Obscene film with a point

By John Nathan, November 19, 2010

On the face of it, German film director Uwe Boll is not the obvious choice to make a film about Auschwitz.

Take his 2007 movie, Postal, which --- like many a Boll movie --- is based on a shoot-em-up computer game. Boll's version of Postal is, like much of his output, a straight-to-DVD, sex-action romp. This one features a trailer-trash hero called Dude, bumbling Islamic terrorists who crash an airliner into the Word Trade Centre and lots of pretty girls in bikinis who, for reasons I haven't grasped, wear swastika arm bands.

I know all this because I have seen the trailer on the internet. I've also seen the trailer - or "teaser" as it is called - to Auschwitz, Boll's latest offering.

Strange word "teaser" in this context. It coyly implies that having a little bit of something will leave you wanting more. To be teased by Auschwitz all you have to do is go to YouTube, click the "yes" option to the question that asks if you are over 18, and then watch the clip in which Boll himself plays an SS guard who is either bored or asleep while, behind him through the porthole of a door we can see people being gassed. The sequence then cuts to the inside of the gas chamber and later to a child being incinerated.

Boll is not what film aficionados would call an auteur. They more often call him "schlockmeister" or indeed, the world's worst film director. His films are universally trashed as much for the absence of craft as their bad taste.

How can a generation used to violent videos understand the Shoah?

Auschwitz is not one of Boll's comedy romps. Responding to critics who have vowed to boycott the film, Boll has said that his aim is to show the "everyday reality" of the Nazis' crimes. This, he says, is his responsibility as a German (he was born in 1965). He has also said that audiences are no longer moved by films such as Spielberg's Schindler's List and that it is time to make a film about "the real Auschwitz".

Just reading about Boll and his film evokes an avalanche of anger. Or it did in me. You can guess the effect of the teaser. But in the week where Australian comedian Jim Jefferies has released a DVD called Alcoholocaust, the question of how the Shoah is referred to, reflected or exploited in our culture just won't go away.

Jefferies does find humour about the Holocaust in his set, as do other stand-ups - including the Jewish comedian Josh Howie. Whether you will enjoy Jefferies's gag about an idiot on the Auschwitz town tourist board attempting to increase business by advertising that they can simultaneously cook more pizzas than anyone else, probably depends on whether you have just seen Boll's Auschwitz teaser, in particular the bit where fillings are pulled from the teeth of gassed prisoners before a child is put in an oven.

Of course, Jefferies might reasonably argue that he would never tell the joke to people who had just seen a film about the Shoah. But this is the problem with all but the most finessed piece of Holocaust-related humour. Many of those who ply Holocaust gags might not realise the extent to which many survivors and sufferers live with the event every day. They don't need to see the Auschwitz teaser. Their lives, even those two or three generations on from the event, are quietly but permanently informed by the Holocaust.

It is like living with a psychosis. Images of cruelty can pop up at the most banal moments. A freezing day can involuntarily lead to imagining how cold the prisoners of Auschwitz were. Perhaps you have to be Jewish. I hope not.

The number of years that have elapsed since the Second World War is clearly a factor. Even Jefferies might hesitate before telling, say, a Rwanda tourist board joke about cutlery.

But Boll is not talking about the people who live with the images of the Holocaust. He is talking about the kind of audience inured to violence by its centrality in so many video games; the kind of entertainment that he himself has turned into film.

Perhaps his film is a bid to be taken seriously. Or perhaps it is the most cynical exploitation of the Holocaust yet seen, exclusively attracting the kind of audience that gets its kicks from torture porn flicks.

Perhaps. But Boll has raised a very thorny question: how do you get the violent-video-game generation to understand the Holocaust? Please God, not by taking the next, coldly logical step - a Holocaust video game.

John Nathan is the JC's theatre critic

Last updated: 10:24am, November 19 2010