Marc's Digression for 9/16/99
Concession Stands and Concentration Camps: How Hollywood Sees the Holocaust
(with *bonus* info on Henry Ford!)
Soon, Robin Williams will unleash his personal spin on the Holocaust. Williams will star in Jakob the Liar, a sort of Good Morning, Dead Jewish Society for the Americans who refused to sit through the subtitled Life is Beautiful. I am sure Williams' heart is in the right place but I do wish someone would score him a mountain of coke and a nanny to diddle, and make him be funny again.
The script for Jakob the Liar was rewritten beneath the watchful eyes of both Williams and his wife/exec producer, Marcia Garces Williams and therefore must reflect Williams' thoughts on the Jewish plight during World War II.
I am not in the least interested in what Williams thinks about the Holocaust. Or medical care. Or smart-but-troubled young people. Or divorce. Or life after death. Unless he is standing before a live audience, wearing a Viking hat and grabbing his crotch, I don't give a fuck what Williams thinks about anything.
Since the end of WWII there have been many films striving to put the Holocaust into perspective. Most of the best have been from Europe--Europa, Europa, for example. Or the misleadingly-titled The Nasty Girl, which sounds like a porno but is really the contemporary story of a young woman in Germany who digs into her hometown's past and discovers the citizens were actively supportive of Nazi ideals during the reign of Hitler (it is a comedy, by the way). Holocaust films from America tend to be didactic (Judgement at Nuremberg), melodramatic (the miniseries Holocaust), or evasive (out of all the WWII films churned out by Hollywood over the years, only a handful actually allude to even marginal discomfort of Jewish Europeans during the war). There are a few good American films dealing with the Holocaust but they are usually based on novels written by Europeans (Sophie's Choice is once exception. William Styron, born in Virginia, wrote an enormously compelling novel which was later turned into a film with Meryl Streep and Kevin Klein and, yes, it was melodramatic but in a good way).
And then there's Schindler's List, a film about the Holocaust based on a novel by an Austrailian, Thomas Keneally.
I saw Schindler's List twice in theatres--once in Tuscaloosa, where it began showing the first week of distribution, and once in Florence, where Hickory Hills began screenings several months later. In Tuscaloosa, the film was shown straight through and not a soul stirred. In Florence, the film got an intermission, allowing famished Florentines time to run to the concession stand and purchase overpriced refreshments before returning to the horrors of the death camp experience. After all, who wants to watch a scene featuring a group of children cowering in a latrine to avoid being carted off to the ovens--unless you have the comfort of Goobers and a Diet Coke?
When the closing credits began to roll after the first time I saw Steven Spielberg's take on the Holocaust, a friend leaned over to me and declared in a hyper, movie-commercial voice: "Finally! A feel-good film about genocide!" And I laughed. While the rest of the audience filed out of the theatre with Clinton "feel your pain" winces on their faces, silent except for sobs and weary sighs, I chuckled my happy ass up the aisle.
Which is not to say I was not deeply disturbed by the events depicted in the film but I agreed with my friend. It seemed that, in the ending of Schindler's List, Spielberg was trying to put a rational, hopeful spin on an irrational, hopeless situation.
Elie Wiesel, author of Night, which recounts his experience in Nazi concentration camps, once said he wrote the book not to help us understand the Holocaust, but to help us know we could never understand it. He is right. How can one comprehend the methodical slaughter of 6 million people--of Jews, homosexuals, sympathizers, gypsies, people of color? Can there be a satisfactory explanation for the soap made of human fat or the couches upholstered in human skin? In the 1986 Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters, a son asks his father why, if God is good, He allowed Nazis to exist. The exasperated father bellows back, "How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I can't figure out how the can opener works!"
Perhaps that is as much as we should hope to learn from the Holocaust. Hollywood will continue to produce "important" films about it and American audiences will leave theatres with their Clintonian winces. Americans watch films about WWII with the knowledge that We Won. To our nation, WWII represents a triumphant period in our history, which is why I think American films about the Holocaust tend to end on up-notes and optimism and often try to give human faces to the madness of Hitler's Germany. Europe lost the war. The Jewish European popularion was almost wiped out. So European films about the Holocaust are usually more bleak in scope and vision, unconcerned with extending a humane context to the inhumanity.
By the way, Elie Wiesel has repeatedly insisted he will never allow a film adaptation of Night to be made. At least not in his lifetime.
Digression on the Digression
In 1997, NBC broadcast Schindler's List uncut and commercial-free. This unprecedented even not only afforded basic-cable subscribers with the rare chance to catch some network t-and-a, it also allowed the sponsor of the airing, Ford Motor Company, to collect favorable press coverage.
Ford Motor Company, incidentally, was of course founded by Henry Ford. Aside from being an accomplished businessman, Ford also wrote a series of articles for a periodical he had purchased after the first world war. The name of the periodical was The Dearborn Independent. The articles, which ran once a week for 91 weeks, were eventually assembled into a 4-volume book set: The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem (published in 1920); Jewish Activities in the United States (1921); Jewish Influences in American Life (1921) and Aspects of Jewish Power in the United States (1922). Collectively, the 4 volumes came to be known as The International Jew.
Were these tomes of erudite elucidation on Jewish contributions to world culture as laudable as they sound?
Well, Adolf Hitler loved Ford's work so much that the Fuhrer awarded the carmaker The Grand Cross of The German Order of The Eagle in 1938, as a birthday present.
Ford accepted the award.
The International Jew has been in spotty circulation since publication--at one time copies were offered as a perk to anyone buying a Ford car. In 1927, following public pressure (and hints of finacial repurcussions) from such luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, W.E. B. DuBois, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant, Ford retracted his anti-Semetic beliefs and attempted to destroy all copies of his work. He issued an apology denouncing The International Jew.
Yet, as I said, in 1938 he accepted accolades and awards from Adolf Hitler. reports circulated the world in 1933 that Ford was bankrolling Hitler's rise to power. During WWII, a Cologne, Germany subsidiary of Ford became an efficient, profitable forced labor camp. In 1998, a woman named Elsa Iwanowa brought a class-action lawsuit against Ford Motor Company alleging that she was forced to make trucks for the Nazi War Machine, that she and her fellow prisoners were treated inhumanely, and that Ford USA reaped a healthy profit from the efforts of the prisioners in the Cologne plant.
Ford Motor Company of course denies the charges.