2005-12-21 Projecting Holocaust
San Diego Jewish Times, December
Donald H. Harrison
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.
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)
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
book, in which they are summarized, categorized, and capsulized,
represents a new, fourth stage—when they become venerable senior citizens.