Breaking the Silence: The Holocaust on Film

"The Pianist" is the latest in a line of recent films to break the silence that once surrounded the Holocaust.

For a long time, the fact of mass extermination on an industrial scale was considered so morally daunting, the horror visited (mainly) on European Jewry so unimaginable, as to place the Holocaust beyond the reach of words. "After Auschwitz," said Theodor Adorno, "to write a poem is barbaric."

Claude Lanzmann found the idea of making a narrative film about the genocide similarly reprehensible. The Holocaust, he said, "erects a ring of fire around itself that cannot be crossed, because there is a certain degree of horror that cannot be transmitted. Fiction is a transgression."

He solved this moral dilemma for himself - firstly in the nine-hour documentary "Shoah", and more recently in "Sobibor: 14 October 1943, 16:00" - by eschewing archive footage and dramatic reconstruction in favour of filmed witness interviews.

Leslie Epstein, whose father and uncle wrote "Casablanca", regards Hollywood's late response to the Holocaust as a betrayal. "The movie moguls wanted nothing to do with the suffering of their own people," he said. "Jews in Hollywood turned their back on it."

Hollywood's earliest successful movies on the Holocaust, "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959) and "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), played down the Jewish element of their stories.

And when Sidney Lumet focused attention on the psychological trauma of a survivor in "The Pawnbroker" (1964), he - according to one of the film's harshest critics - Christianised his protagonist (Rod Steiger) through love, grace, and suffering.

The 1978 television series Holocaust raised awareness of the Shoah as a Jewish event.

However, it took until the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" for the Holocaust to achieve mainstream 'success'.

Spielberg, to the horror of some, went further than any previous filmmaker in recreating the material details of the Holocaust.

The film's supporters praised Spielberg for bringing the Holocaust to the attention of a public largely ignorant of the episode, in a manner that was both educational and affecting.

His detractors, though, claimed that by wrapping the Holocaust up in the sentimental and melodramatic conventions of popular entertainment, the director had betrayed it. Spielberg's Holocaust is one of rescue and redemption; the reality, for most who experienced it, was very different.

Even more controversially, Roberto Benigni cloaked "Life is Beautiful" in sentiment, laughter, and tears. Audiences - both Jewish and non-Jewish - were split. The film won the Best Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, but was labelled morally reprehensible and misguided by many.

Perhaps in partial reaction to Spielberg's "Schindler's List", Roman Polanski shoots "The Pianist" with a matter-of-factness that drains its story of survival of sentimentality, if not sentiment.

The horrors of the Warsaw ghetto are - in contravention of Lanzmann's dictum - vividly realised, and yet there is no milking them for effect. Similarly the film's protagonist, a concert pianist who finds himself alone in the ghetto, is passive and un-heroic, surviving more by luck than design.

Clearly, box office was not uppermost in the mind of Polanski, himself a Holocaust survivor. A slew of awards, however, including the top prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, have improved the film's commercial prospects.

With luck, Polanski's film will open the door for "The Grey Zone", Tim Blake Nelson's harrowing exploration of the moral confusion of the concentration camps, which opened in America at the end of last year.

Tougher, braver, and more challenging than Polanksi's somewhat conventional film, it takes us to the dark heart of Hitler's Final Solution: the crematoria of Auschwitz.

Yet, despite a cast that includes Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino, and David Arquette, "The Grey Zone" has not yet been picked up by a UK distributor. Some of those who have seen it, have deemed it too dark, too bleak and too grim - as if a Holocaust movie should be anything else.

Even in Shoah business, apparently, it's still bums on seats that count most.

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