Will there be a special Academy Award for Best Aryan Costume Design this year? Everywhere you turn lately in the movies, it's swastika flags and SS uniforms. Although the Holocaust movie has been on hiatus for a while, lately it seems as if everyone is trying to squeeze in his Schindler's List before the funding dries up for good.
The nearest thing to a traditional Holocaust movie on the menu is Edward Zwick's Defiance, which is playing now. It's about three brothers who put together a Jewish kibbutz in a Belarus forest, trying to survive the war and knock off Nazis and their Russian collaborators.
Defiance may look like a Holocaust movie. It is, after all, a fact-based story of three Jewish brothers who set up a forest community of ghetto-massacre survivors while wreaking divine justice on the Nazis and their sympathizers. But it's really an inquiry into the different management styles of the Yiddish superhero, no victim he. Daniel Craig, playing his second Jew after Munich with gimlet-blue eyes ablaze with leadership potential, stars in the Gary Cooper role. Liev Schreiber at least looks the part as the belligerent bro who'd like to see a little less agonizing and a lot more payback. And Jamie Bell, an even more unlikely looking member of the tribe, is the peacemaking youngest brother.
While Craig rides around on a white horse, mulling whether to kill it for food, Schreiber splits off and joins the partisans for some real action. Schreiber learns the hard way that Russians are not much keener than Germans on Jews. There are subtitles and vaguely East European accents; there is romance and rebirth, tears and regular pauses for gallows humor. We Jews are known to be very good at that, on account of our long history of persecution. "Eez khard to be friend of Jew," sighs a righteous Gentile. The Jew in question snorts, "Try being one!"
There is at least one audible theme directed at the State of Israel: Should a Jew seek vengeance or save lives? And lest it be unclear in the text, Zwick elaborates in the production notes: "It's a story that compels us to ask ourselves: What would I have done in those circumstances?" This is a question well worth asking in an age when we cluck passively while genocides rage all around us, though it's hard to see how it's addressed in Defiance.
Defiance does have lots of extras running around in rags and hollow cheeks. But there are precious few passive victims there. Likewise, you can't find victims at all in Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, which opened Christmas Day. It's a capable, brainless thriller in which the Nazis inexplicably all have posh British accents. The story is so thoroughly stripped of sociopolitical context that we have no idea why the "good Nazi" Claus von Stauffenberg wanted the Führer whacked. All except Cruise, who plays the one-eyed, one-handed cool army dude who tries to blow up a depressive little fellow named Hitler. It didn't work out (bummer!), but man, those action sequences are good, and guess what? It really happened — and it turns out those Germans weren't quite as efficient about killing their own as they were at mass-murdering those they considered genetically imperfect.
Jews are the least of it in The Reader, which is about the moral fallout from an affair between a postwar German teenager and a sexy former concentration camp guard. And The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, in theaters now, is actually about a cosseted little Aryan who comes to play ball with a toothless Jewish kid on the other side of the concentration camp fence. As for Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected, which hasn't opened locally yet, Jeff Goldblum spends a lot of time on his knees barking. It's a classic example of how close to impossible it is to bring a complex Holocaust novel to the screen without making it look ridiculous.
Of course, few made Holocaust movies before Steven Spielberg broke the relative silence in 1993 with Schindler's List. That film was by no means the masterpiece it was hailed to be. But it was a decent, superbly made attempt to comprehend the heart and mind of a righteous Gentile. It also opened the sluice gates for fictional films about the Holocaust in and out of the United States.
Spielberg can't be held responsible for the sentimentalized atrocity that was Roberto Benigni's 2000 film Life Is Beautiful or for the staggering 170 movies made on the subject since the early '90s. In principle, nothing human should be beyond artistic expression. But why are these movies increasingly so awful? Money isn't lacking in Hollywood, and neither is sincerity. But one thing Hollywood does have in plentiful supply is amateur historians bent on extracting positive lessons for today from one of the great catastrophes of history.
Is it weird that the only true recent Holocaust movie came from Austria: 2007's The Counterfeiters. That country also produced Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, a 2002 documentary interview with Hitler's private secretary that's far superior to the similarly themed German film from 2004, Downfall.
Given the record of Holocaust films, perhaps it's time for a halt to Holocaust movies. We may not — indeed, we may never — be ready to understand the worst genocide in human history. The last word may come from the end of The Reader, whose narrator comes begging for absolution for the former camp guard he had loved, from a Jewish survivor (Lena Olin) who was her victim. "Nothing came out of the camps," she tells him. "Nothing!"Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber wonder where all the Holocaust victims went.