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When we think about Holocaust deniers, we think of those who try to say it didn't happen. But there's a subtler group of deniers who just don't want to think about it. -- Erika Karres, author

Dallas Morning News
Dallas, Texas, January 12, 2003


A new crop of Holocaust films dares to suggest the humanness of evil

Chris Vognar
The Dallas Morning News

WE like our evil to be otherworldly and supernatural, the better to pass it off as something other than human.

So when the Jewish Defense League heard about "Max," a new film that features a twentysomething Adolf Hitler as a struggling artist in Vienna, it was quick to condemn the idea without seeing the movie. "There is nothing human about the most vicious, vile murderer in world history," reads a posting on the organization's Web site.

But Noah Taylor, who plays Hitler, has a different take. "If he'd come down from Mars or up from hell, that would be a lot easier to deal with," says the English actor. "Then we'd just get a good exorcist or laser gun and that problem would be solved. It's much more difficult when it is a human thing, because then it's come out of society."

"Max" is one of many recent Holocaust and Third Reich films to examine the banality of evil - an idea, it seems, whose time has come. Barely a year removed from the grisly, televised details of mass murder in New York City, evil has become tougher to pass off as a metaphysical bogeyman or a freakish glitch. And films including "Max," "The Pianist" and "Blind Spot" are here to remind us that the Holocaust was suffered, perpetrated and even exploited by flesh-and-blood entities, not mythical embodiments of cruelty.

"If you look at the earlier Holocaust films, and you look at the more recent ones, you see a natural progression of an ability to look at things in a more realistic and tougher fashion," says Deborah Lipstadt, (right), professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta and author of "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." Lipstadt's book entangled her in a libel trial with the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving; the story of the trial is now being adapted into a film by HBO, to be written by "Pianist" screenwriter Ronald Harwood and directed by Ridley Scott.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in "The Pianist." Directed by Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski - whose "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" are among the great movies about the banality of evil - and adapted from survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir, the film details one man's struggle to stay alive over a six-year period in and around the Polish ghettos. "The Pianist" shows that in horrific circumstances, everyday evil sprouts up like a deadly weed.

Hiding in an apartment outside the ghetto, Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) is left for dead by a shady member of the underground resistance. It seems the smiling, vodka-drinking opportunist collected lots of money on Szpilman's behalf and then vanished.

The film is also full of everyday occurrences that show how, when the circumstances are horrific enough, the banal becomes the absurd. An elderly man is punched for daring to apologize to SS officers after failing to bow. Meanwhile, pedestrians step over and around corpses in the middle of the sidewalk. Where "Schindler's List" conjured an atmosphere of horror through boldly executed Hollywood conventions, "The Pianist" is lean, haunting and mostly free of contrivance. You want evil? Just look outside.

Of course, "The Pianist" also takes pains to show the random acts of kindness that helped Szpilman survive. But we expect the banality of kindness, even as it seems to be going out of fashion. We like to see the finer qualities of being human as par for the course. It's the dark corners that we want to pass off as something else.

Website note: Abraham Foxman, wealthy and controversial chief of the Anti Defamation League, likes to refer to himself as a "Holocaust survivor." As a biography on this website shows, he was not even born when Hitler invaded his native Poland, and he was looked after by Polish Catholics throughout the war; his parents also "survived".

And that's why "Max" is raising hackles. The film depicts Hitler, the epitome of 20th-century evil, as an ornery, self-loathing World War I veteran with little compassion and no social skills. "It's important to acknowledge that he was a human being, that he put his pants on one leg at a time," says Lipstadt. "It's wrong to turn him into this sui generis figure. He was a man who had parents. He was a baby and a child, and he grew up and he turned into this. The important thing is to try to figure out what brought him to this. To say that this other part of his life should be off limits is just silly."

Silly, but understandable. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League initially condemned "Max," as did the Jewish Defense League. But Foxman then went to see the film - a seemingly obvious step that the JDL also plans to take - and came away realizing that the film examines the young Hitler without glorifying him.

Admitting that Hitler was human should not be confused with forgiving him in any sense. But it seems a necessary step toward acknowledging that humankind has a tremendous capacity for evil. Hitler, after all, was not Rosemary's satanic lovechild. He was a seriously damaged human being.

"There's a real problem with the word 'humanize,' because it implies that being human is a good thing," says Taylor. "I think more human activity is evil than good. The world seems to be constantly in a bad state due to some human activity or another."

The problem is that we don't want to assign these bad states to something as cherished as humanity. "The Holocaust was an inhuman evil that we now want to make human," says Erika Karres, author of "A German Tale: A Girl Surviving Hitler's Legacy." "We want to look at it in ways that we can understand. But evil is ultimately not understandable. How can a human being whose goal is to live a productive life understand the depth of evil, which negates life?"

David Irving comments:

TRAUDL Junge (below), whom I knew well, died in 2002, so this dear old lady is not able to sue the Dallas Morning News, and a lazy, ignoble journalist can get away with printing the monstrous remark that she "aided and abetted genocide." (Ironically, if they had printed it in Germany, her next of kin could still proceed against the newspaper: the crime -- not tort -- of "defaming the memory of the dead" was specifically created to snare "Holocaust deniers").

Traudl Junge

Does Ms Karres' final sentence imply that it will soon become a criminal offence not to keep wanting to think about the Holocaust? German Ministry of Justice! Now here is a great opening for you to create pioneering new law-technology.

As for the forthcoming HBO film on the Lipstadt trial: I hope that the film company takes the trouble to have the script read by their lawyers, an omission which has (so far) cost Penguin Books Ltd over £2.6m, and Lipstadt's friends over £3.5m.

Final thought: Which actor will they get to play Lipstadt herself, now that Rock Hudson is dead?

Related file:

Our dossier on some of the origins of anti-Semitism

Then you have the truly banal faces of evil. "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary" is mostly an on-camera interview with Traudl Junge, who, at age 22, was chosen to become one of Hitler's private secretaries. She appears as a frail 81-year-old woman who expresses remorse and regrets about her work for the Third Reich. Is this what evil looks like? The answer is yes, if you believe that our actions count above all else. Junge aided and abetted genocide.

Karres believes that the earthbound, matter-of-fact tone of recent Holocaust-related films is tied to 9/11. "The country has been so stunned by this horrible tragedy that the roots of evil have to be examined," she says. Film production schedules make it tricky to verify any direct cause and effect, but these movies are certainly instructive in light of post-9/11 realities and rhetoric.

"Evildoers." "Axis of Evil." Such phrases somehow ring hollow in the face of genuine catastrophe. The evils of the Holocaust, and of 9/11, are to be found in the details: the incinerated bodies, the torment of survivors, the psyches and ignorance that produce the perpetrators' hideous disregard for life. These consequences and embodiments of evil are not floating in the ether, and they're not sent from above. They're right here on Earth, as they were in 1930s Germany. And we can't wish them away or reassign the blame, as much as we'd like to.

"When we think about Holocaust deniers, we think of those who try to say it didn't happen," says Karres. "But there's a subtler group of deniers who just don't want to think about it." 

© New Haven Register 2003

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