Trapped as an Enduring Film Theme

One often hears about an overabundance of Holocaust films. In fact, our special guest tonight, the esteemed actor Ralph Fiennes, has himself starred in 3 major Holocaust films during his 20-year film career.
The treatment of the Holocaust in film dates back to the 1950s when Judgment at Nuremberg and the Diary of Anne Frank earned 21 Oscar nominations between them. But today, 65 years after the end of the war, the number of films seems greater than ever. This year, among the 65 films submitted for Oscar consideration in the foreign language category, 8 were related to the Holocaust or World War II. The question, of course, is why?
Responding to that question, Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films and a child survivor, said “The Holocaust has 6 million compelling stories and Hollywood is always desperate for a good story. It is only the media that think the public is tired of the subject.”
Howard Suber, a UCLA film professor, believes that all Holocaust films are variations on the world’s greatest storyline. A character is trapped in a situation and the question is will he get out? Professor Suber has said, “the moment a Nazi storm trooper or a swastika appears on the screen, the audience knows a survival story is coming. That story always works — from baby Moses floating down the Nile, and Joseph and his brothers to Robinson Crusoe and the TV survivor series.”
Clearly the Holocaust is a powerful setting for exploring universal themes about human nature — evil, apathy, heroism, guilt and redemption. And maybe by making and by watching these films, we, as a society and as individuals, find ways of confronting, or perhaps more importantly not confronting , our innermost anxieties — our own potential for evil, our tendencies to apathy, our longing for heroism, our sense of guilt and our need for redemption.
Towards the end of The Reader, the protagonist, masterfully played by Mr. Fiennes, confronts a Holocaust survivor who tells him, “people ask me all the time what I learned in the camps. Go to the theater if you want catharsis. Go to literature. Don’t go the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps.”
In one sense, that may be true. But at least one thing that came out of the camps was the human need to keep telling the story of the camps, whether through history, novels, art, theater, film, or even museums.
Are there too many Holocaust films? Maybe the better question is what is the role of film in transmitting history, communicating common values, helping us understand what we don’t know, and in asking us to confront who we are and who we can be.

ET.1213.SNEAKS.199Dr. Howard Suber, author of The Power of Film, says that the majority of all great films could be titled “Trapped.”  Here he talks on a panel at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about the enduring interest in Holocaust films, illustrating that theme:

The treatment of the Holocaust in film dates back to the 1950s when Judgment at Nuremberg and the Diary of Anne Frank earned 21 Oscar nominations between them. But today, 65 years after the end of the war, the number of films seems greater than ever. This year, among the 65 films submitted for Oscar consideration in the foreign language category, 8 were related to the Holocaust or World War II. The question, of course, is why?

Responding to that question, Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films and a child survivor, said “The Holocaust has 6 million compelling stories and Hollywood is always desperate for a good story. It is only the media that think the public is tired of the subject.”

Howard Suber, a UCLA film professor, believes that all Holocaust films are variations on the world’s greatest storyline. A character is trapped in a situation and the question is will he get out? Professor Suber has said, “the moment a Nazi storm trooper or a swastika appears on the screen, the audience knows a survival story is coming. That story always works — from baby Moses floating down the Nile, and Joseph and his brothers to Robinson Crusoe and the TV survivor series.”

Clearly the Holocaust is a powerful setting for exploring universal themes about human nature — evil, apathy, heroism, guilt and redemption. And maybe by making and by watching these films, we, as a society and as individuals, find ways of confronting, or perhaps more importantly not confronting , our innermost anxieties — our own potential for evil, our tendencies to apathy, our longing for heroism, our sense of guilt and our need for redemption.

Towards the end of The Reader, the protagonist, masterfully played by Mr. Fiennes, confronts a Holocaust survivor who tells him, “people ask me all the time what I learned in the camps. Go to the theater if you want catharsis. Go to literature. Don’t go the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps.”

In one sense, that may be true. But at least one thing that came out of the camps was the human need to keep telling the story of the camps, whether through history, novels, art, theater, film, or even museums.

Are there too many Holocaust films? Maybe the better question is what is the role of film in transmitting history, communicating common values, helping us understand what we don’t know, and in asking us to confront who we are and who we can be.

2 Comments

  1. Reply Rebecca 17th January 2010

    I have yet to see The Reader, but it’s on my list. I often wonder why films revisit the same “theme” or topic. How many films can you make about the same subject? I realize everyone has their different viewpoint and story to tell. Will the audience grow weary of seeing a film on a repeated subject? Just curious…

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 18th January 2010

      What we think of “story” and “genre” is often tone, style and setting. What the audience comes to see is character transformation. For example: A story of a troubled past, reluctant forgiveness and hard-won redemption– set in World War II, the American West, on a distant planet or a police station. There you have a war movie, a Western, Science Fiction or a Crime Drama or a Mystery. The audience NEVER tires of a compelling character journey.

      Here’s a great quote on the subject:
      “The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they will end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.”

      “In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love and who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic (and their power).”

      Arundhati Roy author of THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS

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