This article is a preview from the Summer 2020 edition of New Humanist

We are not just ‘The People of the Book’, but

the people of the Hollywood film

and the television miniseries . . .

– Peter Novick

There is little pleasure,” the critic Michael Bernstein said, “in being troubled by what so many have found deeply moving.” His target, in the summer of 1994, was Schindler’s List, the Steven Spielberg film revered as a landmark in cinematic treatment of the Holocaust. He saw nothing revolutionary or morally urgent in Schindler’s List. It was not pioneering; just another heady dose of American saccharine, “so conventional and formulaic at its imaginative core that it actually engages no real historical catastrophe”. In the end, Bernstein declared, the film “manipulates the emotions raised by the enormity of its historical theme in order to disguise the simplistic melodrama”.

Bernstein’s criticisms were ignored. The unsophisticated Holocaust melodrama became a subgenre unto itself: a guaranteed money-spinner and award-hoarder. Life Is Beautiful followed a few years later. Then Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and Defiance. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas became its own phenomenon, while The Zookeeper’s Wife was (rightfully) ignored. The most recent entry to the genre is Jojo Rabbit: adored by many of its viewers and doused in accolades, including an Oscar for its writer-director Taika Waititi.

Posing as an “anti-hate satire”, the New Zealander’s film aimed for irreverence. Set in a twee version of Nazi Germany on the verge of defeat, it follows the undoing of Hitler Youth devotee Jojo when he discovers that his mother is hiding an escaped Jewish girl in the attic. Thus, he must expunge the Hitler he keeps as an imaginary friend (played by Waititi), kicking him out the window with a brisk “Fuck off!” For many professional critics, having goofy Nazis wasn’t the problem. (Chaplin did that. ’Allo ’Allo did that. Even the Indiana Jones films did that.) Rather, they recoiled from the stark turn taken on the brink of its third act. Here, the jokes sloughed off, and Waititi more faithfully adapted the sentiments of its source novel – the morose Caging Skies. At its close, Jojo Rabbit devolved into another Holocaust weepie.

Neither that film nor any of the other works mentioned are particularly grievous on their own. Taken together, however, they amount to a defamation of the past. Hollywood’s version of the Holocaust has become, as Cynthia Ozick once wrote of Anne Frank’s diaries, “bowdlerised, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilised, Americanised, homogenised, sentimentalised; falsified, kitschified. . .”

It is impossible to find a single aspect of the films in the canon of Holocaust kitsch not worthy of interrogation or criticism. Perhaps most uncomfortable of all is the sense that Jews depicted in these works have no right to be the agents of their own fate. Only by being pure, passive victims are they worthy of our sympathy. Whether Jojo or Oskar Schindler or Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, each hero (if one can use such a term) undergoes a realisation. For all of them, endangered Jews are a vessel for their transit from uncaring witness to righteous deliverer.

Even when the story of the victim takes centre stage, it only serves to reinforce the most easily digestible version of an incomprehensible era. Such works have reduced the Holocaust to a long march of cliché, underlining what is already misremembered in popular memory: the German Jew (invariably bourgeois), the yellow star, the solemn round-up and deportation, the family separation and property plunder. And then, the concentration camp system, which has become the most complete distillation of the Shoah. Yet every time we see the camp, be it Bergen-Belsen or Treblinka or Dachau, it disregards half of all Jewish victims who never saw the inside of them.

The Final Solution was not carried out in western Europe alone, nor even predominantly between four walls and razored fences. It was in the fields of Ukraine, in the marshes and forests of Poland, near the untouched shtetl, within the battlements of city ghettos. Auschwitz and its ilk were mere codas to murder already completed. Of the European Jews Nazism robbed from the world, a full half were shot over pits long before camps were established, at least one million before the beginning of 1942. And these victims were from the east: Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, eastern Poles, Romanians. It was the Jews deported later from the west – Germans, French, Italians, Hungarians – who faced the camps.

It was these Jews who were more likely to survive and who gave us the literature of endurance on which these films (and fictions) are based. Primo Levi. Elie Wiesel. Victor Klemperer. Aharon Appelfeld. In a sense, these films are not wholly to blame for reproducing distortions. The work was already done, even before Schindler’s List inaugurated the genre. As the historian Peter Novick has demonstrated, the Holocaust emerged as a central – if not the only – fragment of Jewish identity, particularly Jewish-American identity, just before the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Yet it must be stressed – in rebellion against the torrent of kitsch – that these survivors, however worthy and celebrated, are the exception. Most Jews did not live. There is little sense in which Anne Frank’s experience, for example, can said to be representative of European Jews. Though there is one fact that cleaves her closer to the truth: Anne Frank did not survive. So accustomed are we to the tale of dramatic liberation or frantic escape that it is shocking to be reminded of the simple fact of vast murder.

Above all, this emphasis on survival gives us a consolation for being asked to consider the very worst. There is a fundamental sense in which, by relating the tale of survival, by offering hope, they are telling an untruth.

Even as mainstream critics dismissed Jojo Rabbit – perhaps even because of this dismissal – ordinary viewers embraced it. Many insisted that no real travesties had been committed in that film, and that their heartening, uplifting experience ought not to be trammelled by snobs or nerds or other assorted whingers.

Michael Bernstein caught a whiff of this cynicism back in 1994. He chastised those who would abandon much-needed criticism because the film had a larger moral purpose: what he described as the “implicit premise that any work that aims to make accessible to a large audience even a portion of so crucial a story ought to be exempt from careful evaluation because of that intention”. In short, that any artist can get away with distortions and fabrications if their work is considered “important enough”.

But what is this for? Is it to honour memory, as filmmakers from Spielberg to Waititi have claimed? If it is, then that memory is cheapened by the overwrought sentimentality at the heart of these works, by the deployment of false hope. And still, it is a consolation not to descendants of survivors – those lucky few. Rather, it is for a mass audience – bluntly, a goyish audience – to feel better about themselves, to thicken their midweek theatre expedition with hearty moral truths and harsh lessons learned.

Novick noted (very drily indeed) that for those distant to it, the only price of contemplating the Holocaust is “a few cheap tears”. Howard Jacobson, in wrestling with precisely this problem, notes that the subgenre of Holocaust kitsch grants us the permission to “weep over the suffering of others and weep a second time over our capacity to do so”. Such tears are the labour of laughter and forgetting.