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The Holocaust in art and fiction

This page is dedicated to all mediated representations of the Holocaust, ranging from Nazi exploitation films to philosophical reflections. [Nov 2006]

Related: Holocaust - WW II - Nazism - representation - Nazi exploitation cinema

"It is by now a common view that the horror of the Holocaust cannot be represented; yet as time goes by, the need to make sure it is remembered becomes more and more acute. Film is an expository medium: its narrative mode is "showing" Its power to affect is based on showing. Films on the Holocaust have not been very successful in avoiding the pitfalls of representation. They either use the tragedy as a backdrop, sideways (Sophie's Choice), or sentimentalize it through individual identification (the TV series Holocaust). It cannot, ever, be adequately - realistically - represented, and Spielberg didn't try. The reason for the severe criticism of [Schindler's List (1993)] is, I think, that critics assumed he did. Instead, however, he 'touched' it, established a relationship with it based on continuity. He explores ways to do so through a medium that can hardly avoid the pornographic effects of showing torture, shame, and sadism." --Narratology (1985) - Mieke Bal, page 40

The Holocaust in art and literature

As one of the defining events of the 20th century, and one of the most stark examples of human brutality in modern history, the Holocaust has had a profound impact on art and literature over the past 60 years.

Some of the more famous works are by Holocaust survivors or victims, such as Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Anne Frank, but there is a substantial body of literature and art in many languages. The Holocaust has been a common subject in American literature, with authors ranging from Sylvia Plath to Saul Bellow addressing it in their works.

Key works in other languages include Ukrainian Anatoly Kuznetsov's novel about the Babi Yar massacre.

German philopsopher Theodor Adorno famously commented that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," but there are some substantial works dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The Holocaust has also been the subject of many films, including Oscar winners Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful. A list of hundreds of Holocaust movies is available at the University of Southern Florida.

With the aging population of Holocaust survivors, there has also been increasing attention in recent years to preserving the memory of the Holocaust through documentaries.

The massacre of Jews at Babi Yar inspired a poem written by a Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko which was set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Symphony No. 13.

In Pink Floyd's album The Wall, one of the record's tracks is titled "Waiting For The Worms". This song is set in the middle of the time the main character, Pink, has become a neo-nazi, and the head of a fascist group. The song seems to be set in a march down a main street in Brixton, England, with Pink singing/saying the lyrics through a megaphone. One of the lyrics from the song is, "Waiting! For the final solution to strengthen the strain!" --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holocaust_in_art_and_literature [Jan 2006]

The Holocaust has also been the subject of many films, including Oscar winners Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful. With the aging population of Holocaust survivors, there has been increasing attention in recent years to preserving the memory of the Holocaust. The result has included extensive efforts to document their stories, including the Survivors of the Shoah project, as well as institutions devoted to memorializing and studying the Holocaust, including Yad Vashem in Israel and the US Holocaust Museum. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust#Impact_on_culture [Nov 2005]

There can be no fictional narrative of Auschwitz

It has often been said that the unique nature of the Holocaust "challenges our imagination with a nearly impossible task" (Lawrence Langer). "There can be no fictional narrative of Auschwitz," Maurice Blanchot asserted. And Adorno: "After Auschwitz there is no word tinged from on high, not even a theological one, that has any right unless it underwent a transformation." I believe that these words -- these transformed fictional narratives -- exist, and that they already existed before Auschwitz. Artaud hallucinating his own death or Bataille his own dismemberment, Simone Weil embracing the abjection of assembly line work or Céline carried away by an insane racist rage -- these writers were not acting on their own either. By making the unimaginable their very subject, these artists provided us with that fraction of truth which scholars of the Holocaust are vainly seeking. -- Sylvère Lotringer, The Art of Evil in FAT Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1994, 1995 via http://www.thing.net/~fat/vol1no1/sylvere.htm

Sylvère Lotringer is professor of French literature and philosophy at Columbia University and general editor of Semiotext(e). He frequently lectures on art.

Representation of the Holocaust

Despite being exceedingly complex and rooted in a variety of intellectual fields, the ongoing debate about the representation of the Holocaust is familiar to many humanists who perceive the event as a potential limit-case for a range of aesthetic, religious, and historical practices. In cinema, the 1985 appearance of the documentary Shoah and director Claude Lanzmann's well-publicized strategy of working to invoke memory through oral recollections rather than explicit images endorsed the unrepresentability of Holocaust experience on screen. Hollywood's infrequent treatment of the subject in productions like Sophie's Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982) and Triumph of the Spirit (Robert M. Young, 1989) implicitly confirmed the same assumption and avoided direct representation of the genocide. Even a handful of scholarly works from the late 1980s-- Ilan Avisar's Screening the Holocaust: Cinema's Images of the Unimaginable, Judith E. Doneson's The Holocaust in American Film, and Annette Insdorf's Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust--underscored the separation between public discourse about the Holocaust and the productions of popular culture. --http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/reviewsh10.htm [Aug 2004]

Screening the Holocaust: Cinema's Images of the Unimaginable (1988) - Ilan Avisar

Screening the Holocaust: Cinema's Images of the Unimaginable (Jewish Literature & Culture)(1988) - Ilan Avisar [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Discusses the difficulties in dealing with the Holocaust artistically, looks a variety of Holocaust films, including documentaries, and assesses their effectiveness in handling the subject. --Synopsis

Sadomasochism, Sexual Torture, and the Holocaust Film:

That sadomasochism and homoeroticism often occur together with Nazism in the Holocaust film is a fact that has long been recognized and is frequently observed. Ilan Avisar, in Screening the Holocaust, traces what he calls the connection of Nazism and “sexual deviance” to Rossellini’s Open City. Gerd Gemünden suggests that in 1942, “the association of male homosexuality with sadism and perversion [as in the effeminate portrayal of Heydrich in Hangmen Also Die] … anticipates postwar films such as The Damned (Visconti 1969) and Night Porter (Cavani 1974).”

However, Richard Plant in The Pink Triangle indicates that the Soviet film, The Fighters (Wangenheim 1936), depicted Nazis as effeminate perverts.

The goal of this article is to generate some insights that could be applied to sexuality in the Holocaust narrative film in general, and in specific, to an analysis of the transformation of Stephen King’s novella, Apt Pupil, into Brian Singer’s film version (Phoenix/TriStar Pictures, 1998). As we aim to show, the construction of the Nazi-as-monstrous in the novella takes place against the backdrop of misogyny; in the film, the emphasis shifts to ambivalent fluctuations across homoerotic and homophobic registers.  Ultimately, we examine Apt Pupil because it presents a compelling test case for a theoretical analysis of the frissonthat lures us into watching and reading Nazi iconography, and torture, within the context of Holocaust narratives, as sexual. -- From Misogyny to Homoeroticism and Homophobia in Apt Pupil, Caroline Joan (Kay) S. Picart and Jason Grant McKahan, http://mailer.fsu.edu/~jgm8530/sadomasochism.htm

Sophie's Choice (1982) - Alan J. Pakula

  • Sophie's Choice (1982) - Alan J. Pakula [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    She had a small son and a small daughter. The Nazi soldiers said to her: "Pick one. Which one do you want?" The Mother said she could not choose between her children. The Nazi soldiers said if she didn't pick one, she would lose them both, so she picked one.
    The sunny streets of Brooklyn, just after World War II. A young would-be writer named Stingo (Peter MacNicol) shares a boarding house with beautiful Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her tempestuous lover, Nathan (Kevin Kline); their friendship changes his life. This adaptation of the bestselling novel by William Styron is faithful to the point of being reverential, which is not always the right way to make a film come to life. But director Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men) provides a steady, intelligent path into the harrowing story of Sophie, whose flashback memories of the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp [Holocaust] form the backbone of the movie. Streep's exceptional performance--flawless Polish accent and all--won her an Oscar, and effectively raised the standard for American actresses of her generation. No less impressive is Kevin Kline, in his movie debut, capturing the mercurial moods of the dangerously attractive Nathan. The two worlds of Sophie's Choice, nostalgic Brooklyn and monstrous Europe, are beautifully captured by the gifted cinematographer Néstor Almendros, whose work was Oscar-nominated but didn't win. It should have. --Robert Horton, Amazon.com

    Schindler's List (1993) - Steven Spielberg

  • Schindler's List (1993) - Steven Spielberg [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Steven Spielberg had a banner year in 1993. He scored one of his biggest commercial hits that summer with the mega-hit Jurassic Park, but it was the artistic and critical triumph of Schindler's List that Spielberg called "the most satisfying experience of my career." Adapted from the best-selling book by Thomas Keneally and filmed in Poland with an emphasis on absolute authenticity, Spielberg's masterpiece ranks among the greatest films ever made about the Holocaust during World War II. It's a film about heroism with an unlikely hero at its center--Catholic war profiteer Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who risked his life and went bankrupt to save more than 1,000 Jews from certain death in concentration camps.

    By employing Jews in his crockery factory manufacturing goods for the German army, Schindler ensures their survival against terrifying odds. At the same time, he must remain solvent with the help of a Jewish accountant (Ben Kingsley) and negotiate business with a vicious, obstinate Nazi commandant (Ralph Fiennes) who enjoys shooting Jews as target practice from the balcony of his villa overlooking a prison camp. Schindler's List gains much of its power not by trying to explain Schindler's motivations, but by dramatizing the delicate diplomacy and determination with which he carried out his generous deeds.

    As a drinker and womanizer who thought nothing of associating with Nazis, Schindler was hardly a model of decency; the film is largely about his transformation in response to the horror around him. Spielberg doesn't flinch from that horror, and the result is a film that combines remarkable humanity with abhorrent inhumanity--a film that functions as a powerful history lesson and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the context of a living nightmare. --Jeff Shannon, Amazon.com

    Paragraph 175 (2000) - Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

  • Paragraph 175 (2000) - Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Rupert Everett narrates this sensitive documentary about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals during World War II. "Paragraph 175" refers to the old German penal code concerning homosexuality, which was used to justify the prosecution of gay men during the war (the code ignored lesbians, still considered viable baby-making vessels). As mere rumor became enough to justify imprisonment, over 100,000 were arrested and between 10,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. In Paragraph 175, Klaus Müller, a historian from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, sets out to interview the fewer than 10 who are known to remain alive. The film covers the astonishingly quick rise of Hitler (one interviewee points out how ridiculous a figure he seemed at first) and the shock that more liberal Germans felt as it became clear that he was a force to be reckoned with. Some of the film's most touching moments come when the participants reminisce about their first loves and the "homosexual Eden" that was Berlin in the 1930s. This is a beautifully well made documentary that poignantly captures a piece of nearly forgotten history. --Ali Davis, amazon.com

    Night and Fog (1955) - Alain Resnais

  • Night and Fog (1955) - Alain Resnais [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Ten years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, filmmaker Alain Resnais documented the abandoned grounds of Auschwitz. One of the first cinematic reflections on the horrors of the Holocaust, Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) contrasts the stillness of the abandoned camps’ quiet, empty buildings with haunting wartime footage. With Night and Fog, Resnais investigates the cyclical nature of man’s violence toward man and presents the unsettling suggestion that such horrors could come again. --criterionco.com

    Though only a short subject, this groundbreaking documentary remains one of the most influential and powerful explorations of the Holocaust ever made. Director Alain Resnais bluntly presents an indictment not only of the Nazis but of the world community, and the film is all the more remarkable for its harsh judgment considering the time in which it was made, less than a decade after the end of the war, when questions of responsibility were not yet being addressed. Juxtaposing archival clips from the concentration camps across Germany and Poland with the present-day denials of the camps' existence, the film seeks to once and for all expose the horrifying truth of the Final Solution, as well as to address the continuing anti-Semitism and bigotry that existed long after the war's end. An invaluable resource and testament to history, this film was a profound influence on all films to address issues of the Holocaust, from Judgment at Nuremberg and Shoah to Schindler's List. Night and Fog remains an essential and indispensable document of the 20th century. --Robert Lane, amazon.com

    Nuit et brouillard grew out of an exhibition at the Institut Pédagogique National in November 1954. This was organised by the Comité d'Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, and Olga Wormser (with Henri Michel, the co-director of the Comité and co-organiser of the exhibition) suggested to film producer Anatole Dauman that he go to the exhibition. Michel and Dauman then agreed a new film should be made, and Dauman invited Alain Resnais to be the director. At first he refused. He felt his lack of first-hand experience of the camps would mean his film lacked the authenticity he felt essential for any effective treatment of the subject matter. However, he then relented, provided Jean Cayrol became involved to guarantee such authenticity. Cayrol's 1946 collection Poèmes de la nuit et du brouillard had evoked his experience as a survivor of Mauthausen with great power. At first Cayrol was reluctant to become involved; the idea of revisiting these experiences was too painful for him. He offered only to take a look at the material when Resnais had his first cut, without undertaking to participate even then. However Chris Marker, a mutual friend, was able to persuade him to change his mind. Marker had collaborated with Resnais a couple of years earlier on Les Statues meurent aussi, an account of the appropriation of traditional art objects by colonial museum and ethnographic collections. This had been banned by the censors for its anti-colonialist stance, the argument that these objects, detached from their cultural contexts and meanings, had effectively been sentenced to death. --James Leahy, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/26/cteq/nuit_et_brouillard.html

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