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Defiant Jews and Good Germans: The Last Decade in Holocaust Films

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The first decade of this millennium saw a spate of Holocaust movies. The first hit Holocaust film of the 2000s was certainly The Pianist, which came out in 2002. For his performance as a concert pianist hiding from the Nazis, Adrien Brody won an Oscar— setting the record for youngest Best Actor and becoming the first to beat out four previous Oscar winners nominated alongside him.

Then, in 2008 alone, there were The Reader— which won Kate Winslet an Oscar— DefianceValkyrie, and England’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, plus the lesser-known films Good [http://goodthemovie.com] and Adam Resurrected. The next year, we had Inglourious Basterds, nominated in 8 categories for the 2010 Academy Awards.

That’s seven Holocaust movies in just two years, making the 2000’s the most Holocaust-movie saturated decade ever, with 14 movies on the subject in just 10 years. (The 1990s had eight and the 1980s twelve; all figures include foreign-language films with major US releases).

Without trying to guess the reason for so many of Holocaust movies being released in such a short time, we can break them into two categories. Two general assumptions around the Holocaust have been that all Germans were willing accomplices of the Nazis, and that Jews went “like sheep to the slaughter.” These movies confront those ideas.

Many of these films— especially the ones of 2008-9— serve to rehabilitate the image of the average German as going along with the Nazis by asserting that many Germans rebelled, assisted Jews, were ignorant of the ascending Nazi furor/Fuhrer… or were forced into complicity as much as the Jews were forced into victimization.

Valkyrie tells the true story of a Nazi officer who conspired (and, sadly, failed) to assassinate Hitler. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas asserts that at least those who were children during the Nazi era should be considered clean of its stain. And Good examines the lives of average Germans during Hitler’s rise to power, bewildered as to how to react.

Meanwhile, Defiance and Basterds each tell a story of Jews who defy the Nazis. In the historical Defiance, they mostly rebel against the Nazis by simply surviving on their own. In Basterds, as befits a Tarantino revenge fantasy, they rebel through violence.

The Holocaust films of 2008-9 are not the first to explore these lines. 2001 gave us The Grey Zone, in which death-camp inmates who run a crematorium plot to blow it up… and Invincible, Werner Herzog’s movie about a Jewish blacksmith who learns of the Final Solution and intends to form an armed resistance.

Also in 2001, was Taking Sides, about a real-life A-list conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, who chose to remain in Germany. A US Army officer is charged with deciding if the conductor was loyal only to his music and musicians… or also to the Third Reich.

Another theme, one could say, is movies about Jewish individuals who found ways to survive. In 2008, the Best Foreign-Language Film winner was Austria’s The Counterfeiters, the true tale of a Jew allowed to live— as long as he helped the Nazis counterfeit British currency. The Pianist and Defiance were, on some level, about rebelling against the Nazis simply be refusing to be captured, and so was Nowhere in Africa, a lyrical film (Best Foreign Film of 2003) about a Jewish girl hiding out from the Holocaust on her family’s African plantation.

The Holocaust films of the 1990s did have Jews in rebellion against the Nazis, but mostly by using imagination and the arts: Jakob the Liar, Life is Beautiful, Comedian Harmonists, Swing Kids. That decade also brought Schindler’s List, which started the not-all-Germans-were-bad trend.

Coming in 2011 is The Nazi Officer’s Wife, based on a documentary about a Jewish woman who became exactly that. Seventy years after 1940’s The Great Dictator, Hollywood isn’t done with the Holocaust quite yet.

The generation that experienced the Holocaust is fading. The group of artists making Holocaust films will soon contain no people with a memory of that time. Not long after that, there will be no survivors left for Hollywood to even consult in crafting such stories and images.

All they will have to work with will be material produced during the Holocaust and in the decades after, the time in which survivors themselves could have some input. The last pieces of which are being filmed… well, now.

For another take on Holocaust films, see author Cynthia Ozick’s analysis in a recent issue of Newsweek. 

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