Where is the line between 'right' and 'wrong' representation of Holocaust in the arts? When is it antisemitic, and when kitsch?
During the course of a Russian ice-skating themed TV show, the team of Tatiana Navka, a former Olympic ice skater (and wife of Vladimir Putin’s chief spokesman Dmitry Peskov) and actor Andrei Burkovsky staged a Holocaust-inspired dancing performance. Theirs was a rendition based on the 1997 Oscar-winning film by Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful. Dressed as concentration-camp inmates and surrounded by a mock-grisly decorum, complete with the occasional jarring out of machine-gun fire and dog barking coming out of the soundstage, their act won the accolades of the show’s jury, who congratulated the pair for their enactment. After the show, Navka posted pictures of their dance on Instagram and reflected on her personal commitment to teaching children about the Holocaust.
Unlike the reactions of the show’s jury members, those of Western commentators were not so favorable. In fact, many were outraged. In what was probably the best summation of these reactions, historian Deborah Lipstadt tweeted,
Have you lost all sense of decency? Have you no shame?.
It should also be noted that this ice-skating performance comes towards the end of a year in which references to Nazism (and fascism) proliferated as political culture around the world took a turn towards the right. Probably most memorable were the comparisons of Donald Trump to Hitler, which were not limited to Internet memes, YouTube comments or chat room discussions, but found their way into the ‘Books’ section of the New York Times, where critic Michiko Kakutani Aesopically drew parallels between the two figures.
I believe the performance and the outrage it provoked to be characteristic of the issues relating to the manner in which we debate the proper means in which to portray the Holocaust in different types of media.Who has the right to depict the Holocaust?
What is the most appropriate way in which to do it, and should it be done at all in the first place?
Can fiction be allowed in such portrayals, or should they only be based on real events?
And ultimately, can such a performance be characterized as anti semitic?
I do not claim to offer any clear-cut answers to these questions, which I ultimately hold to be connected to the wider context of Western debates about the nature of representation, the relationship between art and real life, and the limits of artistic freedom, that have been going on in the fields of literary criticism at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. This is not to say we should accept to be washed away in a sea of postmodern relativism, for as I hope to show, there are gradations to be found in works dealing with the subject matter, or to state it in more political terms, some portrayals are more progressive than others.
Like in former countries of the Eastern bloc, the perception of the Holocaust and the Second World War in Russia differs considerably from that in the West. It is estimated that in the Soviet Union, approximately 25 million people died as a result of the war. Throughout the years, a lot of cultural policies have changed in the USSR, but if one thing remained constant from the war’s end until perestroika, it was the respect for the soldiers who fell in WWII, known as the “great patriotic war”.
Despite the nationalist fervor attached to it, not all narratives of the war glossed over the suffering endured by both the soldiers and the civilian population. Films such as The Cranes are Flying (1957) or Ivan’s Childhood (1962) portrayed life during wartime as bleak, hopeless and dreary. But in tone with the internationalist ideology of Soviet socialism, there was no differentiation between the victims of the Nazis. This had its roots in the years of Stalinism. After 1989, people were free to express their own narratives of suffering, but the state retained a nationalist interpretation of the war (the emphasis on Russian resistance to the Third Reich overlooks the fact that the USSR was a multi ethnic society, and that a wide range of representatives from the Union’s ethnic minorities were enrolled in the Red Army).
While clearly misguided, Navka’s intention to educate Russian children about the Holocaust reflects a real need in the context of Russian society.
Equally well intentioned but misguided are also a great majority of Western depictions of the Holocaust. One of The Guardian’s film critics, Peter Bradshaw reminds us apropos of the influence of Benigni’s film on the performance:
Navka’s ice twirl was horrendous, but she took her cue from celluloid prestige.
Saul Friedländer’s seminal Reflections on Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death (1984, initially published in French in 1982) discussed the problematic nature of the moral implications of a range of pieces of cinema or literature dealing with the Holocaust, which he labeled as kitsch. The works discussed by Friedländer belonged to the domain of ‘high culture’. By contrast, I would argue that today the main site where Holocaust kitsch is to be found in popular culture. Films such as Life Is Beautiful rely on a vision of saccharine sweetness where the acceptance and endurance of suffering endows Holocaust victims with a halo of martyrdom, removing them of any sense of agency. Sometimes there is the need for the mediation of a gentile other, such as in the case of the novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and its later film adaption from 2008. Both the source material and the film disregard historical reality, because its producers know that emotional reactions do not depend on this factor. As the trailer for the recently released The Zookeeper’s Wife shows, this trope continues to be used by filmmakers.
In the face of such mawkish productions, it is of no surprise that Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds (described by film critic J. Hoberman as “essentially generous ‘Jewish porn’”) achieved so much success.
In the film, Jews violently fight back against their Nazi oppressors. The theme was also explored in the previous year's Defiance, which presented the story of the real-life Jewish resistance movement led by the Bielski brothers in the Naliboki forest of Belarus (present day Poland). But unlike the ‘clean’ Defiance, Tarantino’s film was not afraid to show the faults of its Jewish (and non-Jewish) heroes. In their quest for justice, the characters are not afraid of going to extremes, and the film does not judge them for this, letting instead the audience to make up their own minds. The film’s Jewish character, Shoshanna is a victim of the Nazis, but she is not a ‘victim’ according to cinematic standards.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote ironically in 1994 about the fact that the people most offended by William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice (1979) were not likely to be concentration-camp survivors, but merely outraged American Jews who felt a special claim to the Holocaust. Yet when writing about it years later, Rosenbaum attacked Inglorious Basterds on the basis that it is irreverent towards the Holocaust! Characterizing it as “deeply offensive”, he went on to claim that it is “morally akin to Holocaust denial”, and that the enjoyment produced by the film comes at “the expense of real-life Holocaust victims”.
Somewhat contradictory, on another occasion he stated that the film “makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality” (it is unclear how something which supposedly denies something can at the same time complicate the subject which it is denying.)
Yet the reaction of some of those who lost family in Holocaust and watched the film is the exact opposite of Rosenabum’s expectations. A woman whose mother was interned at Dachau and whose father spent the war in Siberia declared that the finale made her “feel unfortunately happy” and that when seeing how the film’s protagonists locked the doors of the burning cinema, she hoped that the Nazi audience of the film within the film would be unable to get out. The woman’s sister remarked
I felt like Tarantino was a fellow Jew, just the way he made me feel so proud of the Basterds and the revenge against the Nazis… He’s a member of the tribe, as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, such comments cannot be generalized, and it is entirely probable that some victims indulged in the same reactions as those experienced by Rosenbaum.
But is there any kind of representational art that is destined to please everyone?
As Ruth Franklin argues in her book A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (2013), the current elevation of Holocaust survivors to the status of sainthood presupposes a removal of critical thinking, which ultimately permitted a various coterie of charlatans, crackpots and celebrity seekers to successfully claim that they endured the Holocaust. Furthermore, people who were affected by the Holocaust are as likely to indulge in kitschy commemorations, whether the recent Miss Holocaust Beauty contest held in Haifa, the embellishment by Herman Rosenblat of his experience at a subcamp of Buchenwald in his Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived (2009), or the rise of people who identify themselves as second or third generation Holocaust survivors shows.
As I said in the beginning, I do not have clear answers for how to treat the vast assemblage of artistic works dealing with the Holocaust. If one thing is clear, however, it’s that our understanding of victimhood in relation to the Jews who died in the Holocaust needs to be rethought. While the Navka-Burkovsky ice-skating performance has no inherently anti semitic overtones, it does nonetheless present us with an image of the Jew/Jewess-as-victim, who is in a perpetual, ‘frozen’ state of victimhood.
Despite the benign intentions of its creators, such a portrayal of Jews as victims can normalize anti semitism. After all, if Jews were constantly victims throughout history, should it not be normal that they remain that way always? Against such a logic must those who deal with the Holocaust as either artists or educators strive against.
Alin Constantin is an MA student of the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien University of Heidelberg. He is writing his dissertation about the connections between Critical Theory and Judaism in the postwar period.