Can the Shoah ever be art?

By James Inverne, September 28, 2011
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Sitting down to write my review for Gramophone of Weinberg's The Passenger at the English National Opera, I struggled. How should I start? What criteria should I adopt? Here was a Holocaust opera by a Jew who had escaped the Shoah only for its furnace to consume his parents and sister. Should I even presume to review it?

Not many seemed to share my struggle. Most of my fellow critics rushed to applaud. A few, like Stephen Pollard in this paper, or Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph ("a complete dud," he wrote), fumed.

One colleague emailed me the following day to say how furious he was at what he saw as the manipulation of the Holocaust to serve the theatre's cynical demands.

It was all so false, he fulminated, with the clearly well-fed members of the chorus and a scene where a group of female Auschwitz prisoners produced candles and had a little party for the main character's birthday. He told me that a friend had encountered a lady crying on the theatre's front steps. Her grandmother had been in the camps. "If they had been able to get candles," she raged, "they would have eaten them".

Would you want to read a review of the Diary of Anne Frank?

Yet why did I struggle? I didn't like the opera much, that was clear. But then, what has like got to do with something like this? The commitment of all involved seemed genuine. If some of the cast seemed a touch generalised or two-dimensional (the Jewish guards prowling and scraping like Alberich's Nibelungs in Wagner's Ring), well, everyone knows that opera singers aren't always the most refined actors. But they were trying, really trying, to evoke that terrible time. Lest we forget.

What's so wrong about that? In fact, doesn't it put them beyond criticism?

There was a girl in my Holocaust literature class at university who took exception to an assignment we were given to assess various survivors' memoirs. She thought it wrong to subject them to the kind of process one might accord to a Bronte novel. Yet how else do you assess art? And are Holocaust works art at all, or should they be viewed purely as historical documents? Would you ever want to read a review of The Diary of Anne Frank?

Arthur Miller's Broken Glass is enjoying a successful West End revival with Antony Sher. "Unmissable" proclaims one billboard. I didn't think so when I first saw it. Interesting, yes, in its presentation of a woman psychologically crippled by the Holocaust. Hardly unmissable. But then, perhaps this revival is unmissable for Sher, one of our finest actors. He's certainly the main reason to see it again.

But is that a moral way to approach it - as a showcase for great acting? Because then there's the danger that we're simply using the unimaginable evil of the Holocaust as the broadest of canvasses on which to paint Great Theatre. To show what we can do.

I'm reminded uncomfortably of Kate Winslet's admission in an episode of the comedy series Extras - scripted, I hasten to add, by Ricky Gervais - of why she was doing a Holocaust film. "If you do a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar," deadpans Winslet. Not very long afterwards, she actually did win one for The Reader, a Holocaust film. "Told you," smirked Gervais on yet another awards show.

I'm not saying that she didn't deserve the accolade. I simply question why it is indeed true that Holocaust films win Oscars. Why it is that Holocaust plays tend to get well reviewed? Why it is that The Passenger got mostly great notices?

I'd hope it's for the struggle to show something for which it has been argued that a whole new language needs to be invented, because the words we have cannot do it justice. But I'm also aware that dramatic extremes, from Richard III onwards, allow artists to - in the nicest possible way - show off.

I haven't watched Schindler's List for about five years now. I won't. Because the last time I did, I found myself starting to admire Ralph Fiennes's performance as the Nazi for its own sake. I don't want to watch that film to see how brilliant Fiennes is. It doesn't feel right. And here's something I haven't told anyone yet. For the last few weeks I haven't been able to get John Williams's melancholy theme to the same film out of my head.

I was whistling it jauntily the other day. Until I caught myself. Shocked.

James Inverne is editor of Gramophone

    Last updated: 10:19am, September 28 2011