The Holocaust is no new subject for film, but its scope is so horrendous that all its stories could never be told. And even if they could — if the lives of the six million dead, of the countless millions who survived, of the countless millions who allowed such horrors to happen could be related to us — would they ever cease to inspire such dread, such numb fascination as do those we’ve already been told? If it weren’t true, if it all hadn’t really happened, the enormity and evil of something like the Holocaust would never be believed in a fictional story… nor would, I suspect, the depths of the human will to survive we now know are there to be drawn upon.
Perhaps it’s because those real events redefined our understanding of the human capacity for both depravity and endurance that we never cease to be grimly mesmerized by them. And though four films this fall and early winter touch on the Holocaust, not a one of them is anything less than horrifyingly enthralling.
Director Roman Polanski (The Ninth Gate) has his own tale of horror and survival — he escaped from the Krakow ghetto as a child — and he has obviously used that to suffuse his latest film, The Pianist, with the same extraordinary combination of disbelief at what can’t be happening with determination not to become a victim that characterizes the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman. A classical pianist and composer, Szpilman was a seemingly unlikely fighter, refined and sophisticated, though Adrien Brody (The Affair of the Necklace), in an exceptional performance, gives him a steely backbone bolstered by his art. As the first Nazi artillery is fired upon Warsaw, his Szpilman keeps playing a radio concert, undeterred until actual damage to his studio forces him out. In what becomes virtually a two-and-a-half-hour one-man show for Brody — and for Polanski’s darkly lavish and harrowing re-creation of the Warsaw occupation — Szpilman endures the escalation of Nazi horrors, from being forced to wear a Star of David identifying him as a Jew and his escape from the death trains to hiding under the noses of the Nazis to his eventual salvation after the Russian liberation of the city.
It’s the slow building of the Nazi oppression that lends a hint of understanding as to how they got away with their crimes. If the Nazis had started rounding up Jews and other “undesirables” the day they marched into Warsaw, there’d likely have been a huge outcry. But when the persecution starts out as minor inconveniences, it doesn’t seem so bad. Though you want to cry out for Szpilman and his family and friends to resist right from the beginning — we know now that wearing gold stars isn’t just an indignity but a softening up for greater horrors to come — it’s sadly understandable why they submit, complaining, yes, but willingly. And when each step on the climb from inconvenience to genocide hardly seems worse than the previous one… The Pianist builds slowly but inexorably toward what is inevitable only in with our historical hindsight, and the film’s great power is in showing us how the inevitable wasn’t obvious at the time. And in that power, the film serves as a potent admonition for us today, living in a political climate defined by the PATRIOT Act and Total Information Awareness, that oppression must be fought at every step lest we become desensitized to it until it’s far too late to do anything about it.
The Grey Zone
Director Tim Blake Nelson’s (O) hauntingly unforgettable The Grey Zone, on the other hand, drops us right into what would be the most unbelievable vision of both human corruption and our instinct for survival if it weren’t actually true. The Sonderkommando were special squads of Jews at Auschwitz who, in exchange for a few extra months of life, helped in the processing of their fellow Jewish prisoners, from their arrival at the camp to the disposal of their dead bodies. Blake Nelson pulls not a single punch in his depiction — based on a book by Miklos Nyiszli, who was a doctor at the camp — of the 12th Sonderkommando, whose plans for an armed revolt get sidetracked when their own senses of morality kick in.
With an unlikely but excellent ensemble cast — including Daniel Benzali (The End of Violence), Steve Buscemi (Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams), Natasha Lyonne (Kate & Leopold), Mira Sorvino (Triumph of Love), and David Arquette (Eight Legged Freaks), who surprisingly proves here how utterly wasted he’s been previously — Zone is as bald an exploration of human desperation as I’ve ever seen. The Sonderkommando defied the traditional image of the concentration camp victim as weak and emaciated: they ate well and had relatively comfortable living quarters as “pay” for their complicity, and they struggled with own consciences, as we see here, in a way that their fellow prisoners did not — because they didn’t have to. Blake Nelson offers us yet another previously unexplored horror of the Holocaust: the Nazis demonstrated what it takes for human beings to deaden their consciences and commit the unthinkable… or to help commit the unthinkable. Watching human beings lead other human beings to their deaths, soothing the way with seemingly kindly lies or forcing them along violently, in exchange for food and wine and a soft bed, is pure agony. Knowing that it really happened is unbearable.
The heinousness of what Adolf Hitler wrought is so shocking to the mind and the scale so immense that many people will likely be deeply offended by Max, a fictionalized account of Hitler’s life as a struggling artist and veteran of the Great War in Munich just postwar. The film so humanizes Hitler, in fact, and does so with startling dashes of humor and pathos, that Menno Meyjes, its successful screenwriter (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) turned first-time director, producer Andras Hamori (Sunshine), and producer/star John Cusack had a desperate time raising funding for the production. But they persevered, and the result is one of the most stunning, most daring films of 2002.
We should be offended by Max, not by Meyjes’ audacity but by what he reminds us: that Hitler was not a demonic monster, not supernaturally evil, but that he was entirely human. How could any mother’s child have done what he did? What drove him to the depths to which he descended? To dismiss Hitler as other than human is to let the rest of us off the hook, and to fail to acknowledge that Hitler revealed a terrible yet very human potential only paves the way for his like to rise again.
Noah Taylor (Tomb Raider) portrays the young Hitler as, not surprisingly, full of rage: at the abysmal treatment of veterans by a war-weary German population, at the punitive treatment of defeated Germany by the victors, but mostly at his own ineffectual self. A technically proficient artist, he is unable to transfer his rage to the canvas — and the lack of passion in his work is a deficiency he’s unaware of until art agent Max Rothman (Cusack: America’s Sweethearts) points it out to him, which only gives him more to rage at.
Rothman is Hitler’s diametric opposite, a man simmering with his own disappointments — he was a painter before the war took his arm — but able to channel his anger constructively, into his passion for the artists he represents. Cusack takes Max through the usual dance between offhandedly charming cynicism and deeply felt emotion that characterizes all his roles — and he’s never been finer than he is here. His Rothman is self-aware in a way that Taylor’s Hitler cannot be, and that must have been a challenge for so consummate an actor as Taylor, to portray a man who seems to know himself so little. In perhaps the most telling scene in the film, Rothman takes Hitler for a walk in the park in a disguised effort to spark his creativity, and Hitler complains that this is a waste of time: “I already know how to loaf,” he tells Rothman… but he doesn’t, of course, at least not in the useful, daydreamy way that fires the imagination. And if Hitler’s imagination would later give rise to terrible things, Meyjes’ implication here is that they sprung not from self-awareness but from a fear of it. Instead of giving in to his own rage and turning it on himself in order to create art, he turned it outward, onto others.
And that conclusion may gall some viewers even more than a human portrayal of the biggest bogeyman of our time: the suggestion that the Third Reich and the Holocaust were Hitler’s great and dreadful work of art, blood his medium and all of Europe his canvas. Those who believe art must only be pretty and pleasant and uplifting and should never offend or shock will be likely appalled (as were many people at the suggestion that the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was a great and dreadful work of theater)… but then, they’re the very people unlikely to be drawn to a film like Max in the first place.
Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary
An entirely factual account of life with Hitler comes in the stark documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. Eschewing any kind of filmmaking showiness, André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer simply sat Traudl Junge in front of a camera and let her speak of her experience as a young woman, when she worked as Hitler’s private secretary in the final years of WWII — it was to her that Hitler dictated his last will and testament before his suicide in 1945.
Riveting in its simplicity, Blind Spot draws all its force from Junge alone: her own horror at the naivete of her younger self, who admired and liked her employer, who was unable to see him for what he really was. She dealt only with his personal matters, nothing military, and was insulated from much of the reality of the war by being cloistered with Hitler’s inner circle, but she is, heartbreakingly, unable to absolve herself for her ignorance. Her sense of relief, though, is palpable — she’s telling all for the first time, and the filmmakers’ notice, at the end of the film, that she died soon after her marathon interviews — 10 hours whittled down to 90 minutes — adds a bittersweet coda, as if her secret was all that was keeping her alive.
Junge worries, at one point, that the personal stories about her boss — such as the one about Hitler’s affection for his little dog, Blondie — are too banal, but of course they’re terribly important, adding yet another layer of detail and mystery to our understanding of one of the worst criminals humanity has produced.
Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG for thematic material