The Obligations of History: Accuracy versus irony in depictions of the Holocaust
by Anne Nelson
Moving Image Source
Somewhere in time, between 1994 and 2010, it became permissible in Hollywood to treat the subjects of the Nazi era and the Holocaust with irony and bombast, instead of the reverence that was formerly expected. Not everyone is comfortable with the shift; Inglourious Basterds, which fictionalizes the end of World War II, failed to harvest its predicted array of Oscars, and a number of critics and historians have regarded it with distaste. But it has pulled in vast audiences and profits around the globe—unlike the more serious films that continue to explore the Holocaust's actual historical legacy.
For decades a debate has quietly raged as to whether the Holocaust should be depicted artistically at all. Even films as reverent as Schindler's List have been criticized for any departure from the historical record. At the same time, there are fears that the Holocaust could be forgotten by future generations, or subsumed into the long list of 20th-century atrocities. Holocaust education is explicitly mandated in 24 states in the U.S. and implicitly required in many others; educators are increasingly using film in the classroom to engage their students.
But today's students encounter radically divergent treatments of Holocaust themes in popular culture. On one side is a wave of dramas and documentaries that explore the historical record more thoroughly than ever before. At the other extreme is a new generation of feature films that take unprecedented liberties with history, treating the period as a vehicle for entertainment—the most obvious example being Inglourious Basterds.
As various critics have noted, Quentin Tarantino's riff on the Nazi era is more homage to film history than to world history. The Basterds score showcases Ennio Morricone's spaghetti-western themes, and the script is a pastiche of action-film genres. In Tarantino's manic vision, Hitler and the Nazi leadership are—very ahistorically—gathered into a Parisian movie theater for a Jewish revenge fantasy. Tarantino's plot device of linking a Holocaust crime to a Jewish revenge fantasy echoes the 2006 film Black Book, by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven's film also features a (fictitious) beautiful Jewish heroine whose family is murdered by the Nazis. She joins a resistance group, only to be catapulted into Grand Guignol
fantasies of brutality and revenge.
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