Reliving the Mid Century


Just in time for Thanksgiving, A. O. Scott takes a clear-headed look at the bumper crop of Holocaust films coming our way. He asks, “Why are there so many? Why now? And more queasily, could there be too many?” The answers vary according to place. For Europe the Holocaust remains an unresolved historical event, especially in France. Generally speaking, Europeans have produced serious, or at least well-meaning, films about the Holocaust, although Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful was neither.

Hollywood, though, is a different story. As Scott points out, “Hollywood trades in optimism, redemption and healing, and its rendering of even the most appalling realities inevitably converts their dire facts into its own shiny currency.” For American films the Holocaust means affirmation of life and Oscar nominations, which, in Hollywood, are virtually synonymous.

Scott suggests that Oscar nominations are why Hollywood is loading up its fall release schedule with Holocaust films, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (still above), Adam Resurrected, The Reader, and, of course, Valkyrie. Hitting multiplexes across the country during this miserablist autumn, this year’s crop of Holocaust films probably won’t suffer the fate of last year’s Iraq films, for the Holocaust film has become a well-honed genre with its own stable and reassuring conventions.

I would suggest another reason for the sudden reappearance of the Holocaust film: all the bright colors and off-kilter forms of the mid-century modern aesthetic, which has been so popular throughout the recent housing boom, has now given way to exactly what the mid-century modern was supposed to obscure: the catastrophes of the Depression and the Second World War. By alternating back and forth between the two, we relive the traumas of the last century over and over again.

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  1. Is crop the collective noun for Holocaust films? I offer that a more suitable one might be a Affliction of Holocaust films, or a Scar of Holocaust films or a Blight of Holocaust films. The subject matter must always be remembered – and accurately – but I cannot watch any part of the story one more time.


  2. I agree. And there’s certainly a kind of cynicism involved, as Kate Winslet’s joke about every Holocaust film automatically getting an Oscar indicates.


  3. One can read the average Primo Levi book in only slightly longer than it takes to watch the next 2 hour holocaust epic. “The Drowned and the Saved” should be required reading before anyone loads up on holiday holocaust treacle. Read with special attention to the conclusion, where he discusses his open correspondence with his German audience about the holocaust.


  4. Great recommendation. Levi will remind the reader of the central problems of the Holocaust. These new films seem to be drudging up stories from the peripheries of the time, partly because the meaningful stories have already been told, and partly to maintain an oblique, and safe, angle on the events.


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