The Academy Would Like to Thank…The Holocaust

It’s no secret—Hollywood loves the Holocaust. It’s this ever-flowing well of stories that are tragic, dramatic, ethnic and historic; the perfect Oscar bait. This awards season (as A.O. Scott declared, two months ago, in his story “Never Forget. You’re Reminded,”) was no exception. Movie theaters would be, as he put it, “overrun with Nazis.”

He writes:

A minor incursion of this sort is an annual Oscar-season tradition, but 2008 offers an abundance of peaked caps and riding breeches, lightning-bolt collar pins and swastika armbands, as an unusually large cadre of prominent actors assumes the burden of embodying the most profound and consequential evil of the recent past.

David Thewlis, playing a death camp commandant in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” will be joined by Willem Dafoe, who takes on a similar role in “Adam Resurrected,” Paul Schrader’s new film. In “The Reader,” directed by Stephen Daldry and based on Bernhard Schlink’s best-selling novel of the same name, Kate Winslet plays a former concentration camp guard tried for war crimes. Tom Cruise, the star of Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie,” wears the uniform of the Third Reich though his character, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, was not a true-believing Nazi but rather a patriotic German military officer involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Yesterday after Oscar nominations were announced, the trusty Carpetbagger pointed out that Kate Winslet’s nomination for “The Reader” (in which she plays a sexy, illiterate Nazi) won out over her performance in “Revolutionary Road” (in which she plays a sexy, suburban housewife). Conclusion? The Holocaust is just more interesting.

Carpetbagger writes:

The suggestion that the Holocaust has a massive draw on the Academy picked up a lot of traction today on Wilshire Blvd. Critics and Oscar pundits were far more smitten by her role as a tragic suburban housewife in “Revolutionary Road,” but it was her turn as a former concentration camp guard with a thing for a young man that ended in the money.

Indeed, Winslet’s performance was the best thing about “The Reader.” And although I haven’t seen Revolutionary Road, having read the book, know the unrelenting power of its dialogue. For an actor, does material get much better than Richard Yates? ? And, since it was Winslet who pushed the novel into production, I can only imagine the depths she plumbed to unearth the repressed desires of one of the darkest female characters ever written.

None of this is new. It took Steven Spielberg directing Schindler’s List to finally win his Oscar, even though he had already been nominated five times (three for best director and two for best picture). Unsurprisingly, it was the Holocaust film that enabled him to prove his artistic legitimacy. Before that, he had only directed Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, three Indiana Jones films, E.T., The Color Purple and Jurassic Park—you know, easy, unsophisticated stuff. Even for Spielberg, a Hollywood icon, it was the heavy-hearted Holocaust film that made people comfortable calling him a legend.

This zombie-like blindness to other good material results from what Scott calls a “morbid preoccupation” with the Holocaust. Up against burning smokestacks and murdered children, an ordinary housewife just won’t do. And he wonders whether the moral imperative to “never forget” means there is unlimited scope and scale to the ways the Holocaust might be exploited (anyone see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?):

The moral imperatives imposed by the slaughter of European Jews are Never Again and Never Forget, which mean, logically, that the story of the Holocaust must be repeated again and again. But the sheer scale of the atrocity — the six million extinguished lives and the millions more that were indelibly scarred, damaged and disrupted — suggests that the research, documentation and imaginative reconstruction, the building of memorials and museums, the writing of books and scripts, no matter how scrupulous and exhaustive, will necessarily be partial, inadequate and belated. And this tragic foreknowledge of insufficiency, which might be inhibiting, turns out, on the contrary, to spur the creation of more and more material.

If the point is to catch up with the 6,000,000 people who perished, than Holocaust regurgitation through art does seem an awfully inadequate equivalency test. But what of psychological reckoning? It’d be easy to dismiss the compulsivity with which the Holocaust is interminably etched onto our subconscious as some neurotic tendency. And yet, one of the functions of art (if one agrees art has utility) is that it has the power to motivate change. Could we, just for a second, consider that the creation and subsequent experience of all this Holocaust material is actually what heals us?