Don’t forget to remember: Why ‘X-Men’ is an important Holocaust film

June 21, 2011

There is a nasty little phrase being thrown around in entertainment circles that Jews may find discomfiting: Holocaust fatigue. The implication is that Holocaust narratives have become so ubiquitous and trite as to induce a kind of queasy listlessness in movie audiences. Another Holocaust movie? Check, please.

The latest Holocaust-inspired scene to hit the silver screen appears in the movie “X-Men: First Class.” The idea that a blockbuster comic book could appropriate Holocaust iconography for purposes of popcorn entertainment has elicited philosophical commentary and critical condemnation. Should such serious subject matter only be seen in serious contexts?

The mantra “Never Again” would seem to imply that the more Holocaust stories appear in film and literature, which is to say the more Holocaust imagery and allusion is injected into mainstream culture, the better.

In 2008, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s seminal and prescient piece on the topic, “Never Forget. You’re Reminded,” captured the 21st century’s “morbid” preoccupation with one of the greatest traumas in the history of the world,

“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,” Scott wrote. “But the sheer scale of the atrocity — the 6 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.”

“X-Men: First Class” opens at Auschwitz. It is there that teenage Erik, who becomes the future mutant leader Magneto, encounters Dr. Josef Mengele, who senses his gift and provokes the rage that will unleash it by gunning down Erik’s mother. This childhood trauma becomes the animating force of Mageneto’s life, propelling him toward his destiny to defend societal outcasts.

John Podhoretz, Commentary magazine editor and the Weekly Standard’s film critic, called this appropriation of Holocaust imagery “an act of monumental disrespect” in the latter publication.

“I actually considered rising from my seat and demanding that the audience follow me into the lobby in protest of what may be the most sickening misuse of Holocaust imagery ever,” he wrote after seeing the film. “I mean, are you [expletive in gerund form] kidding me? Auschwitz? You begin a superhero movie at Auschwitz? Has the world gone mad?”

For Podhoretz, the unmitigated use (read: misuse) of Holocaust imagery in films that lack cultural or educational gravity is cause for communal outcry. He was particularly incensed by the conjured image of “X-Men” extras on set, dressed in their raggedy stripes and yellow stars, standing around the craft food table having a snack. Hollywood should have more modesty, he wrote, “the kind of modesty that recognizes it is impossible for us really to come to any kind of understanding of the evil done, and so whatever it is we are seeing must seek to evoke it in a manner that is respectful to the enormity of the horror.”

Podhoretz and Scott share the opinion that cinematic depictions of the Holocaust are problematic by nature. After all, how can books or films, or even museums, which Scott calls “the ordinary tools of culture,” ever encapsulate a genocide? But, he writes, “Those tools, however crude, are what we have to work with.”

The cultural serving up of Holocaust narrative has many uses — among them, to educate, entertain and cultivate empathy. But the benefit Podhoretz overlooks is the benefit of incorporation: Every single reference helps create a deeper awareness of the Holocaust, to the point that it becomes so ingrained in our collective psyche, we are no longer ‘never forgetting,’ we are doing something better: remembering.

The films “Schindler’s List,” “Night and Fog” and “Shoah” are opuses for the cultural and historical record, films that have transformed trauma into works of art. But their success also has enabled lesser films, like “X-Men,” to appropriate and exploit those images. As Scott noted, “Schindler’s List” “helped to domesticate the Holocaust by making it a fixture of American middlebrow popular culture.”

This attitude is precisely what enabled JTA Editor-in-Chief Ami Eden to wax poetic on the metaphorical possibilities of the lowbrow “X-Men.” In the somewhat treacly YouTube video “X-Friends: Mutant Rabbis,” Eden postulates that the film suggests different theological responses to the Holocaust, drawing parallels between the ideologies of “X-Men” overseers Professor Xavier and Magneto to those of Rabbis Irving Greenberg and Meir Kahane.

Eden’s read suggests that context, not content, is of utmost consequence. Even if a comic book adaptation such as “X-Men” is deemed unsophisticated or insufficient in its presentation of the Holocaust, there is still something worthy gleaned. Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” served a similar purpose; it was not, to be sure, a film about the Holocaust, but it assumed a cultural awareness so entrenched in Holocaust history, and so mired in its injustice, in order to hinge its entire narrative on a Jewish revenge fantasy.

To realize the axiom “Never Forget,” we can’t be so picky. As we emerge from the immediacy of history, the endurance of the Holocaust story may lie in its ability to become as ubiquitous and intimately known as the darkest fairy tales of our youth. It must become so expertly ingrained in our consciousness as to shape our understanding of the world.

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