Defiance: Beyond Holo-kitsch

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Karen Ballard / Paramount Vantage

Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski in Defiance

Should there be a moratorium on Holocaust movies? Stuart Klawans, the film critic of the Nation, says so in the Jewish magazine Nextbook (but not, oddly, in the Nation), and Ella Taylor tentatively endorses the suggestion this week in the Village Voice. Since these are two of the movies' most thoughtful commentators — who each happen to be Jewish — the proposal deserves consideration.

Edward Zwick, the TV producer (thirtysomething) and maker of Important Films (Glory, Courage Under Fire, Blood Diamond), writes in the New York Times that he felt a similar Holocaust-movie fatigue when offered the idea of a film on the Bielski brothers, a band of real-life Jews in Belorussia during World War II. "I groaned, 'Not another movie about victims,' " he writes. But he went ahead and made Defiance anyway.

At the moment, five new films that touch on the Nazis' Final Solution — Defiance, The Reader, Good (which prompted TIME critic Richard Schickel to call for a moratorium), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Adam Resurrected — are in theaters. A sixth, Valkyrie with Tom Cruise, is a Holo-cousin: it details a 1944 plot by German officers to kill Hitler. Taylor notes that since the early 1990s, when Steven Spielberg was preparing his Oscar-winning Schindler's List, there have been 170 Holocaust movies. (The Internet Movie Database lists 429 titles on the subject.) It has become not just a topic but a genre, one that, at its most reductive, exploits the awful events of that chapter in history to badger viewers, intimidate critics, elicit easy tears and serve as a back-patting machine for serioso directors. The excesses of the genre have spawned derisive nicknames: Holo-kitsch (Art Spiegelman's term) and Holocaust porn (which Taylor cites).

Yet the enormity of the event, and its dreadful intimacy — not the long-range crime of missiles fired across borders or dropped from planes, but people leading other people to gas chambers — make it a compelling, nearly irresistible movie theme. "What a wonderful subject to explore in as many ways as possible," indie mogul Harvey Weinstein told the New York Post. "I hope our children get educated about the Holocaust, so it will be 'Never again.' " Death-camp literature is such a reliable attention getter that a few writers have invented memoirs. This week Berkley Books canceled publication of Angel at the Fence when its author, Herman Rosenblat, acknowledged that the story of meeting his wife at Buchenwald was not true. Nonetheless, a movie version of the book is going forward.

Reviewing Claude Lanzmann's 9 1/2–hour documentary Shoah in TIME in 1985, I asked, "Why is this holocaust different from all other holocausts? In raw nightmare numbers, the Nazi extermination of 6 million European Jews ranks below the Soviet Union's systematic starvation of the rebellious Ukraine in 1932-33 (10 million by Stalin's count) and Mao's catastrophic Great Leap Forward into prolonged famine in 1957-62 (at least 27 million). Uganda and Kampuchea have produced more recent evidence" — alas, the examples of Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia could subsequently be added — "that Hitler's policy of mass murder as an instrument of statecraft was not unique.

"Yet the Final Solution remains the archetype of man's bestiality to man, and there are compelling reasons for this to be so. The villain: Hitler still seems the embodiment of melodramatic evil, a spellbinder sent from hell or central casting. The perpetrators: a civilized Western nation conceived the outrage of genocide and executed the plan with technological precision; if the Germans could do it, anyone could. The victims: the Jews, eternal outsiders, were traditionally treated by Christians with an uneasy mixture of envy and enmity. Here was the seed of ordinary anti-Semitism brought to rancid fruition."

Some Were Warriors
Zwick was especially rankled by the legacy of Jews as victims, as passive enablers of their own destruction. Thus his attraction for a film about the three elder Bielski brothers, who forged a community of refugee Jews in the Belorussian woods and fought off the soldiers hunting them down. They helped other Jews escape the Warsaw ghetto. The Bielskis' heroism saved about as many Jewish lives as the hero of Schindler's List did. And they were family, not a wealthy Gentile whose act of paternalist benevolence can be stretched to absolve a generation of "good Germans." The Bielski tale showed that not all Jews were victims. Some were warriors.

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