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Isaac Zablocki

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Making Holocaust Films Relevant: From Black and White to Color

Posted: 10/24/2013 8:06 pm

As we move closer to a time when firsthand witnesses to the atrocities of the Holocaust have all past, we grow dangerously closer to the Holocaust becoming a forgotten, or worse, a deniable myth. Even today, we rely strongly on films to keep these stories alive. As a fourth generation to Holocaust victims, I have heard the testimonies firsthand, but still, the concept of the Nazi's final solution and the race crimes against Jews and others, seems from another world. When I watch a classic Holocaust film or see the pictures, I perceive the black and white images as a different reality. How can these barbaric crimes be committed in the enlightened Europe of the 20th century? How can neighbors turn on one another? How can humans be so inhuman? Our very politically correct America in which I grew up makes these stories I've heard about the Holocaust seem unrelatable to my culture.

In the last few years there has been a shift in the way the Holocaust is portrayed in film. In the post-Schindler's List era, most films cannot simply tell the story again. New perspectives and twists to the classical portrayal have been presented to the mainstream. More films are coming out annually retelling tales of the Holocaust, both fiction and documentary. Once again, this year has a varied crop of new Holocaust cinema.

One of the shifts in the new narratives is the humanizing of the German perspective. Classically, Germans were portrayed in Holocaust films as mostly Nazis or their supporters. In the last few years, an attempt to rectify the German perspective is coming to light on film. One profound example is The Reader (by Stephen Daldry, 2008) in which the audience identifies with the innocence of Kate Winslet's Hanna Schmidt when she admits to being a part of acts that brought horrific death to many Jews. Similarly, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (by Mark Herman, 2008) is told from the perspective of a boy who is the son of the commander of a concentration/death camp and lives innocently on the grounds of the camp. And most recently is the November 8th release of The Book Thief, (by Brian Percival, 2013) starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, which tells the story of a German family who hides a Jewish man during the Holocaust and reluctantly becomes a part of the war.

All three of these films are works of fiction, based on best-selling novels. The films are shot in vibrant color and stylized realism. When watching these films, they feel like any major Hollywood production, fitting into the glamorized standard of how our fiction is portrayed by Hollywood and therefore are more relatable than the black and white visions of the Holocaust. Although these films are based on fiction, they make the time and place seem more authentic to your average viewer.

By telling these stories from German perspectives, it allows the audience to relate to the everyday German and presents a more normal world, where not everyone is evil. All these films portray those in Nazi uniforms as unforgivable characters, but they mostly focus on the Germans who are not in uniform and give them a human face. In The Book Thief, even when Rush's character of the father is drafted for the reserves, he does not wear a swastika and is separated by his uniform from the "real Nazis." It is hard to imagine that all Germans were blindly supportive of the Nazi regime. When Germany is bombed by the allies, we see individuals killed in air raids, and not just Nazis. This gives the audience the oppertunity to see the German individual and not simply the masses.

Another twist to come to Holocaust cinema in the last few years is the third generation perspective. If the first generation of survivors did not talk about the Holocaust, and the second generation bore the impact of this silence, it is now the third and fourth generations who are able to reopen this topic from new perspectives. This indirect approach is bringing new relations to this topic, as both German non-Jews and Jewish third generations try to understand the Holocaust. Last year's documentary -- The Flat (by Arnon Goldfinger) gave a perfect portrayal of a third generation relating the surprising story of his grandparents who had an ongoing secret friendship with major players in the Third Reich. It is the grandchild's distance that allows him to uncover it.

Another upcoming film that relates to the third generation's perspective is Farewell Herr Schwarz (by Yael Reuveny) which just premiered at the Haifa International Film Festival where the grandchild, like many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, is living in Germany and seeking out the family of a long lost great uncle who was presumed dead. Another feature film that just had its New York premiere at The JCC in Manhattan and opening November 1st is the gripping Polish film Aftermath (by Wladyslaw Pasikowski.) The film is a fictional tale, but suspensefully uncovers the familiar story of the sins of a small town during the war. The film is not told during the war, nor does it use flashbacks of that time, but rather is told from the modern-day perspective of two brothers who grew up in that town. Telling the story from the present and relating it to anti-semitism and mob behavior of today, makes the actions of the past not seem as far away.The third generation perspective conveys a relevant reality and brings the story to today's world.

The Holocaust is not only about remembering the past but also about learning from it for today. To keep the stories of the Holocaust authentic, they need to be told from a relatable perspective. These films with new twists are keeping the stories of the Holocaust alive and presenting them in a form that will make the Holocaust more relatable than ever.

 

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