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Projecting the Holocaust 
into the Present 

San Diego Jewish Times, December 14, 2005



By Donald H. Harrison 

I believe it was after she recovered from watching  Schindler’s List that my wife, Nancy, declared, “That’s it! No more Holocaust films for me!  I don’t need to see any more.  I know what happened.  Let the non-Jews watch them!”

Nancy and I had toured Holocaust museums in Jerusalem, Washington, Miami and Los Angeles and had seen other Holocaust epics before, both on television and in the movie houses. I sympathized with her for not wanting to be put through the emotional ringer movie after movie, television show after television show.

It was the psychological toll that these movies had on Nancy that fueled her resolve.  Like so many Jewish families, ours has genealogical charts filled with the names of relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust.  Clearly, it is the thought of  those whom the violence impacted, rather than the violence itself, that upset her. Nancy can watch without flinching the graphic operating room scenes in such initialed television series as CSI or ER.  In the police dramas, numerous television bad guys can be executed in gory fashion and it doesn’t seem to bother her.

In fact, I am the squeamish one in the family.  I can’t stand the sight of blood.  TV surgeons holding organs in their blood-soaked hands make me look away.  Such squeamishness was the principal reason I didn’t fulfill my parents’ Jewish hopes that I would become a doctor.   But unlike Nancy, perhaps out of a sense of duty, I continue to watch Holocaust films as they come along. 

I marvel—no, in fact I am awe-struck—by the depth of research that Prof. Lawrence Baron did before writing his thought-provoking, discussion-starting book, Projecting the Holocaust Into the Present (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005, 307 pages, $29.95)  

The book is filled with quotations, discussion of camera angles, revelation of symbols, and comparisons to other movies—not to mention analysis of where those movies substitute fiction for the facts with which he, as a trained historian in modern European history, is far more familiar than the moviemakers.

A discerning and committed member of the San Diego Jewish community, Baron understands the cross-currents over what is and isn’t “politically correct” in Holocaust movies.  He discusses with candor and insight the pressures faced by filmmakers dealing with controversial topics.  For example, how does one not “trivialize” the Holocaust?  By “humanizing” Nazi characters, do films excuse Nazi excesses?  The debates have and will continue to go on and on.

If you’ve seen one of the many Holocaust movies put onto Baron’s academic couch, his precise summation will awaken your visual memories.  If you haven’t seen one,  his narration will substitute for those memories.  The man knows his movies—plots, actors, directors, locales, dialogue, technique.  But he also appreciates and practices the story-teller’s art, so this book is very easy reading. Projecting the Holocaust into the Present  is encyclopedic in its breadth, and yet is able to remain interesting.  (Assuming you skip the very ample chapter endnotes which were put in for Baron’s fellow academicians).

I wondered about the psychological cost of Baron’s thoroughness.  Can you watch so many movies on the Holocaust—rewinding the tape, or reprogramming the DVD, over and over again, to make sure that you are reporting on a certain sequence completely accurately—and not, after a while, become inured to what you are seeing?

I know some other authors who would snarl back at me, “What difference does it make what I feel?  Judge the book by its contents!”  However, Baron, being a professor at San Diego State University—as well as the director of SDSU’s Lipinsky Institute for Judaic Studies—is a born teacher, who subscribes, I suppose, to the maxim that there is no such thing as a bad question, only bad answers.  (As a reporter whose business it is to ask questions, I’m particularly fond of that maxim.)

The fact is most Holocaust movies are not graphically violent—their stories are set before or after the characters are deported or are about how Jews were rescued (i.e.the love stories, comedies, and most of the children's films have this kind of scenario) or they use movie violence a la Hitchcock,” Baron responded.

“Even Schindler's List which devotes a lot of scenes of killing shows it in an oblique manner—the shot is fired, then you see the bloodstain in the snow or you see the killings from a distance.  It wasn't until Saving Private Ryan that Spielberg turned to gory violence,” Baron continued. “The great Holocaust movies possess the double narrative that situates a positive story within the context of the broader catastrophe--Schindler's List, Life Is Beautiful, the Pianist, Nowhere in Africa, The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“I don't become
desensitized because filmmakers continually try to find new perspectives or cinematic techniques to deal with the subject.,” he declared.

I couldn’t disagree with anything he told me.  Baron’s voice in the book is dispassionate, but not cynical.  Analytical, but not overly clinical.  He is aware of the great multiplicity of Jewish and general opinion on Holocaust subjects, and objectively reports many, if not all, of them.   The considerable emotion in the book comes from the movies themselves, not from Baron’s analysis of them. One of Baron’s conclusions about Holocaust movies will comfort many in our community.  Even though the generation of Holocaust Survivors is dying, Baron is convinced that the Holocaust never will recede from people’s memory; that its place in history is as secure as that of the U.S. Civil War.

Projecting the Holocaust into the Present is a book to be read over and over—particularly if you have occasion to see again any of the many dozens of movies Baron analyzes.   No doubt, his book will have to be updated periodically if Holocaust movies continue to be turned out not only by Hollywood, but also by filmmakers in Europe and elsewhere in the world.  You can almost imagine Baron having his DVD player and videocassette machine serviced in anticipation of movies yet to be made, including the already-ballyhooed Holocaust epic said to be planned by Mel Gibson, whose Holocaust-denying father was a factor in the debate over  The Passion of the Christ.

Movies go through certain life cycles.  They are born at premieres; they grow in our estimate after their general release in movie theatres, and they become adults when they are re-released as DVDs.  Baron’s  book, in which they are summarized, categorized, and capsulized, represents a new, fourth stage—when they become venerable senior citizens.