Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Thin Line Between Horror and Schmaltz: Hollywood and the Holocaust by Henry Gonshak

Can the Holocaust and art co-exist?

That’s what Henry Gonshak sets out to learn in Hollywood and the Holocaust. The film studies book, which came out last October puts more than two dozen movies under the critical microscope with a writing style that’s smart and (dare I say it?) fun.

Gonshak opens the book by asking “Can Hollywood get it right?” then proceeds to discuss, in depth, Hollywood’s various depictions of the last century’s darkest blot—everything from Charlie Chaplin’s timeless classic The Great Dictator to Quentin Tarantino’s bloody, cartoonish Inglorious Basterds.

His discussion focuses strictly on films made by major studios in Hollywood and ignores foreign and independent films like The Pianist, The Tin Drum and Au Revoir, Les Enfants. Though I was surprised and a little disappointed by the exclusion of some movies, his decision is understandable. To include every Holocaust film would have made for a much longer book. And an even more depressing one at that.

Nonetheless, there is much to be gained from having a book like this on your shelf (the one neighboring the DVD collection of films you hate to love, perhaps). Gonshak managed to amuse, provoke, anger, and sadden me, sometimes all in the space of a single page. He made me think about why and how we commit some images to film. As I read Hollywood and the Holocaust, it felt like I was embarking on a lively film studies course—indeed, many of the chapters sent me to Netflix and YouTube to watch films I’d never seen before, or in some cases to revisit ones I’d seen years ago.

Hollywood and the Holocaust begins with Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie,” The Great Dictator, which Gonshak calls “a masterpiece.” Released in 1940, the film has incited controversy over the years (some critics say Chaplin wasn’t hard enough on Hitler), but Gonshak reminds us that The Great Dictator was made in a time well before the world learned about the full extent of concentration-camp life.

On the other hand, the postwar The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) seemed to signal a turning point in Hollywood’s depiction of the Holocaust. Gonshak says it is the one film that “by far exerted the greatest influence on audiences and critics.” Still, he takes it to task for the way it all but ignores the Frank family’s Jewish faith and, in particular, he objects to Anne’s oft-quoted closing line: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Gonshak writes:
It’s an expression of belief so vaporous that no one (except perhaps the most cantankerous atheist) could possibly object to. How, after all, can anyone be against a God manifested in trees and flowers and human goodness? On the other hand, one might ask, why has such a benevolent deity sanctioned the Holocaust?
Gonshak holds Hollywood’s feet to the fire and can be unrelentingly critical: “The real problem is not that we have too many Hollywood Holocaust films but rather that we have too few good ones.” But he measures each of the movies with a judicious yardstick. He rightly calls the Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful “a Holocaust fable that consistently downplays the horror of the camps in order to ensure that nothing undermines its message about the imperishability of love.”

The longest chapter in the book is devoted, perhaps predictably, to Schindler’s List, which Gonshak says is the one Hollywood Holocaust film that “best treads the precarious middle ground between pure horror and schmaltz.” Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film is such a cultural touchstone that “for most Americans, Schindler’s List isn’t about the Holocaust; it is the Holocaust.”

Even as it entertains us, Hollywood has a way of making us numb to genocide (which, as Gonshak later points out, is not confined to Germany during World War Two, but also includes the Hutu massacres in Rwanda and Cambodia’s “killing fields”). Over time, have we become complacent about the horrors of Hitler’s “Final Solution”? Gonshak thinks there’s a very real danger of that happening.

To illustrate his point, he mentions a scene he witnessed in the Student Union Building at Montana Tech here in Butte, Montana, when the main lounge area had a display of posters depicting the Holocaust:
Although this exhibit of graphic photos took up almost the whole room, many Montana Tech students refused to allow its presence to curtail their normal activities in the lounge. As a result, alongside photographs of starving children slumped on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto and emaciated camp inmates staring blankly through barbed wire stood groups of fresh-faced Montana Tech students making amiable chitchat with their friends, scarfing down a hot dog or slice of pizza before class, even sprawled in easy chairs watching daytime TV soaps. In many ways, this juxtaposition was as chilling as the photos themselves, since it seemed unwitting confirmation of the bleak truth that humanity’s self-absorbed indifference to the suffering of others can allow an atrocity like the Holocaust to occur.
But is it the job of movies to “shake us to wake us” or to merely entertain us (as much as the Holocaust can be called “entertaining”)? These are just some of the big questions Gonshak wrestles with in his smart, thoughtful book: “Can the Holocaust be truly represented in art? And should it be?”

A version of this review originally appeared in The Montana Standard.

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