Case for and against Holocaust schlock

The JC Essay


By David Herman, November 25, 2012
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In his fascinating book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, the Jewish writer, Gabriel Josipovici, lays into middlebrow writing. What attracted attention when his book came out last year was his attack on some of Britain's best-known contemporary novelists, including Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. Reading these writers, he said, "leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner". This is a perfect summary of the problem with middlebrow books and films: they diminish the world.

Josipovici also attacked Irène Némirovsky, who became posthumously famous here for her novel, Suite Française. In it, she described life in France after the Nazi invasion in 1940. It was translated (by Sandra Smith) into English to considerable acclaim, although there was controversy about Némirovsky's depiction of her fellow Jews, with allegations of antisemitism, even though she was herself arrested as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" and died at Auschwitz. Josipovici's concern was not this debate but the writing itself. "Némirovsky," he wrote, "uses the clichés of the middlebrow novel without embarrassment… The work," he went on to say, "lies inert on the page, without any life of its own".

Pretty children in books or films about the Holocaust are always a sure sign that we have moved from serious art to kitsch

The subject matter is crucial. There is plenty of middlebrow fiction around but when it is used to describe some of the most tragic events of the 20th century, that is a problem. I have always taken a straightforward position on this. For me, the great accounts of Nazism (or Stalinism) are not middlebrow. Vassily Grossman's novel, Life and Death, Claude Lanzmann's film, Shoah, Isaac Babel's diary about the Russo-Polish war, Janina Bauman's memoir, Beyond These Walls and many more - these are not middlebrow, they are among the best books and films written about some of the worst events of the 20th century.

"Best" may mean many different things here. I do not mean simply the most moving, though all of these contain deeply moving and harrowing scenes: in Shoah, survivor Abraham Bomba describing cutting the hair of Jews as they are about to go into the gas chambers; Grossman's evocation of wartime Stalingrad; Babel's account of the ferociously antisemitic Red Cavalry wreaking havoc on small Jewish villages. These are tremendously powerful and moving scenes.

But among these people's greatest achievements is precisely avoiding techniques that ensure that their audiences are moved. Lanzmann refuses to use music or photographs in Shoah in the way that made Schindler's List so effective. It is the restraint of Grossman's or Primo Levi's writing that is so admirable. The spare tone, the lack of dramatic imagery or metaphors.

Sometimes it is the simplicity of the writing or the film-making that is so powerful. Often, though, it is the complexity that underlies the apparent simplicity. Bauman's memoir of growing up in wartime Poland may be the least well-known of these examples but what is striking about the climax of her book is how frequently she writes about how "the story is unclear", "muddled up", how "the pattern has shattered", and describes the world around her in terms of fragments, rubble destruction.

She makes us realise that this is not just the outside world she is describing but also her inner world. Despite her clear prose, she helps us realise that her world "has shattered", lies in fragments and then we realise that - like Bomba, like Babel's narrator - she is devastated by what she had lived through and seen. Great films and books about the Holocaust may be clear or complicated, they may be desperately upsetting or astonishingly restrained. There are no simple rules or straightforward criteria.

Or are there? We all know schlock when we see it. There is a Dante's Inferno out there, the circles of hell that are television movies, documentaries, novels and memoirs that make us and their subjects, "smaller and meaner". The prose (or script) is awful, the characters clichéd, the plot sensationalised and melodramatic, the acting hammy, over-sentimental. False piety rules. We can all name the worst offenders.

The problem arises somewhere in between the great books and films and the exploitative schlock. I recently read Sarah Gainham's 1967 novel on Vienna under the Nazis, Night Falls on the City, which has just been republished. It was hugely successful when it first came out and was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months. It is the story of a Viennese actress, Julia Homburg, married to a Jewish, left-wing politician, who has to go into hiding when the Nazis march into Vienna.

At times, the prose is just terrible: "Suddenly, Ruth's mother gave a trembling wail of broken nerves," "the big nipples rigid with helpless submission to his conquering maleness", "Julie's voice rose like a silver trumpet in furious commands that nobody heeded."

As well as this kind of stuff, there is the sentimentality of the story-line: the beautiful young actress who must make endless sacrifices for her husband, the clumsy exposition, the stereotypical vicious antisemitic thugs from central casting, and so on. It's being sold as "Alone in Berlin meets Suite Française". Often it reads more like Herman Wouk on a bad day.

And yet… you are drawn in. The darker the scenes, (wartime Poland, 1945 Vienna) the better the writing. Kerenyi, the Hungarian journalist, is a terrific character. It is not Grossman or Babel, but it is a good read.

There are more complicated examples. D M Thomas's The White Hotel, David Lean's Doctor Zhivago, Spielberg's Schindler's List. There are manipulative, over-the-top moments in all these. In Zhivago, all that trilling balalaika music, Rod Steiger as the villainous Komarovsky, virtually twirling his moustaches, the final shots of the dam. In Schindler's List, Spielberg's use of John Williams's soundtrack, the escalation from one emotional climax to another, the little girl in the red coat. And yet all were tremendously popular, remain so today, and are arguably the best works all three artists ever produced.

Clive James has always been resolute about the superiority of the most sincere popular art over the least substantial high art. In 1977, he reviewed a BBC2 production of Michael Tippett's oratorio, A Child Of Our Time, and an episode of the American series about slavery, Roots. "It takes talent to generate triviality on the scale of A Child of Our Time," James wrote. He hated the whole thing: "The caftans, the roll-neck sweaters, the portentous sets and the sententious lines." By contrast, Roots had real energy. "Anaemic high art," he wrote, "is less worth having than low art with guts. It could be said that Roots is as low as art can get. It could even be said that it isn't art at all. But guts it's got."

T he following year, James upped the ante when he reviewed the American four-part mini-series, Holocaust. "It can't be done and perhaps ought never to have been done," he began, "but if you leave those questions aside then there should be room to admit the possibility that Holocaust wasn't really all that bad. It gave a modicum of dramatic life to some notoriously intractable moral issues." He admitted the script was "never better than adequate" and "showed no sense of period" and yet it taught more people about what happened to the Jews than inaccessible if well-intentioned high art; "people who knew little were often moved to tears".

Just to complicate things further, recently re-reading Elie Wiesel's Night and some Primo Levi a while back, I was reminded that there are moments of piety and sentimentality (and worse) in Night and moments where Levi downplays the Jewish particularism of his experience in favour of a more appealing universalism, that raise disturbing questions about both writers.

Wiesel's book is hugely popular (it sold over six million copies in the United States alone) because it is so moving and also because of the simplicity of Eliezer's account of his experience, delivered in his plain, innocent voice. And yet, clearly, there are ways in which the book is structured not as a documentary account but around certain themes that are important to Wiesel: especially religious faith and fathers and sons. And there are particular moments, most obviously the hanging of "the slight Jewish child with the lost dreamy eyes", between two men, which have Christ-like overtones. It is a moment, to be blunt, of higher schlock. Everything about the scene is manipulative and sentimental.

More seriously, should there be such a blatantly Christian image as the climax of the horrors of Auschwitz? The child is part of a chain of children in the book which begins with the Jewish children at the Gare d'Austerlitz seen by Francois Mauriac in his foreword to the book, who then describes "the death of God in the soul of a child [Eliezer/Wiesel] who suddenly discovers absolute evil", "the worst of all to those of us who have faith". "The worst of all"? Mauriac's foreword is a disgrace but it sets the tone for some of the problems with Night, above all, the need to "Christianise" and sentimentalise the Holocaust.

These children, particularly the child hanged at Auschwitz, are precursors to the little girl in the red coat in Schindler's List. Pretty children in books or films about the Holocaust are always a sure sign that we have moved from serious art to kitsch, an indication that sentimentality will trump all. Another sure sign is universalism. The more universal the characters and the less Jewish, the more likely we are to be dealing with shlock. For example, all those TV movies with their blonde women, blue-eyed children and Christian imagery. Think of how un-Jewish Millie Perkins looked in the 1959 film of The Diary of Anne Frank. Would it have been so awful to have had a Jewish actress, who even looked Jewish?

A nother worrying sign is when the Holocaust is made to seem an easy topic, subject to the same rules of melodrama, sentimentality and realism as anything else. From the start, Lanzmann did not want Shoah to be easy. No archive film, no stills, no music, no familiar iconography (barking dogs, barbed wire, the remains of camps, eagles, leather boots). He wanted it to be about absence and memory, because that's all there was. In the same way, Bauman insisted that fragmentation and a kind of broken style would be essential to her book, as it was to her experience. That way of thinking about how you represent a subject as difficult as the Holocaust, and the refusal to make it smooth and easy, is a sign that the artist has integrity.

A cultured elite may prefer Shoah, Bauman or Grossman to Spielberg, Wiesel and David Lean. But most people prefer their Holocaust films to have beautiful music, pretty children, melodrama and sentimentality, a certain kind of easy, watchable style that is not too disturbing. That's why six million copies of Night were sold in America, why many more millions of viewers watched Holocaust, why Night Falls on the City topped The New York Times bestseller list for months. Those works spoke to millions of people, offering the dominant literary and cinematic accounts of the Holocaust.

Critics should not be border guards, sneering at popular works of art. All the books and films I have discussed have their pleasures. Some of the films and books I have criticised here are among my favourites.

There are worse things than balalaika music or moving scenes of little girls in red coats, such as a worrying problem in contemporary culture: the danger that people simply won't get access to what is considered difficult or unpopular. In the age of Amazon and the e-Reader, as small bookstores and publishers get driven out of business, will it still be possible to buy DVDs of art-house documentaries about the Holocaust, novels by obscure writers like Ka-Tzetnik and Tadeusz Borowski?

My worry is that Channel 4 will never again show Shoah, BBC 2 will stop commissioning documentaries about Primo Levi, that small publishers battling to print Janina Bauman or translate Vassily Grossman, will struggle to survive. The popular and easy will always have a market. The unpopular and difficult might not. That, today, is the real threat of Schlock.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 12:45pm, November 25 2012