New Movies — From the October 2015 issue

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At the climax of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 homage to World War II genre movies, a German war hero who’s attending the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film based on his exploits (Pride of the Nation) is appalled to see the way in which his life has been transformed into bombastic “art.” While hard-boiled clichés that the soldier never uttered in real life hail down from the screen (“You cowardly American pig . . . you’re gonna pay for this!”), the camera keeps cutting to his face, on which the pleasure he initially felt at the prospect of becoming a cinematic star yields to mortification at having his deeds so patently inflated and falsified. Eventually he storms off in disgust, but it’s clear that his qualms aren’t shared by the audience: a gala gathering of top Nazi brass who roar their approval at the drama that has been so carefully designed to please them.

Still from Labyrinth of Lies © Heike Ullrich. Courtesy Beta Film

Still from Labyrinth of Lies © Heike Ullrich. Courtesy Beta Film

Historical fidelity or artistic license? The dilemma has long faced artists attempting to depict the war and, particularly, the Holocaust, the scope and the intensity of whose depravities have posed notorious problems of representation — have seemed, indeed, to threaten the possibility of artistic representation itself. And yet art (especially the popular arts of television and cinema, with their extraordinary ability to package history in a visually persuasive and emotionally involving way) has been unable to resist the Holocaust from the start. Orson Welles’s The Stranger, a noirish thriller about a hunt for a Nazi war criminal that was the first commercial feature to include footage of the camps, came out in 1946.

The quasi-documentarian impulse behind Welles’s decision to use real-life images to convey the bitter facts of history in a fictional drama informed many of the early Holocaust movies. This ingenuous realism was apparent in the first adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Stanley Kramer’s star-studded Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), in which invented courtroom testimony is called on to illuminate actual German crimes, as well as in the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust — the first major treatment of the subject on American television — and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). If Spielberg’s film represents the culmination of this stylistic period, that’s not accidental: it came out just as the generation who had been adults during the war was dying off. The obsessive visual detail (harrowing scenes shot inside cattle cars, or in what appears to be a gas chamber), like many such realistic gestures, is partly a nod of respect to the real sufferings of its subjects.

Since then, the task of telling this story has fallen, of necessity, to people who weren’t there to see it and who have increasingly scant access to those who were. (The memorable finale of Schindler’s List, which consists of documentary footage of elderly Schindlerjuden visiting their rescuer’s grave, could not be made today.) This bald historical fact has had two effects. First, the subjects of the films have shifted. Because every generation produces its own historiography, what it chooses to notice in the past shifts, too. It’s not surprising, for instance — given our culture’s valorization of empowerment — that some recent American films have emphasized Jewish armed resistance, as in Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), based on the true story of a band of Polish Jewish partisans.

Second, and more interestingly, the narrative, aesthetic, and even ethical styles of these historical films have become freer and more daring as the perceived imperative to document the event has lessened. This development is evident in some of the more controversial films of the past two decades: Roberto Benigni’s death-camp comedy Life Is Beautiful, say — or, for that matter, Tarantino’s Basterds, in which the war story, like so much else in his work, is subordinated to an overweening interest in his real subject: cinema’s ability to transform the raw material of history into entertainment.

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