Art and Literature

X-Men First Class and Sarah’s Key: The Shoah one more time

How best to bear witness to the unthinkable, the horrible, and atrocious, the unforgettable?

Art has been asking that question ever since the ILIAD.

It is interesting to us at MAGICALLY REAL that the Holocaust continues to pose just such a challenge, despite the many novels written about it, and the scores of films made about it.

The first-hand survivors—the good, the bad, the collaborationist, and the fake — are dying out.  And so, the Holocaust as representation retreats from direct memory and into indirect representation and eventually into myth.

This summer two very different sorts of films enter the Holocaust-fiction fray.  They are X-Men First Class and Sarah’s Key – one an unabashedly commercial step in the MarvelComicization of the filmic universe, the other a combination English/French project about a Parisian apartment that contains a hidden, traumatic history.

Which film is “better”?  It’s a tough call.

Sarah’s Key tries very hard to do all the right things.  As did Schindler’s List, and Sophie’s Choice before it, and the mini-series HOLOCAUST before that, this is an earnest attempt to deploy history (in this case, the history of France’s collaboration with the conquering Germans) to make us feel shock, discovery, regret, shame, guilt, sadness, and hopefully a sense of determination not to repeat the sins of the past.  As is true for all of these films, children are involved and play an important role, choiceless choices (Lawrence Langer’s term invoked in his important study Holocaust Testimonies: Ruins of Memory[http://www.amazon.com/Holocaust-Testimonies-Professor-Lawrence-Langer/dp/0300052472]) are involved, and surviving is never simple, or clean, or easy, or finished.  To its credit, Sarahs’ Key is deeply aware of the issues of gender, and its foregrounding of female heroes is one of the most positive aspects of an otherwise predictable story-line.

X-Men First Class, is in the words of Jennifer Carey, something of a reboot of the story – enabling more $$ for the franchise.  But for all its James Bond whiz-kid wizardry (and good lookin’ guys and gals), X-Men First Class understands something that Sarah’s Key doesn’t.  It knows that a powerful way into the unspeakable is through the indirect – using familiar faces like that of All American Kevin Bacon for the incarnation of evil. The film also understands that the representation of the Holocaust must revolve around revenge versus forgiveness, and it must – inescapably — deal with race, with gender, and with all sorts of “difference,” as well as the ways in which our societies do not in fact tolerate, let alone welcome “the other”.

Whether realism – or another aesthetic style – can ever effectively approach atrocity is a huge topic – to which we will return.

But for now, if you are interested in non-realistic depictions of the Holocaust, consider the following (offered in no particular order):

  1. Terminator 1, (film), James Cameron http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088247/
  2. Adolph  (graphic novel in 4 volumes) Osamu Tezuka http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_%28manga%29
  3. X-Men the Legionquest /Age of Apocalypse series (comic books) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Apocalypse
  4. Maus, (graphic memoir in 2 volumes)Art Spiegelman http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/218/projects/oliver/mausbyao.htm
  5. The Night Porter (film), Liliana Cavani http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071910/
  6. The White Hotel, (novel),  D.M. Thomas http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/specials/thomas-hotel.html
  7. “The Tumblers,” (short story), Nathan Englander, http://www.theshortreview.com/reviews/NathanEnglanderFortheReliefofUnbearableUrges.htm
  8. Life is Beautiful, (film), Roberto Benigni http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/

Categories: Art and Literature

4 replies »

  1. Nice one. Ive been thinking latel that I prefer unrealism in Hollywood. There’s an arrogance to realism, a hubris that thinks were getting toear the real, when we never are. It’s more salubrious for audiences when theres no pretense Iofmimetic mastery. I’ll take tim Burton over Christopher Nolan and benigni over Spielberg.

    • I wouldn’t be too hasty to discredit the value of realism. As Anthony Hopkins so eloquently stated in his Oscar nominated performance in Amistad, ironically another Spielberg film, “Who we are is who we were”. I think there is in inherent value to placing a human face on atrocity. Despite this, I maintain that both realism and unrealism speak to certain undeniable truths of the human condition. Where realism unabashedly shows the true nature of inhumanity, unrealism sort of tricks the audience into believing something they might not have concluded on their own. It plays on universal principles that effectively communicate those truths in a media that is more palatable to a wider or more receptive audience. Someone who appreciates the truth of X-Men can have a greater understanding of Civil Rights and the Holocaust. They can be empowered to act preemptively so that such things cannot recur. In the end, I think both real and unreal are vital to telling the story of the human race, going hand-in-hand in perfect compliment. Both are equally important. I personally put a lot of stock into the study of history, especially in preparation for my exploits into science-fiction writing. I really can’t see one acting independently of the other.

  2. Thanks Anthony. I think your point about the “arrogance” of realism is a great one. A writer-friend commented to me recently on how literature mostly lies about the way things actually are. Taking that comment as correct, the more overtly “false” art is, perhaps the more it can get around some of these issues, as well as the hubris of the “faithful representation.” In the case of witness narratives, this ethical/political obligation is arguably even more urgent. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for posting Owen, and for your insights on this very rich topic.

      It’s interesting that you mention AMISTAD, which is of course, a historical drama, indeed almost an historical re-enactment (despite criticisms of it’s inaccuracies (see Wikipedia and other sites). It’s closer to the tv drama HOLOCAUST than it is to either Sarah’s Key, or The White Hotel. It is also interesting, because, if I remember correctly, the film did disappointingly at the box office. So, there’s the practical problem of getting people to watch or read a realistic account of atrocity.

      There’s also a further matter that interests me and that I don’t know the answer to. Does the Holocaust as subject matter work better in fantasmatic/unrealistic formats, because of the considerable Jewish tradition of the magical midrash (lesson), and the connections between Jewish authors and filmmakers and surrealism and expressionism?

      It’s also interesting to me that — to my knowledge — the only non-realism attempt to narrate slavery is Octavia Butler’s KINDRED. And I guess Toni Morrison. I would like to know more about non-realistic attempts to depict slavery in the US. I also believe there are,, but do not know much about non-realistic accounts of other atrocity experiences inside and outside the US. This where I find Murakami and Foster so fascinating.

      Thanks again.

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