Telling the Holocaust Like It Wasn’t

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

Toward the end of the new film about postwar Germany “The Reader,” a Holocaust survivor in New York curtly instructs a visiting German lawyer named Michael Berg that he would do well to remember that the camps were neither a form of therapy nor a university. “Nothing,” she says, “came out of the camps. Nothing.”

With Holocaust Memorial Day to be observed on Jan. 27, it’s a timely admonition. It’s not, however, one that either “The Reader” or a host of memoirs or films about the Third Reich appear to be heeding. Rather, the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.

For a start, a spate of Holocaust memoirs about the authors’ childhoods turned out to be fraudulent, including Benjamin Wilkomirski’s, Misha Defonseca’s, and, most recently, that of Herman Rosenblat, whose “Angel at the Fence” was touted by Oprah Winfrey as the ultimate love story.

Perhaps the most striking development, however, has been the recent profusion of films about the Third Reich, which tend to infantilize the Holocaust. In “The Reader,” the lovely, middle-aged former SS concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz seduces the 15-year-old Michael Berg in 1958, only to disappear suddenly after their summer-long tryst. Berg next encounters her at a war crimes trial for several female camp guards that his law school seminar is attending. Ultimately, though, the film blurs the distinction between victim and perpetrator. The judge is unable to respond convincingly when Schmitz asks him how he would have responded to orders from above. Schmitz herself comes across simply as an unthinking tool of the Nazi regime rather than a fervent anti-Semite.....

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