14 January, 2009

The Holocaust For The Holidays

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

In a somewhat intriguing and unplanned collision, the Holiday season was marked with, among other things, a confluence of films with themes that relate to the Holocaust. With the current economic doldrums and the anemic Christmas shopping season inspiring downer headlines in the press, another challenging period has been explored on movie screens across North America. Four films in current release dig back into the century’s most tragic crime, with a mix of realism, poetry and attempt to understand the lessons of that period for our own age of anxiety.

The first to be released was THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS, a Holocaust tale suitable (some would argue that point) for children, since it centers on the unlikely friendship between a young Jewish boy who is incarcerated in a concentration camp and the son of the camp’s commandant. The psyche of those who worked in the camps (as if their day jobs were somehow “normal”) is one of the themes of THE READER, director Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of the prize-winning autobiographical novel, about a concentration camp guard (played by an incandescent Kate Winslet) and her affair with a boy much her junior. In between erotic roundelays, the film explores the guilt of the generation of young Germans after the war who must confront the crimes of their family, their neighbors and, in this case, their lovers.

Another Holocaust film currently on the big screen is GOOD, the adaptation of a British play about a mild-mannered man’s complicity in the crime of the century. Starring Viggo Mortensen, the film tells the true tale of a German literature professor whose theories on euthanasia are used by the Nazis as a basis for their program to eliminate first, the mentally and physically challenged, and eventually political enemies and whole races of “inferior sub-humans”.

While most of the above films portray the Jewish victims of the Nazi terror as just that, powerless victims, the new film DEFIANCE tells a different tale….of Jewish resistance as embodied by the Bielski brothers, a band of partisans who created a community in the woods of Belarus while also creating havoc for local Nazis and fascists. The cast, led by Daniel Craig (Mr. James Bond himself) and Liev Schreiber, illuminates a lesser known side of the Holocaust story that stands in contrast to the universal assumption of Jewish passivity and weakness.

Add to this the pyrotechnics of the Hollywood big-budget actioner VALKYRIE, with Tom Cruise playing a Wehrmacht colonel who conspires to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and the Holidays seem almost overrun with Nazis. That these films were released in time with Christmas and New Year’s seems both fiercely ill-timed and oddly appropriate.

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