The Obligations of History

Accuracy versus irony in depictions of the Holocaust
by Anne Nelson  posted April 1, 2010
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

This never could have happened without a survivor named Poldek Pfefferberg, whom Oscar Schindler saved from Auschwitz.  —Steven Spielberg's Academy Award acceptance speech for Schindler's List, 1994.

In Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz played a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews. Well, Christoph [gesturing across the auditorium]—the motherlode!  —Academy Awards host Steve Martin, 2010

Somewhere in time, between 1994 and 2010, it became permissible in Hollywood to treat the subjects of the Nazi era and the Holocaust with irony and bombast, instead of the reverence that was formerly expected. Not everyone is comfortable with the shift; Inglourious Basterds, which fictionalizes the end of World War II, failed to harvest its predicted array of Oscars, and a number of critics and historians have regarded it with distaste. But it has pulled in vast audiences and profits around the globe—unlike the more serious films that continue to explore the Holocaust's actual historical legacy.

For decades a debate has quietly raged as to whether the Holocaust should be depicted artistically at all. Even films as reverent as Schindler's List have been criticized for any departure from the historical record. At the same time, there are fears that the Holocaust could be forgotten by future generations, or subsumed into the long list of 20th-century atrocities. Holocaust education is explicitly mandated in 24 states in the U.S. and implicitly required in many others; educators are increasingly using film in the classroom to engage their students.

But today's students encounter radically divergent treatments of Holocaust themes in popular culture. On one side is a wave of dramas and documentaries that explore the historical record more thoroughly than ever before. At the other extreme is a new generation of feature films that take unprecedented liberties with history, treating the period as a vehicle for entertainment—the most obvious example being Inglourious Basterds.

As various critics have noted, Quentin Tarantino's riff on the Nazi era is more homage to film history than to world history. The Basterds score showcases Ennio Morricone's spaghetti-western themes, and the script is a pastiche of action-film genres. In Tarantino's manic vision, Hitler and the Nazi leadership are—very ahistorically—gathered into a Parisian movie theater for a Jewish revenge fantasy. Tarantino's plot device of linking a Holocaust crime to a Jewish revenge fantasy echoes the 2006 film Black Book, by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven's film also features a (fictitious) beautiful Jewish heroine whose family is murdered by the Nazis. She joins a resistance group, only to be catapulted into Grand Guignol
fantasies of brutality and revenge.

In a Dutch interview, Verhoeven explained that in Black Book, "The events are true, the story is not." The action-film fantasies of the last third of the film contrast sharply with the impressive reportorial detail of Verhoeven's earlier film about the Dutch resistance, Soldier of Orange (1977), which was based on a book by a member of the resistance group. It may be that feature films that concentrate on the issue of resistance find it easier to adhere to the historical record. The script for Tom Cruise's Valkyrie followed the timeline of the July 20 German coup attempt, minute by minute; the German film Sophie Scholl drew heavily from interrogation transcripts, and Danish director Ole-Christian Madsen devoted years of original historical research to the script of his extraordinary resistance film Flame & Citron (2008).

In some respects, this pattern is puzzling. There were actual Jewish-led anti-Nazi resistance groups in Europe. Defiance (2008) was faulted for lapses in historical accuracy, but its storyline had the virtue of publicizing little-known events. But other, equally compelling true stories of Jewish resistance activities abound, such as the saga of the Herbert Baum group in Berlin and the Zionists of the Rote Kapelle in Brussels. The British found German Jews who volunteered to be parachuted back into Nazi territory to provide intelligence to the Allies. Yet cinema has opted to invent Jewish characters and situations, leaving countless actual stories untold.

In Tarantino's world, Jewish characters are not only fabricated, they're parodies, while their actual historical Nazi persecutors are utilized as props for Tarantino's imagination. Nonetheless, it is clear that the genre has commercial appeal. Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino's highest-grossing film to date, and Black Book was the most profitable film in Dutch history.

It's unclear whether Tarantino's approach will become a trend in Hollywood. But filmmakers persist in presenting new facets of the historical record, in both documentary and feature form. Some of this work has been spurred by recent developments in research, as historians sort through previously unexamined records and race to interview the last survivors of the era. Filmmakers are also benefiting from archival footage newly sprung from Soviet-era vaults.

One of the most striking examples of this trend is a new French documentary, Einsatzgruppen: The Death Brigades (directed by Michael Prazan), which had its U.S. premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival in January. Einsatzgruppen provides an exhaustive three-hour account of the Nazis' "special units" that conducted the so-called second Holocaust, or "holocaust by bullets," taking some 1.5 million lives on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945.

The Einsatzgruppen, four "special task forces" of the SS, were created specifically to carry out the mass murder of civilians in the East: Jews as well as Roma, Communist Party members, and suspected partisans. Their operations covered a vast territory, but Prazan chose to focus on several areas that had been extensively documented on film—mostly by the Nazis themselves. Much of the newly discovered footage is in color, startling to audiences accustomed to the distancing effect of black and white. To the archival footage, Prazan adds his own extensive interviews with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators.

Prazan's documentary not only describes the actions of the Einsatzgruppen in stunning detail, it also recovers valuable material for the historical record. He learned that clusters of former SS personnel lived in villages in Lower Saxony. As the SS faced defeat at the end of the war, they boarded trains, unit by unit, and disembarked together as well. Prazan (mis)presented himself as the son of a member of the French SS division, researching his father's story, and recorded hidden-camera interviews. Other extraordinary material includes an elderly Ukrainian woman's eyewitness account of the Babi Yar massacre in 1941, and rare footage from the Soviet archives of a Soviet war-crimes trial of SS personnel.

But Prazan's vision is also clarifying. Einsatzgruppen is divided into two parts, "The Mass Graves" and "Funeral Pyres." Prazan demonstrates that early on, the Nazis presumed that the fog of war would effectively cover their crimes. But in 1943, German forces uncovered the graves of thousands of Polish officers who had been murdered by the Soviets under Stalin's orders (an action described in Andrzej Wajda's powerful film Katyn). The international outcry rattled the Nazis, and alarmed at the prospect of future judgment, they set about unearthing and burning the bodies of their own victims to destroy the evidence.

In his comments at the Jewish Film Festival, Prazan reminded the audience that of the 3,000 members of the four units—responsible for 100,000 murders a month over 1941-42—only 25 were brought before the court at Nuremberg. Of those, four were executed. The majority of them were free men after 15 years—around the same time the film Judgment at Nuremberg was released. (Stanley Kramer's 1961 production gave the comforting, if misleading, impression that the American pursuit of Nazi war criminals would be relentless and immune to political pressure.)

The role of Einsatzgruppen as a historical corrective will depend largely on its distribution. It has been broadcast on French television and screened at festivals, but Prazan admitted he was having trouble placing it in wider distribution. Ironically, it cannot be broadcast in Germany, due to laws that prohibit showing the faces of individuals implicated in war crimes. But the climate has been discouraging in the U.S. as well. Prazan's film is relentless in its images of the slaughter. After three hours of heartbreaking tales and mounds of bodies, the viewer runs the risk of succumbing to numbness. There is no question the film does not belong on U.S. commercial networks, bracketed by beer commercials. But neither does it fit into the increasingly "uplifting" public-television documentary format, or the weakening cable documentary lineup. In other words, it is unlikely to reach a wide American audience to serve the purposes of public awareness and education.

Einsatzgruppen takes a place of honor in a series of documentaries that have made a major contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust. In the past, these have largely dealt with the phenomenon of concentration camps. Alain Resnais's 32-minute Night and Fog (1955) brought images of the death camps to a mass audience a decade after the war. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) was a nine-hour exploration of the role of the bystander.

One of the earliest feature films about the concentration camp experience was Fred Zinnemann's The Seventh Cross (1944), based on the bestselling novel by German author Anna Seghers. Seghers' novel, written from exile in Mexico in 1939, depicted the escape of a communist prisoner and the ethical choices of the friends he asks for shelter. A Jewish communist, Seghers set her story in 1936, well before the onset of the Holocaust, when the majority of concentration camp prisoners were communist political prisoners. Zinnemann's 1944 film takes the liberty of erasing the historically apt communist identity of his protagonist (played by Spencer Tracy), and adds an updated emphasis on Nazi anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, MGM tastelessly promoted the film with a fake "manhunt" for a Spencer Tracy look-alike "escaping" across America, complete with reward.

Germany's first feature film about the camps was released in 1963, in East Germany. Frank Beyer's Naked Among Wolves was based on the true story of a Jewish child who was protected by communist prisoners in the camp at Buchenwald. Although the story was shaped to serve the purposes of communist propaganda, the film was unusual in depicting interactions between Jewish and political prisoners. It starred the great German actor Erwin Geschonneck, who had spent six years as a political prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. (Beyer and Geschonneck revisited the concentration camp setting in their original version of Jacob the Liar (1975), the only East German film to receive an Oscar nomination.)

Contemporary films about concentration camps often focus on the camps at Auschwitz, although they represented only a few of some 1,200 camps and satellite camps in Germany and the occupied nations. The Hungarian film Fateless (2005), set in Budapest and Auschwitz, was based on an autobiographical novel by survivor Imre Kertesz. The film is less concerned with the documentation of events than the sensory recreation of the day-to-day experience of the camps—utterly stripped of the jarringly lighthearted moments that leaven earlier films such as Life Is Beautiful (1997) and the 1999 American remake of Jacob the Liar. Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002), adapted from the autobiography of Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, was another largely literal depiction of events in the nightmarish world bordering the Polish camps.

While these films received critical appreciation and a raft of awards, none of them achieved the commercial success of Inglourious Basterds. But Basterds received mixed reviews, praised for its stylish filmmaking but excoriated for its historical distortions and for glamorizing its "seductive Nazi villain." Holocaust historian
Daniel Mendelsohn accused Tarantino of appropriating the Holocaust to serve his personal obsession with vengeance, and for "turning the Jews into Nazis."

By reducing the portrayals of Holocaust-era "Nazis" and "Jews" to cartoons and placing them in a false historical context, Tarantino challenged the cultural norm of reverence toward the Holocaust. (It's no accident that the very terms holocaust and shoah are drawn from the religious vocabulary.) What harm is there in a little cinematic fantasy? Shakespeare in Love was a charming work of the imagination about a historical figure. Filmmakers have taken liberties with the biographies of everyone from Napoleon to Genghis Khan.

But Holocaust survivors still live, and can still be harmed by the trivializing of their trauma. Holocaust deniers still exist, and still look for reasons to explain why Jews "deserved" to be murdered. Young audiences have less exposure to serious, morally grounded instruction in history, and are more influenced by mass entertainment vehicles than ever before. Citizens and policy-makers still argue over whether to honor the Geneva Conventions and utilize torture, themes that Tarantino finds amusing. Educators and human rights advocates fight a rear-guard action to protect a sense of the deadly serious lessons history has to offer. Unlike the distant mists of the Napoleonic Wars and the Mongol invasions, the Holocaust and the crimes of Nazi intolerance have a clear and present application to many urgent questions of our time.

In the end, films about the Nazi era may say more about the period in which they were produced than the one they depict. Today's offerings show an intense cultural divide about the meaning of history. For others, the mantra of "never again" is a constant challenge to probe and to understand the unimaginable truths of the past. When today's teachers in Minnesota and Kansas face their classes, will young Tarantino fans confuse the plotline of Inglourious Basterds with the historical record? If so, will this constitute an outrage—or a "teachable moment"?


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Mélanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino


Intersecting Paths by Jean-Michel Frodon
More: Article Archive


Anne Nelson teaches New Media and Development Communication at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. She won a 2005 Guggenheim for work on her 2009 book on the German resistance, Red Orchestra, currently in development with Salty Features and Trilogy Films.

More articles by Anne Nelson
Author's Website: Random House page