It can never be determined with certainty why an event like the Nazi Holocaust happened, but looking back sixty years later, one could cynically suggest that G-d wanted to give unimaginative Jewish writers and documentarians an obvious go-to subject upon which to base their work. While constantly reevaluating and reemphasizing the loss of six million is essential to the “never forget” culture, from a critical and artistic standpoint there is an aesthetic overkill and a thematic repetitiveness to consider.
A perfect example for this argument is the documentary We Were So Beloved: The German Jews of Washington Heights – a film newly available on DVD.
It is a competently crafted and researched Holocaust documentary, replete with all the right interviews (survivors and their families) that as a Jew I can't but call it deeply moving, frightening, relevant, and supremely important, however as a critic well aware of the myriad of films covering these very same issues in more or less the same conventional, point-the-camera-at-the-talking-heads way, I have to ask: Must we celebrate every decent Holocaust film as a success even if it adds nothing new to the genre? It's a battle between Zachor es Amalek and Ba'al Tosif. This is not to say that filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer does not have an angle. He seems to want to make a niche Holocaust film – one that concentrates on German victims in particular and their unique perspective as having been rejected and murdered by their beloved country. It is a revelation to hear Jews with their still very German outlook seeing themselves as superior to the Jewish victims from “Eastern European” countries like Poland. Kirchheimer makes his point with some startling interviews from friends and family of friends who say confounded things like they wished they could have marched with the SS and been good Germans. Kirchheimer's father, a pre-war refugee, admits that he refused to cooperate with the United States government in mapping out bombing targets in Germany because he felt like he would be “betraying his home.” The film also peripherally covers that preeminently discussed Jewish dilemma regarding buying German or visiting Germany.
Kirchheimer often gets very close to allowing his premiere issue to explode – where we could fully experience the torrid psychological trauma Germany, as a national consciousness, imposed upon its citizens – but we are routinely dragged back into the classic Holocaust narratives that, though eternally gruesome and compelling, have been heard before. The film also strangely provides no significant insight into the establishment and/or pertinence of the actual Washington Heights community (despite the film's subtitle). It appears the director merely appropriated his birth community because he felt comfortable with it and with interviewing his neighbors. He never gives his audience an authentic Heights flavor, but there are sporadic shots of old Jews walking the streets.
Though I have raised the concept of Holocaust documentary overkill, it is impossible not to walk away from these types of films without something resounding in one's head (despite having been exposed to the subject matter before). Here, the lasting affect comes from this question: How much can we really blame the average German?
Survivors have condemned “the world”, and understandably so, for being silent when we were being massacred by the millions. We condemn our gentile neighbors and alleged friends for standing by. The counter argument articulated by these German Jewish survivors can be compared to the following: How often do you read the paper, flip with mild interest past an article or two about butcherings in Africa, disease in Asia, and corrupt governments and guerilla warfare in South America…and finally settle down with something juicy like who looked fab on the Golden Globes red carpet? The answer, if you're honest, is at least once a week.
We have become the distracted, contemptible society – that content and comfortable “world” ignoring the blood and cries form across the globe. “But wait”, you say, “What cane we do”? “We are powerless to change things on the other side of the planet.” Well perhaps now you see what others felt in 1938 reading similar stories about Nazis in Europe. This is not a valid defense, rather it just points to a troubling hypocrisy. And as for our German friends and neighbors – sure they could have done or said something in protest and cause a commotion (as many did), but the price for that was your neck and the necks of your children being snapped as the floor gives and their corpses left to swing. That is not an excuse, again, but it may be right up there with powerless.
While Kirchheimer certainly provides the content to back his agenda, he proves to be an unpolished documentarian and interviewer. He will at times cross-edit footage and jump inexplicably from one interview to the next without developing a connection. His gravest infraction is his shameless self-promotion, often training the camera on himself listening to his subject's responses. He also annoyingly interjects strange commentary while his subject is responding, making you think he likes the sound of his voice. This becomes even more apparent during his wandering, esoteric narration, where he waxes poetic and bewildered.
We Were So Beloved may not teach you anything about the Holocaust that you did not already know, but it acts principally as another reminder of what happened. Is it my suggestion that Jewish filmmakers find some other obsession and outlet? Six million dead and cut off. Should we “move on”? Six million.