How Do You Make a Movie About the Holocaust?

Poetry makes nothing happen, W.H. Auden said in 1939, when words must have seemed especially impotent; but cinema is another matter. For several decades after the end of the Second World War, what’s come to be seen as its central catastrophe — the near-total destruction of the European Jews — was consigned to the status of a footnote. The neglect was rooted in guilt: Many nations eagerly collaborated in the killing, while others did nothing to prevent it. Consumed by their own suffering, most people simply didn’t want to know, and a conspiracy of silence was established.

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What definitively broke it, in the late 1970s, was — of all things — an NBC miniseries starring Meryl Streep. Crude, contrived and overblown, “Holocaust” is not a work of art; by today’s standards, it is barely even a work of television. Nonetheless, the show’s graphic depiction of the death camps, unprecedented at the time, shocked a vast global audience into belated recognition. Fifteen years later, the process of mnemonic restitution was completed by “Schindler’s List.” Released to stratospheric acclaim in 1993 and seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world, Steven Spielberg’s movie triggered a commemorative boom. For members of the newly united, post-Cold War Europe, Holocaust remembrance became an unofficial civic creed, or in the words of the historian Tony Judt, “the very definition and guarantee of the continent’s restored humanity.”

Not everyone took this moral U-turn at face value. The British philosopher Gillian Rose, who advised the Polish government on how to redesign the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum after the fall of Communism, believed that the new regime of memory was mired in bad faith. By framing the Holocaust as an unfathomable evil — “the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted,” as the writer Elie Wiesel once put it — we were protecting ourselves, Rose argued, from knowledge of our own capacity for barbarism. “Schindler’s List” was a case in point. For her, Spielberg’s black-and-white epic, which sentimentalizes the Jewish victims and keeps the Nazi perpetrators at arm’s length, was really just a piece of misty-eyed evasion.

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