Cinema: Hell Enough

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Directed by Arnold Schwartzman

Simon Wiesenthal is the avenging angel of the Holocaust. For almost half of his 73 years, operating from a cramped, three-room office in Austria, he has run war criminals to earth. A Holocaust research institute in Los Angeles bears his name, and celebrities rush to salute his work. Frank Sinatra's tribute is typical: "I would gladly give up every song I ever sang to rest my head on the pillow of your accomplishments."

The result of all the effort and encomiums is mixed. The concentration-camp survivor has brought hundreds of Nazis and collaborators to court, but they are only a small percentage of the guilty. Legal procedures are slow; indifference and ignorance have become the order of the day. To reverse this historic drift, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced Genocide, a feature-length tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. It too yields mixed results. The film's strength is its sound track, spoken by two unlikely underplayers. For this occasion, Orson Welles abandons his oleaginous bass for a simple voice of authority, recording names on Judaism's scroll of agony, describing the events and processes in the German gulag of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen and other camps where 6 million perished. Elizabeth Taylor is surprisingly muted, reading the forgotten pleas of those who tried to reach through the barbed wire to a numb world.

But the producers are seldom content to let hell enough alone. Vocal references to rape are accompanied by screams and wails; at the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—a wartime symbol for victory—the screen fills with hundreds of Morse code Vs, dots and dashes rendered in red, white and blue. As Taylor recites Pavel Friedman's famous ghetto poem, The Butterfly, an animated sun fills a small room, and a Disneyesque creature flaps through, cheapening a transcendent human document.

Given Wiesenthal's experience—he and his wife are the only survivors of families that numbered 89 before the Holocaust—his still raw emotions are understandable. "Believe me," he warns, "it could happen again." It is all too easy for him to recollect Hitler's view of the Final Solution: "This is a chapter of our history that has never been written and never is to be written." Genocide is an expensive attempt to give the lie to the Fuhrer, to write and rewrite that chapter, recalling everything and forgiving nothing. But in this film, memory and ambition ultimately collide. The 6 million deserve more than dire prophecy and less than an overproduction.

—By Stefan Kanfer