Hollywood takes a machinegun to history

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

Typical: you wait half a century for a Hollywood film to tackle the myths and taboos of the Second World War, and then three come along at once.

The Reader (with Kate Winslet), Defiance (with Daniel Craig) and Valkyrie (with Tom Cruise) have each, in different ways, sought to break from the one-dimensional interpretations of the past. Hollywood has traditionally depicted the horrors of the war as a Manichean struggle between good and evil: SS camp guards as inhuman monsters, Jews as defenceless victims herded to their deaths.

Winslet plays an SS camp guard with humanity; Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, the Jewish partisan who waged guerrilla war against the Germans in Poland; and Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944.

The Reader is fiction, but the other two films claim to be depictions of real events, and will be judged as simple truth by the 12 to 15-year-olds who make up the majority of today's film audiences. Both are great entertainment; but both are flawed history, for the reality of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, and German resistance to Hitler, is far more complex, morally demanding and fascinating than film will allow.

In challenging one myth, Hollywood demands that we accept another. Cruise plays a piratical Stauffenberg, a good German conscience in a snappy Third Reich uniform and an eye-patch, setting out on a crusade to slay the Nazi dragon. The real Stauffenberg was no saint, and the plot to kill Hitler was not some simple redemptive act by a group of heroes.

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