreel. photo: courtesy A. Singer
Too much of a downer, man, explained Allied authorities (in more verbose army speak, of course), when they cancelled "Camps Factual Survey", essentially agreeing with those who eschew Holocaust material today. Nazi atrocities were highlighted at Nuremberg (1945-6) and other trials, and individual nations held their own proceedings, almost always ending with death sentences, but the Allies decided not to adjudicate endless war crime, taking into consideration Germany's over five million dead, its over eight million Nazi party members (who couldn't all be arrested and tried) and its pressing need to standup a labor force and government in a bombed-flat, service-less and completely chaotic country. The Marshall Plan (1947) institutionalized notions of fair-play and forgiveness, switching out the punishment and penury of the Versailles Treaty (1919) or Morgenthau Plan (1944) for the aid, rebuilding and deregulation proposed by President Harry Truman's State Department and spearheaded by its secretary and eloquent advocate, General George Marshall, the five-star general who managed America's signature military expansion to world dominance as well as the entire war. England received the lion's share of American largess but Germany got critical assistance (11% of the total, almost a billion 1947 dollars), as did the rest of Europe outside the Soviet sphere, where aid was offered but turned down. Alas, the Cold War was already cooking; West Germany was a front-line state; the Allies brought over hundreds of German scientists (most Nazis); and they feared “Camps Factual Survey” would alienate average Germans while grossing out everyone else. Fragments were pulled from London's Imperial War Museum over the years, including the grotesque shots we have all come to know and longer segments for a 1985 television show, but it was only recently restored in full and the informative documentary about it, "Night Will Fall", by Andre Singer and his family, with many original sequences, only finally aired in 2015 (HBO).
Although “Camps Factual Survey”’s images of industrialized murder were mind-blowing, there was nothing new about rabid anti-Semitism, which had been around since the mid-Middle Ages. Those who assumed it was fading in the face of democracy and the Industrial Revolution were rudely awaken by the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), which violently divided France and involved the trials and retrials of a French-Jewish officer accused with fabricated evidence of spying for Germany (eventually exonerated, he served in WWI and died in 1935). The Impressionist painters were almost evenly split for and against Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the latter including the elderly Paul Cézanne, creator of Cubism-like country scenes, and Edgar Degas, painter of cafes and ballerinas, who turned on his friend, Camille Pissaro, the Impressionists' one Jew. When thousands of Parisians marched in the streets chanting “Death to the Jews,” the Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), there to cover the proceedings, abandoned his career and dedicated his few remaining years to establishing a state for the Jews, who, he suddenly realized, were essentially stateless. After the Dreyfus Affair, many assumed that if "pogroms" (medieval massacres of Jews) were to return to Western Europe, as they had to Russia in the 1880s, it would be in France not Germany, which was already famous for its music, philosophy, pharmacology, technology and social services, if not democracy. Indeed, until the US' late entry into WWI in 1917—involvement was vigorously opposed by devout Protestants, leading suffragettes, Irish Democrats (who wanted to stick it to England) and President Woodrow Wilson, until he became not only pro-war but an enthusiastic civilization builder (League of Nations was a pet project)—most American Jews supported the Germans, at least their eastern front against Tsarist Russia, where some five million Jews lived under oppressive conditions in a nation-sized ghetto stretching from Lithuania to The Ukraine and called the Pale of Russia.
1898 cartoon of novelist Emile Zola famously accusing the French Army of scapegoating Dreyfus. illo: Plain Dealer
While anti-Semitism was obviously essential to enacting the Holocaust, less well known is that it also underpinned the Nazi strategy for seizing power. Anti-Semitism unified rightists, extreme leftists, petite bourgeois, monarchists, pseudo-scientists and Sadists under one highly graphic and hateful flag, although stereotyping Jews as ruling industrialists AND radical communists did require some fudging. Indeed, Hitler made few coherent, larger points in his rambling, malevolent and often ungrammatical “Mein Kampf” (1925), still it remains a critical historical document—finally unbanned in Germany and re-released with extensive annotation, the first day of 2016 (soon becoming a minor bestseller)—for what it reveals about his occasionally astute political analysis, his highly opportunist and predatory tactics and his megalomaniac self-image. One of his recommendations: limit blanket animosity to a single enemy to avoid confusing the haters, hence his repetitive harping on “Jewish-Bolsheviks,” which did square the anti-Semites' stereotype circle; another, deploy the “big lie.” Average people “often tell small lies in little matters,” Hitler wrote, “but… they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.“ A third concerns the scientific application of terror: “I understood the infamous spiritual terror the [Nazi] movement exerts, particularly on the bourgeoisie, which is neither morally or mentally equal to such attacks… I achieved an equal understanding of the importance of physical terror to the individual and the masses.” Not to forget his piece de resistance—over-the-top anti-Semitism: “In his vileness he becomes so gigantic that no one need be surprised if among our people the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.” ("No one says it quite like Uncle Adolf...")
While anti-Semitism was central to Nazi strategy, it was likewise to their defeat. You might think destroying the Jews, less than one percent of the German population, would figure fairly small in a world war between industrial superpowers but the so-called Third Reich—the first was the Holy Roman Empire started by Charlemagne, a matriarchal-minded warrior, which lasted a full millennia (800-1806); the second was the Kaisers, 1870-1919, devised by German founding father Otto "Iron Chancellor" von Bismarck, a brilliant statesman—devoted an inordinate amount of energy to genocide. Indeed, they elevated the Jews to their third front, diverting trains needed for troop transport and troops needed for the Russian front, which made it an expensive fight, no matter how one-sided, in terms of men and materiel but also lost opportunities.
Although there could be no Nazism without anti-Semitism, counter-factually, had the Nazis embraced their Jewish neighbors of 17 centuries, with whom they shared language (Yiddish derives from 10th c. Middle High German), culture and even family ties and battlefield camaraderie (there were many intermarriages and Jewish soldiers, especially WWI on), they would have enjoyed Jewish efforts on their behalf, undoubtedly including military miracles like those delivered during WWI. The Nazis did invent jet propulsion but they largely rejected nuclear research as "Jewish science," due to the predominance of Jews among its pioneers, and despite having the world-class physicist Werner Heisenberg at their disposal. Friends with many of those Jewish scientists, Heisenberg evidently acted morally, playing down his own abilities and up the project's difficulty, which precluded the development of nukes for the V-1 and V-2 rockets bombing England much of the war's last year. During WWI, conversely, Jewish scientists were held in high regard, notably the chemist Fritz Haber who co-invented the ammonia synthesis process for making nitrogen to manufacture the mystically-mirroring, life-destroying explosives AND life-enhancing fertilizers. Explosives had been dependent on the saltpeter imports from Chile interrupted by Allied control of the Atlantic, a loss which could have terminated German war-fighting capacity. Haber also proposed and helped develop chlorine gas, the first of such WWI scourges, understandably bringing war crime accusations after the war, although charges were soon dropped and he was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry instead. Admittedly, nitrogen-based fertilizers did help feed billions and remain in use today, despite periodic diversion into munitions (as in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and other terror attacks). Regardless, the Big Lie in Germany after the war was that they were defeated not due to having exhausted their munitions, men and food, with some civilians reduced to eating sawdust-infused bread, or due to the arrival of the Americans, who finally marched down into the grotesque trenches of the Western Front in the summer of 1918, but because of the Jews. Supposedly, German Jews not only shirked front-line duty for cushy desk jobs but secretly negotiated an unjust surrender and foisted it on an unsuspecting Germany—the so-called “stab in the back” conspiracy. In point of fact, as most Germans were well aware, Haber had literally “loaded the gun in the front” with gifts to his beloved fatherland so phenomenal yet frightening that his wife, also a Jewish chemist, despaired and killed herself.
Fritz Haber shows soldiers how to use the chlorine gas he developed in WWI. photo: courtesy Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin
Few recall that Big Lie today but another starring the Jews is very much with us: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Purported to be the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish leaders, to set bank interest rates, destabilize countries and the like, it remains a bestseller in the Arab World and the prototype for current conspiracy theories like 9/11 and Holocaust denial. “The Protocols” was concocted around 1903 by the Tsar’s secret police to deflect outrage against the tyrannical and troubled, four century-old Russian monarchy, and put to immediate Stab-in-the-Back use. How did barely-industrialized Japan defeat the massive Russian military in 1904? What triggered the democratic Russian revolution of 1905 or the communist one of 1917? The Jews, of course, although exactly how they profited from such upheavals was obscure while their suffering from them was obvious. Indeed, the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war triggered terrible deprivations and waves of refugees, some who carried “The Protocols” west where a Times of London reporter, Lucien Wolf (Jewish, as it happened), exposed it not only as a forgery but plagiarism (1921). Many paragraphs were identical to a 1870 French political satire by Maurice Joly, albeit with the word "Jew" switched in. In the supposedly-swinging 1920s, “The Protocols” eclipsed the drawn-out Dreyfus Case and inflamed anti-Semitic imaginations far beyond Europe, especially around a mystery that continues today: What’s with the Jews and moneylending? Churchill alluded to "The Protocols" in an article (he was also a respected journalist and author) but retracted after The Times' expose. Henry "Model T" Ford, however, stood by "The Protocols", serialized it in his newspaper, distributed it as a book and in his four-volume, fraud- and hate-filled extravaganza, "The International Jew" (1922). Endorsed by the Vatican, "The Protocols" was publicized by the Catholic press and the Nazis mandated its inclusion in German curriculums as actual history.
By the 1920s, the ancient accusation against the Jews of murdering god (they condemned Christ, according to the "New Testament", but the Romans crucified him) could be absolved either by the Jews, or Christians themselves, finally accepting Christ's famous forgiveness or, conversely, scientific rationalism. Meanwhile, the medieval calumny of Jews killing Christian children to make Passover matzo, the notorious Eastern European “blood libel,” had long since passed its statute of credulity limitations. ("Wouldn’t blood turn white matzo red? Cannibalism, really?!?") Indeed, the last Blood Libel, known as the "Beilis Affair" for its defendant, Menahem Mendel Beilis, was properly litigated in 1913, in Kiev, Russia, and ended in acquittal, despite the obvious anti-Semitism of some jurors. ("Score one for civilization...") Nevertheless, 20th century allegations that the Jews secretly controlled the world, largely through the banking systems, which medieval moneylending allowed them to get in on early, supposedly substantiated by “The Protocols”, could not be converted or proven away. What is difficult to discern is equally hard to disprove as to verify. By virtue of this epistemological trick, European anti-Semitism completed its long, multi-stage journey from primitive, religious and tribal to modern, zoological and eliminationist.
Such a reinvigorated anti-Semitism was so pervasive and palpably strange that most of modernism’s early literary giants—Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller—addressed it one way or another in their first big books: “Metamorphosis” (1915), “Ulysses” (1922), “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) and “Tropic of Cancer” (1934), respectively. Admittedly, the first offering from revered anti-Fascist and futurist George Orwell (1903-50), “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933), was lousy with anti-Semitic slurs but he redeemed himself in his 1945 essay “Antisemitism [sic] in Britain”: “The two current explanations, that it is due to economic causes, or on the other hand, that it is a legacy from the Middle Ages, seem to me unsatisfactory, though I admit that if one combines them they can be made to cover the facts. All I would say with confidence is that antisemitism is part of the larger problem of nationalism… and that the Jew is evidently a scapegoat, though for what he is a scapegoat we do NOT YET know,” (my emphasis).
Paris in the '30s with writer Henry Miller and Anais Nin, friend, feminist author and publisher of his novel, 'Tropic of Cancer' (1934), which was inordinately concerned with Jews. photo: courtesy Henry Miller Library
Conversely, the French doctor-writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) barely mentions Jews in his first two books, the biting and bleak but also funny and respected “Journey to the End of the Night” (1934) and “Death on the Installment Plan” (1936), although a few years later he started scapegoating Jews for EVERYTHING! Such racist rants were left out of his literature because, paradoxically, Celine was a great enough of a writer to know novels have to be explorations not lectures. Vigorously pumping out anti-Semitic screeds by the time the Germans took Paris—without a fight on June 14th, 1940, he tried to enlist but was rejected—too crazy, even for the Nazis, despite being a medical doctor! Tried and convicted by French authorities, in absentia after the war, Celine did no time and was re-accepted by the literati, notably the Jewish-American poet and beatnik cheerleader, Allan Ginsberg, who felt Celine's contributions to culture and public health (ironically, he was dedicated to doctoring the disenfranchised) made up for his world-class misanthropy and Hebrew-hatred. The ever-tolerant Ginsberg also visited Ezra Pound, the American poet, classicist and around-town hipster (friend of almost every 1920-'30s writer of note), while he was jailed for 14 years in Washington D.C. for not only living in Italy during the war but doing radio broadcasts that were virulently pro-Fascist and -Nazi as well as anti-Semitic. Regardless of Ginsberg's gesture, Pound continued to associate Jews with money and greed, only recanting very late in life with the excuse that he had mistaken the symptom for the cause.
Brooklyn-born Henry Miller (1891-1980), who lived in Paris, 1930-39, knew Pound and admired the novels of Celine (who refused to see him, ridiculing him as an "intellectual"), addressed the new anti-Semitism, Nazism and "all the 'isms'," as he called them, through irony, individualism, absurdism and reverse psychology, even painting himself as a “Jew hater,” which baffled critics then and continues to do so to this day. If Miller was so anti-Semitic, however, why does he fall madly in love with and write almost exclusively about Jews, including his main muse, second wife Mona, or almost every character in his pioneering, plot-less and hallucinatory, yet slice-of-life autobiographical novel “Tropic of Cancer"? One of the loudest wake-up calls of the '30s, and recognized as such by other writers, including Pound and others who may not have gotten the irony of his anti-Semitism, "Cancer" was dismissed by American academics and banned by the courts for pornography not politics, although cheap paperbacks were smuggled back in bulk from Europe by intellectuals and soldiers alike, its forbidden fruit-ness and invention of literary Cubism making it an early beatnik bestseller. Miller himself escaped Europe just before the deluge through a paradise-like Greece to California, where he lived in the wilderness of Big Sur, in impoverished, albeit "high hippie," circumstances, until 1962 when a judge ruled "Cancer" had "literary merit" and his first real pay check arrived (age 71, hundreds of thousands of dollars). Although spoofing anti-Semitism was central to his aggressive zeitgeist excavations, beneath the sarcastic flights of fancy and similarly exaggerated misogyny was a life-positive romantic and mystic—"Ever merry and bright" was his Paris Days' slogan—AND "one of us." After "Cancer"'s opening pages elucidate his X-rated passions for Tania, a married Jewess (Jewish woman), more modest affections for "almost all Montparnasse [Paris, which] is Jewish, or half-Jewish, which is worse," and that he himself is "as ugly as a Jew. And who hates the Jew more than the Jew" (a reference to Hitler's suspect lineage), Miller forewarns on page nine: “For the Jew the world is a cage filled with wild beasts. Standing there helpless, the door locked, he finds that the lions do not understand his language. Not one lion has heard of Spinoza. Spinoza?” (For others who may not have heard: Spinoza was the 17th century Dutch-Jewish philosopher who kicked off the Enlightenment, developed multicultural deism and, for his troubles, was excommunicated by the rabbis.)
A similar, if less surreal, tack was taken by Gregor von Rezzori (1914-98) in “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” (1969), a humorous, humanist series of interlocking tales about growing up in an Austro-Hungarian backwater with various Jewish friends and lovers but also a fallen-aristocrat, virulently anti-Semitic father, who would go apoplectic when Jews gained entrance to his hunting club or committed other “crimes.” There's nothing like the chapter opener when "the big something falling from the floor above my grandmother's [Vienna] apartment," turns out to be "the young Raubitschek girl," the Jewess Minka, attempting to commit suicide. She survives and the young Von Rezzori falls in love, despite her acquisition of a limp. One of the few books written in German to expose Jews as well Germans, not to mention himself, to brutally honest assessment, “Memoirs” is a rollicking good read and rather revealing sociologically. One of the many terrible things about the Holocaust, von Rezzori once mused: We are no longer allowed to discuss "the Jewish Question."
Kafka and his modernist masterpiece, 'Metamorphosis' (1915), better translated 'The Transformation', on which he forbade the use of a bug image. photo: Kafka Estate
Already way down that ironic, surrealist road, however, was arguably the greatest—as well as the earliest—literary modernist, and the movement's only Jew (aside from Marcel Proust): Franz Kafka of Prague, Czech Republic (1883-1924). Miller's stylistic opposite, Kafka used faux-classical storytelling, more extreme surrealism and stand-ins for Jews—without mentioning the word, who turn out to be most of his protagonists. There's Gregor Samsa, the salesman-cum-cockroach in “Metamorphosis”, the hapless anti-heroes caught up in the incomprehensible systems of “The Trial” (1925) and “The Castle” (1928), and even the cute, little “mouse folk” singer, Josephine (from a 1924 short story). Kafka modeled Samsa almost entirely on himself, starting with his surname's length and letter pattern but extending to the entire backstory: Samsa is also a traveling salesman and the family's breadwinner, with an overbearing father and one sister he's close to. Overshadowing everything, of course, is Samsa's shape-shifting into an insect, which highlights the extreme alienation of the modern human but also the Jew before the story plummets into a truly cracked universe where people can be considered vermin and need to be exterminated for the human family to return to normal, prefiguring the Third Reich in propaganda as well as deed. One of Kafka's last stories, before dying from tuberculosis at 40, concerns a "hunger artist," from the eponymously-titled book (1922), whose performance is to fast nearly to death on display in a cage (much like Miller's “Lion's cage Jew” and also standing in for the "last moral man"), even as public interest wanes. Oddly enough, Kafka himself book-burned some 90% of his own work. Indeed, “The Trial” and “The Castle” would have gone up in smoke had not his friend, Max Brod, not only ignored his final directive to destroy all diaries and unpublished pieces but escaped to Palestine with a trunk-load of manuscripts minutes before the Nazis slammed shut the Czech border in 1939. Despite his low evaluation of his unfinished work, however, Kafka's themes and “second-level" metaphors were so astute and spot on that, while critics have long argued over the influence of Jewish thought on this or that one of his texts, NOT A SINGLE ONE has noted his oeuvre-wide trope, smuggled into world-wide consciousness by beguilingly simple, if strange, stories but left unpacked.
Given such prescience, it's no surprise “Kafkaesque” not only entered common usage but became a top adjective for the nearly-indescribable Anus Mundi. “The word has become the representative adjective of our times,” announces literary biographer Frederick Karl, in the text and title of his "Franz Kafka: Representative Man" (1991), even as he misses Kafka's Semitization of most of his protagonists. Precise language is mandatory to examining complex events, which, in fact, is the ONLY way to avoid repeating them—as more eloquently expressed in the famous dictum by George Santayana (or Burke, a century earlier). Words are always fighting the last war, as it were, suggesting that edge-pushing art predicting the future and proposing new concepts and terms is as critical as rigorously researched history depicting the past.
Indeed, a century before Kafka, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was already enema-ing the bowels of anti-Semitic hypocrisy with his chivalrous love poesy parody, “Donna Clara” (1823). In it, a noble knight and a lovely maiden flee a fiesta to steal kisses in a moonlit garden until, out of the blue, she whispers, "Yes, I love thee, oh my darling; And I swear it by our Savior; Whom the accursed Jews did murder; Long ago with wicked malice." After repeatedly trying to woo her off such abject idiocy, the knight shuts her up by blurting out, “I am the son of the Grand Rabbi, Israel of Saragossa!” Although Heine converted to Protestantism (which adopted aspects of the "Old Testament"), as did many Jews for career advancement, he remained what the brilliant German-Jewish-American historian Hannah Arendt called a "conscious pariah," someone sitting outside while looking deeply into two cultures. A radical thinker and fierce artist, who rebalanced the ancient dichotomy between Judaism and Hellenism—morality and mysticism, on the one hand, and beauty, art and science, on the other, he also integrated French Revolutionary ideals into his poems, many of which were set to music, making them still more popular. Heine went so far as to warn, in 1821, “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people,” a timetable the Nazis abided scrupulously, first torching his books—which they despised, since he was Germany’s foremost Romantic poet after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)—and, a decade later, his descendants. Unable to burn away, so to speak, his poems from Germany's popular poetry anthologies or collective consciousness, they credited them to anonymous, despite common knowledge they were Heine's.
Chaplin and Reginald Gardiner before their escape in 'The Great Dictator'. photo: courtesy C. Chaplin
With satire starting in ancient Egypt but blossoming in the burlesque of the Swinging '20s, as well as modernist literature, not to mention the futility of critiquing psychopaths to their face, it’s understandable that the first Hollywood film to finally confront the Nazis and the crimes being committed against the Jews was a masterpiece of the genre, “The Great Dictator” (1940), by Charlie Chaplin, the town's biggest star, who directed, wrote, scored and, of course, clowned.
Jewish artists and entrepreneurs had long flocked to the fledgling film industry—as they did to any new opportunity for their repressed talents and desperate finances—and cinema was a perfect fit for writing skills honed over three millennia and a facility with negotiation developed after the severe employment and movement restrictions of the Middle Ages. Indeed, aside from 20th Century-Fox, the one studio run by "goys" (Yiddish for non-Jews), Hollywood was largely created by Louis Mayer, Marcus Loew, the Warner brothers and a host of other under-educated but street-savvy and culturally-conscious Jewish immigrants, as enumerated in "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (1988, Neal Gabler). Despite a media empire expanding across the country, and then the globe, and the acquisition of incredible wealth, however, they retained the arriviste's fear of rocking the boat and the business-person's preference for aligning with the dominant culture and a majority of ticket-buyers. Not so with the screenwriters or directors, however, like the German-Jewish-American Ernst Lubitsch, considered by many to be Hollywood’s romantic comedy master, or Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957), who anointed himself with a "von" even though he barely spoke German (his parents were "Yiddling" Austrian Jews). A thick accent in German as well as English didn't stop von Stroheim from becoming a silent film star, first in Germany and then in Hollywood, and then one of the latter's first auteur directors, obsessed with every detail of production, faculties he put to full use in his ten-hour epic "Greed" (1924). About a San Francisco dentist's descent into evil and an obvious metaphor for America, "Greed" was not to the taste of its producer, Irving Thalberg, who ordered it cut to under three hours, precipitating the eventual end of von Strohiem's directing career, although other directors continued to revere him, doing homage by giving him bit parts.
Chaplin, on the other hand, was NOT Jewish, was his own studio boss (partner in United Artists)—making him THE first auteur, AND he resembled Hitler, from the mustache and short stature to date of birth—four days apart! Moreover, Chaplin's screen personae, the "Little Tramp," was the veritable opposite of a belligerent dictator and considered Jewish by many, including many Jews, a characterization he didn't disavow (his half-brother was Jewish). As it happens, Jewish culture is steeped in Chaplin-esque characters and, as with the Inuit's 50 words for snow, Yiddish has endless terms for them. (Here's a mnemonic trick for remembering those starting with "S": A "schlemiel" [clumsy] carrying a pot of hot soup trips and spills it over a "schlimazel" [unlucky] and the floor, where a "schmegegge" [stupid] slips, causing everyone to laugh, save the "schmendrick" [non-entity], who wonders “What's so funny?”) Given his schlimazel-like screen character and deep empathy for the underdog (derived, in part, from an impoverished upbringing), on top of the reluctance of the Jewish studio heads, Chaplin must have long known it would be up to him to do a take down of his doppelganger.
After studying the newsreels of Hitler, Chaplin rehearsed and shot extensively (production went 533 days), while rewriting furiously, since he liked to ad lib and reshoot to fit, AND the war started mid-shoot. The final story is about a poor, timid barber in Tomainia (referencing ptomaine poisoning as well as Germany's Pomerania province), who resembles the country’s dictator, Hynkel—a plot driven by Chaplin's mystical mirroring of Hitler, while allowing him to play both parts. After induction into the army, Chaplin works his physical comedy magic, running about following idiotic orders, riding an artillery piece like a bucking bronco, and, as the dictator, doing a long, perfectly choreographed dance with a big, globe balloon (
), which references world conquest while making him look a tad gay. The barber also saves a pilot, Schultz, the handsome lead common to Chaplin films, who returns later leading the soldiers seizing the barber's ghetto. When Schultz refuses to attack and even protests the treatment of the Jews—called Jews, not some euphemism, he's arrested. The film includes a Mussolini-like character and the Anschluss, Germany’s “peaceful absorption” of Austria—hardly peaceful for the Jews, who were beaten, barred from school and work and pressed into forced labor. Then, in a complete script-flip, the dictator goes out duck hunting in civilian clothes, is mistaken for the barber, and arrested. This inspires Schultz, who hid out in the ghetto after escaping jail, to convince the barber to dress up impersonating Dictator Hynkel, who was slated to give a big speech. Suddenly dropping all allegorical pretenses, Chaplin has his barber-cum-dictator confess a change of heart and launch into a long plea for peace. That speech should be trimmed or edited out entirely, according to Chaplin's Hollywood buddies, one even claiming he would “lose a million for every minute,” but he carried on regardless, especially since the studios did decline to finance the film and President Franklin Roosevelt was calling to offer encouragement.
Chaplin's barber-as-dictator has a new plan—peace—as 'The Great Dictator' leaps from satire to farce and, finally, heartfelt appeal. photo: courtesy C. Chaplin
If “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means," according to the oft-quoted dictum of Germany’s premier military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz (whose 1832 "On War" would have disappeared if not published posthumously by his wife), then Art War is politics by still other means, starting with propaganda posters and cartoons, radio broadcasts and newsreels but extending to films, books and high art. Although Chaplin insisted he would've cancelled the comedy had he known the extent of the atrocities, he obviously didn’t and “The Great Dictator” became not only the triumph of a masterpiece-studded career but the perfect bludgeon with which to beat the Nazis: satire broadening into farce until, at the film's denouement, he reverses course with a naive, heartfelt and humanist appeal. One of history's greatest Art War hits, in both senses of the word, the film made tons of money while delivering to audiences healing laughter at the expense of the very death mongers out to annihilate them. Sadly, when his next film, ”Monsieur Verdoux” (1947), went further into biting, black-comedy and the ‘50s Red Scare began to roll, Chaplin was savaged by rightwing politicians and the press and, having never secured an American citizenship (he was English), hounded into self-exile to Switzerland.
Not coincidentally, Hitler himself was a film fanatic, in addition to the painterly pretensions he assumed during his dissolute Vienna youth. Once in power, he often watched one or more films a night, with discussion after, keeping his early-rising generals sleep deprived. In a bizarre twist of mystical-mirroring, Hitler ADORED Chaplin, despite his assumption he was Jewish (there’s no evidence, however, that he stole Chaplin’s signature painted-on mustache for his bigger “toothbrush” version). Trag-ironically, Hitler fraternized mostly with Jewish artist-types in Vienna, one even helping him hawk his dour, dun-colored and people-less paintings. Alas, others worked at the Vienna Academy of Arts, which rejected him, obviating any good will. Unable to take a joke, by definition, the Nazis banned “The Great Dictator” (as did the English, abiding their 1938 appeasement agreement with Germany) but, also unable to resist the lure of his idol’s latest, Hitler had a copy snuck in via Portugal and viewed it—twice! Although Hilter was impervious to its charms, “The Great Dictator” swayed opinions world-wide and even had influence on the ground. One heart-warming story has Serbian resistance fighters switching in “Great Dictator” reels to a theater of unsuspecting German soldiers, much like in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), although in real life they stormed out, pistols blazing at the screen (for more "Great Dictator" trivia, go
Another monumental wartime contribution to the “ridicule-the-Nazis” genre was “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) by Ernst Lubitsch, who started directing silents for Mary Pickford but earned his reputation satirizing the Soviet Union with "Ninotchka" (1939), starring Greta Garbo and penned by Billy WIlder, an Austrian-Jewish-American about to become another great comic director. Just imagine, while WWII is raging, catching a light comedy about a Warsaw theater company run by a husband-wife team DURING the German invasion! A rom-com as well as a satire, it soon segues to the wife’s infidelities, which puts her in close contact with a young Polish resistor and then an older double agent, setting up a series of politically-incorrect cracks: “Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?” “No, I prefer a slow encirclement;” or “We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping." ("Barump... boom!") The high jinks grow ever more outrageous as they employ their acting and costuming skills to manipulate the double agent and then Hitler himself, who shows up for the performance of "Hamlet" (1600) referenced in the title. (“The Fuhrer ADORES live theater…") Along with a serious subplot about saving Jews, there’s an extended riff on a Jewish-looking actor who desperately hopes, before he dies (which may very well be in short order), to play Shylock, Europe's most famous Jewish character, from Shakespeare’s presumed anti-Semitic play, “Merchant of Venice” (1605). The gag climaxes when he finds himself onstage, in front of Hitler, doing “Merchant”’s surprisingly pro-Semitic speech: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
Carol Lombard and Jack Benny are Polish actors fooling Nazis and aiding resistors in 'To Be Or Not To Be' ('42). photo: courtesy E. Lubitsch
Although Lubitsch’s is better, “To Be or Not to Be” was remade in 1983 by the inveterately irreverent Mel Brooks (with him as the hubby and his wife, Anne Bancroft, the wife). Of course, Brooks had already done “The Producers” (1968), a Ridicule-the-Nazis tour de force, which he doubled down on in 2001 with a remake—as a live musical, no less, which swept the Tony Awards that year. “The Producers” concerns two theater guys (read Jews), who scheme to bilk their investors by mounting an intentional flop and, after a long search, find a guaranteed bomb, “Springtime for Hitler”, by an ex-Nazi living in Queens, who confides, “Not many people knew about it, but the Fuhrer vas a terrific dancer.” That remark draws a broad grin from the main producer, played in 1968 by Zero Mostel, who overacts, Yiddish theater-style, parodying Jewish producer-types as well (in contrast, his accountant, played by the late Gene Wilder, 1933-2016, underacts). Mostel could go broad with aplomb, however, having just starred in the mega-award-winning “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), the first musical to reference the Holocaust. It closes with Mostel's Tevye and his lovable fellow villagers fleeing with their few possessions, forced out by the Tsar's soldiers. While "The Producers"'s producers thought their "Springtime for Hitler" was obviously grotesque, with hyperbolic dance numbers and lyrics like, “We're marching to a faster pace; Look out, here comes the master race" (fantastically rendered in Brooks's remake), jaded New Yorkers found it quality farce, precipitating both a hit show and their arrest for embezzling.
While these films showcased Art War’s satirical side, there was an equally strong, serious front, which Hitchcock highlights in his 1943 “Shadow of a Doubt”, right from the opening shot of a bespectacled girl who refuses to stop reading her book to answer the phone until she walks over, climbs a stool and raises the receiver. Said to be one of Hitchcock’s faves from his own catalog, “Shadow” stars Joseph Cotton, as an obvious Nazi stand-in, who pays a visit to his sister’s family in Small Town, USA (Santa Rosa, California), while on the lam for seducing, robbing and murdering widows. Indeed, Hitchcock often placed smart, powerful women not only center screen and story but ethical considerations, in stark contrast to his unconscionable abuse of actress Tippi Hedren during the making of "The Birds" and "Marnie" (1963-4, see
). In “Shadow”, Hitch has the bookworm’s older sister, a rambunctious Teresa Wright, first warmly invite her uncle in but then wise up to him way ahead of the cops or her oblivious parents. “So go away, I'm warning you,” she informs him, coolly. "GO AWAY or I'll kill you myself!” Despite Cotton's attempt to convince her that everyone is, in fact, venal and corrupt—“Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off these houses, you'd find swine?”—and then murder her himself, she makes good on her threat, turning “Shadow of a Doubt" into a loud shout out to the many underdogs of the 1940s up to their eyeballs in Nazis.
Wright was also the featured female in the Academy Award-winning “Mrs Miniver” (1942), by William Wyler, yet another German-Jewish-American director, who started in Westerns but soon graduated to bigger Hollywood fare (eventually the behemoth "Ben-Hur", 1959). It follows a wartime English family, making due and doing their part, with Wright’s husband becoming a pilot, her father-in-law using his boat to evacuate English soldiers trapped in the "Debacle of Dunkirk" and her mother-in-law capturing a German parachutist. While fairly routine activities, in movies, at least, the two Mrs. Minivers also exemplify the hard work, encouragement and grace under fire—until that fire kills Wright's character—which can be called the “women’s way of war." At her funeral, the vicar eulogizes her indomitable spirit by paraphrasing Churchill's greatest, darkest-hour speech (May, 1940). The latter reads: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills—we shall NEVER surrender!"
Jan Karski, the Polish spy who witnessed the Holocaust, snuck out and reported to Allies, but was often disbelieved (circa when he was honored by Israel, 1994). photo courtesy J. Karski
Admittedly, there was not a lot of publicity about the Nazis' people-burning during WWII, although claims there was none at all are refuted by the 1943 “Black Book of Polish Jewry”, sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and its surprisingly accurate accounts. In fact, US intelligence was fully apprised by 1942, a few months after Auschwitz fired up its ovens. Central to their intelligence was reports by Jan Karski (1914-2000), a young Polish-Catholic diplomat of patrician stock but also the resistance, who incognito-ed his way across Germany, with a medically-induced swollen jaw to cover his accent, and over the Pyrenees mountains to Portugal. Meeting with Churchill, Parliament (which stood for a minute of silence), Roosevelt and the O.S.S. (precursor to the CIA), Karski told them what he experienced after donning a Jewish "yellow star" and crawling through a tunnel into the Warsaw Ghetto: sepulchral streets jammed with emaciated, hollow-eyed people, the stink of rotting corpses, Hitler Youth wandering about, killing for sport. “We passed a miserable replica of a park… Mothers huddled close together, nursing withered infants,” Karski writes in his 1944 “Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State”, which sold 400,000 copies, was excerpted in Collier's Magazine and finally republished in 2014 (prefaced by the first Madame Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, a Czech child refugee, who learned late in life that she was, in fact, Jewish). “Children, every bone in their skeletons showing through their taut skins, played,” Karski continues. “‘They play before they die,’ my guide said, his voice breaking with emotion.” Disguised as a Ukrainian soldier, Karski also entered a pre-Auschwitz killing field, site of hysterical screaming, where the Nazis were savagely herding Jews into pens and poisoning them in closed trucks with quick lime or carbon monoxide. More insane and excruciating than a “regular” death camp, Karski vomited for days after. His trauma only expanded as he was listened to politely, disbelieved outright, including by Jews, or accused of exaggeration to increase donations to Poland, even though he carried corroborating microfilm evidence—not to mention, NOTHING WAS DONE! Karski learned to live with that somehow, settling in the US capital and teaching at Georgetown University, but when I saw him speak, at a San Francisco synagogue's Shoah memorial, already over 80, his eyes burned and he could not stand still as he recounted the horror of what he'd witnessed AND of not being believed.
Holocaust Film/Books Chapter 2
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Feb 29, 2016 - 12:41 AM