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by Jordan Hiller



The Pianist 
Directed by Roman Polanski

The Holocaust movie. It has become an institution. Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, Life is Beautiful. All are unique stories with independent characters and specified locations separating one film from the other, yet we still say when describing films such as these, as if the label says it all, that these are “Holocaust movies”. We sometimes ask, “What’s the best Holocaust movie?” or perhaps comment, “I don’t watch Holocaust movies – it’s too much for me” or even, “Can you believe Robin Williams is in a Holocaust movie?” and if it is conceivable, “That is such a sad Holocaust movie.” So we know by now what the referent “Holocaust movie” signifies. It’s a movie about The Holocaust. Simple enough. A Vietnam movie is about the war between America and the Vietcong in Vietnam and a Holocaust movie is a movie about the slaughter of six million Jewish people throughout Europe by the Nazis about sixty years ago during WWII. For this reason the Holocaust movie is a “special interest” film for Jews. We make it our business to attend, watch, and remember. After all, who could stand seeing a Holocaust movie but us?
We also know by now how to act in the theatre during the Holocaust movie. We nod to people we recognize and do not smile. No crunching on popcorn – no slurping on soda. We pay our respects.

It has even come astonishingly to a point where we know what to expect on screen when the lights dim and the previews for upcoming movies on other subjects (9/11, Sadomasochism, An animated fish) cease. Random Jews are pulled from the weary marching column somewhere in Poland or Czechoslovakia or Hungary. Do we not know that they will be shot in the head one by one without remorse by the stone-faced, blue-eyed demon and then bleed dutifully onto the gleaming white snow? We envision the scarlet puddle spreading around the slumped body even before the gun is removed from the holster. How many times have we seen the starving child in his mother’s arms, the Jew who says, “It can’t get much worse”, the scene by the cattle cars where families are scattered to death, to life, to infinity. How many more times will we see it?

The Pianist, directed by acclaimed filmmaker and survivor (his mother died in a concentration camp) Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby), is the newest of the Holocaust movies. Does it matter that it is the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) who played piano for Polish radio before the war? I can’t make up my mind. The film is undoubtedly a monumental work of horrifying beauty and a most penetrating, uncompromising realism – it should win a few awards, but it’s a Holocaust movie and as a Jew looking to write about it for other Jews, I feel no great motivation to give it distinction despite its excellence. Would it truly help if I described details? Called actions and depictions brutal or horrendous? Used words like “inhuman” and “barbaric” and “atrocity”?  I could do that, I could. But wouldn’t you realize quickly that these words carry no weight for you? That they are mere conveniences to us? We use terms like “Holocaust movie” to allow us to express the inexpressible, swallow the unswallowable. It’s the Holocaust, but it’s just a movie – like we remind ourselves during so called Horror movies. Because, honestly, the images we see are beyond conception. It’s almost as if The Holocaust didn’t happen simply because it couldn’t have happened.
So perhaps the Jewish writer can look at a Holocaust movie and try to pretend it is just a movie. Lets’ talk about acting or cinematography or the script. Pretend you don’t see yourself and your family walking hopefully, yet with such unholy shame through the street of your neighborhood (Teaneck, Cedarhurst, Silver Spring) with an armband on; walking to the new area designated for the Jews. Be objective and professional. Convince yourself the baby who was smothered to keep others in hiding safe was not your (Cory) own. You see the problem. We don’t have the capacity to do this. We wince when the old Jew is slapped in the face by a smiling soldier, not because the violence itself is shocking, but because your Grandfather was just slapped, your father was just stripped naked in the yard with tears in his once strong eyes, we were just told to lie face down in the mud and wait.

In this film, we see ourselves in Warsaw, from the time of the German occupation on through the liberation by Russian troops. Every week we read a new decree for the Jews in the paper from Dr. Fisher, our mayor. This week we can no longer go to Macys – now we can’t keep money at home – now we can’t use the sidewalk. Helpless. No one to defend us.
Even if Polanski finds new and terrible ways to show Jews being killed, turning on each other in madness, suffering in a way that, again, is beyond understanding – even if Polanski makes us feel the absolute miracle of survival (and that is his great achievement here and the reason for the title of the film) – it is impossible not to recognize the territory with such familiarity that it stifles our objectivity. We have been to these ghettos before, seen the skeletons (both alive and dead), smelled the burning. It’s not a movie at all for us, is it? It’s an elaborately mortifying insult of an unmerciful dagger plunging, not into our bodies, but deeper – perhaps our souls. It’s a bucket of miserable ice water of a reminder, screeching with nauseating clarity, “You are Jewish damn you! Forget who you think you are! You are Jewish. Jewish! Do you know what that means?! Do you know that you are the beneficiaries of flesh and blood sacrifices? Do you know that you are a stranger….always.”

We know by now how to feel after a Holocaust movie. Guilt for leading such fanciful lives – anger for the “world” who turned from us – sadness for our mixed up people – fear that it is bound to happen again. These feelings last about until you get to the car and turn on the radio. By the time you are singing along with Avril Lavigne the affects are quite mild and within days they altogether disappear. This is probably the best way. Who could function as a human being while contemplating such negative thoughts about humanity? This, however, is no excuse not to go see The Pianist. It is a Holocaust movie and you know what to do.

Reader Comments

From Aaron Spool:
Good review on Holocaust films.  You were right on the money.  It's easier to talk around something and make a monument for it than confront it head on.  My shul and Hillel used to truck in Holocaust victims every year and they'd give a speech and the audience would say how inspiring the victims' lives were-then they'd buy the victim's book or donate to the charity the victim was promoting.  Nothing wrong with that.  Building awareness, reminding people of tragedy, and fundraising for charity are all fine.  But, you need to ask yourself, where do we go from here.  One day I got tired of the speeches and asked the victim what could be learned from the Holocaust. What's next?  You built awareness, "never again", but what should never happen again?  Jews being killed?  Assimilation?  The victim was speechless and had no answer.  Every victim I meet has the same answer.

The long and the short of the Holocaust was that a country full of goyim killed a lot of Jews while the rest of the world by and large remained silent and allowed it to happen.  Take what you want from that.  No amount of movie watching, memorial services, name reading will change the fact that our people were tortured and killed en-mass for no other reason than being a Jew.  Reconcile that with your pursuits of a career/education/family in Chutz L'Aretz.  Berlin was not the new Jerusalem and neither is New York. We will go to see these Holocaust films, we will feel bad, then we will go home and live our lives just like before, learning nothing and doing nothing different.

From David Farkas, Cleveland, Ohio

You misattributed me of doing something in your recent column. You said that "We [all Jews] make it our business to attend, watch and remember" Holocaust movies. I know we swim in different streams, being in two cities and all, but none of the Jews I know do anything of the sort you describe. For us, Holocaust movies are no special attraction, and the odds of our attending one are no better or worse than the odds of attending any sad drama when we're in the mood to watch such a thing.  Lest you think I and my like-minded buddies should feel guilty over an "emotional disconnect" with the Holocaust or some such, let me assure you, we don't. We grew up in a society where for nine days out of every year we saw movies about Jewish tragedies, including but not limited to the Holocaust. We saw the real movies, taken by Journalists immediately after Liberation, not some candy coated version created for mass consumption. We were taught never to forget not only the Holocaust, but all national tragedies. However, we were also taught that there are more things to Judaism than just mourning. Thus, we don't feel the need, unlike the devotees of the Religion of Holocaust, to see every movie or read every book that comes out about the subject. The Holocaust has an important role in our lives, a very important one, but not an overarching one. This movie, then, [ assuming Jews should be going to movies at all, which I am not discussing here] should be no more important for a Jew to see than anything else that comes out this Winter.

Otherwise, your reviews are still very good

David Farkas
Cleveland, Ohio


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