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