L13FC: WWII from 2000 to the Present

It’s Friday the 13th and my lucky day. We get to share thoughts about a topic in the movie industry. Never has there been an event in the twentieth century that has instigated a global outpouring of stories documenting the best and worst in humanity than World War II. The movie industry has had a love affair with making World War II films. According to Wikipedia, over 400 films have been devoted to the event. In timing with anniversary dates, one has come to expect new narrations muscling for a chance to share their perspective. Outside of battles and key events, the Holocaust is a genre of its own. We have a macabre sense of duty to understand the atrocities and mindset of a time where everyday common people were thrust in the way of world domination. Today, let us discuss the cinematic touches that made recent World War II films compelling and effective. 

A smattering of films since 2000. What should be added to the list? Before you criticize me, I think a lot of Hollywood films about WWII are too romantic and silly. For instance, I don’t think Pearl Harbor is a good film overall, but I do think the filming of the attack on Pearl Harbor to be outstanding. So, what SCENE or PERFORMANCE has stuck with you over the last two decades? For me, World War II movies that moved me the most in the last twenty years were the ones involving children.

Film Spotlight: Denial


Guest Review: DENIAL (2016) by Cinemusefilms 

The nature of truth and the power to manipulate it have long been contentious themes in history and cinema. The outstanding film Denial (2016) resonates loudly in today’s post-truth world where power is often used to create alternate realities. It is a film that portrays denialism as a dangerous and perverse form of moral corruption, something that may be contained but can never be eliminated.

The story is based on the celebrated 1996 legal case fought between eminent academic Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust Studies, and David Irving, a historian of Nazi Germany. A book published by Lipstadt (Rachael Weisz) accuses Irving (Timothy Spall) of being a Holocaust denier and falsifier of history, and Irving sues for defamation. In the British justice system, the burden of proof is on the accused so Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust did happen to establish that Irving is a liar. She engages a top legal team led by senior barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) who insists that neither Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors should present testimony against Irving because of his history of promoting himself by humiliating victims. Lipstadt and her lawyers visit Auschwitz to gather evidence of the existence of gas chambers but the bulk of the story is played out on the legal battlefield at court.

Modern audiences are desensitised to the atrocities of war. It is glorified in movies and video games and feeds the entertainment and amusement industry. Today’s filmmakers struggle to find ways of remembering the Holocaust without alienating viewers. The extraordinary Son of Saul (2016) takes audiences right into the flames, whereas Denial (2016) explores the moral issues in a courtroom. In reality, this was a high-stakes legal battle that could have potentially delegitimised the entire history of the Holocaust. It is an outstanding achievement that this film can capture the tension and the burden of moral responsibility carried by the Lipstadt legal team.

The casting and characterisation in this film are brilliant. Rachael Weisz’s American brashness presents a stark cultural contrast with the conservative traditions of British justice. She convincingly portrays a principled academic and scholar of truth, showing restrained emotion beneath her loathing for Irving’s anti-Semitism. Tom Wilkinson gives a masterful portrait of wisdom and conviction, while Timothy Spall plays Irving with subdued Satanic malice. The other support cast makes up a strong ensemble. The narrative unfolds at a sweeping pace and the script is both intelligent and instructive in the legal nuance of courtroom manoeuvers. The footage of Auschwitz is emotionally harrowing and the film treats its subject matter with utmost reverence.

If you want light entertainment, do not see this film. It is for audiences prepared to confront the dark side of humanity as well as those interested in the intricacies and triumphs of the British legal system. But more than that, it’s an essay on the nature of truth in history and it exposes the moral abhorrence of those who manipulate facts to suit their prejudices It is also a warning that manipulators of truth will always be among us. 4/5

Director: Mick Jackson

Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall

Thanks, RICHARD, for contributing to my blog today! 

History in Films: The Holocaust

Teaching about the Holocaust is important and a mandatory topic in schools, but sharing the stories from books and films with my students wears on me like a wet, woolen overcoat, five sizes too big. I think everyone is aware of the chestnuts, The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. 

I recommend four books that portray this Jewish chapter in history in an intriguing way: Pulitzer winning comic book, Maus I & 2 by Art Spiegelman, Second Hand Smoke, by Thane Rosenbaum, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2005). The film adaptation written and directed by Liev Schreiber is marvelous. It’s a dark comedy about a man on a quest in search of his roots and stars Elijah Wood. Incidently, Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, won top prizes for his first novel, Everything is Illuminated and his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, locked him in as a new voice in literature although some critics dislike his writing style.

There have been hundreds of films about the Holocaust since the end of WWII. A genre all unto itself, I don’t claim to have seen more than fifty, but still, that’s more than many people have seen. How do I feel about that? I mean,  “Oh, that’s a great  Holocaust film” seems a twisted thing to say and get enthusiastic about.

While all of them concern the central theme of the triumph of the human spirit or the power of friendship or the loss of faith, to rate them also seems distasteful. How do Jews feel about all the Holocaust films? Also, how about today’s Germans? How embarrassing to have Nazis be the number one association of your culture surpassing all the good in German culture like Mozart and Hegel? No wonder there are so few German comedies today.

Stuart Klawans is Jewish and a film critic. His article complained about the


incessant amount of Holocaust films and a wish to stop making them. The problem as he sees it is that people are desensitized to the violence and because it is a film, the viewer steps into the story much like a horror film and then steps out when the film is over and brushes aside the history of the event. I understand his complaint and understand all humans become hardened to a degree and even insensitive to violence.

However, I am in the polar category. I’ve seen so many of them, I brace myself because I know I will become depressed. I know I will cry. Seems like good old-fashioned masochism to me. And therein lies my problem. If you see enough of Holocaust films, the visceral pain of another’s tragedy becomes yours like a shadow or ghost following you. At some inner level, because my heritage is German, watching and reading about the Holocaust seems a flagellation of sorts, an apology to Jews for their suffering.

9781451661590_p0_v1_s260x420  The Burgdorf Cycle

Ursula Hegi writes about Nazi Germany from the perspective of common citizens. She’s an awesome writer and I highly recommend reading about Trudi, a most unusual and powerful female character in literature. 

My relatives were firmly established in the U.S. for many decades before World War II. I was born decades after the Holocaust, and yet, I feel responsible to teach “Never Again”.  Of course, my quasi-pain is nothing compared to those that suffered and their children and grandchildren who had to grapple with the experience.

As Stuart Klawans comments that Hollywood’s versions of the Holocaust like Defiance,  has been “filtered through calculated performances, invented speeches, dramatic conventions, and cinematographic effects.”

I will still analyze the newest release of a Holocaust film or book I suppose out of habit. It’s not the brutality and gruesome details that attract me. I look for a unique  delivery and the compassion.

What’s my favorite Holocaust film? Rosenstrasse.  It’s about love and devotion of German women whose Jewish husbands were prisoners in a warehouse and how one of them, the daughter of a German officer managed to free her husband. The tears come from love and satisfaction, not horror. Rent that one–It’s beautiful.

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