The Holocaust and Hollywood

Almost 50 years after "The Diary of Anne Frank," Holocaust dramas are finally coming of age. There are five releases this holiday season, and each enters new, morally complex territory. They include "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise as the real-life German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944; "The Reader," with Kate Winslet as a (fictional) woman on trial for war crimes; and "Good," in which Viggo Mortensen plays a German professor caught up in the rise of Nazism. We've come to expect on-screen Nazis during the holidays, given Hollywood's tendency to release its Really Important Movies at the end of the year. And there's nothing more likely to earn an Oscar nomination than a film related to the Holocaust.

That said, the Holocaust movie is one of Hollywood's most unlikely staples in any season. There's an inherent tension between commercial films and depicting the 20th century's most unimaginable atrocity. The nature of narrative in general, and of mainstream movies in particular, is to be reassuring. But the Shoah offers few resolutions that can fit neatly into a two-hour package. In order to offer the requisite feel-good conclusion that reflects the triumph of the human spirit, the horrors often get sanitized. "Defiance" tells the true story of three brothers who escape the Nazis and lead a Jewish uprising in the Belarussian forest. It is the rare Hollywood Holocaust movie that puts Jews at its center, perhaps because the scale of their destruction during World War II far outweighs the few tales of uplift. As Frank Rich once pointedly noted, the Jews in "Schindler's List" were relegated to background players, extras in their own drama.

But ever since "Anne Frank" and "Judgment at Nuremberg"—the first major-studio movies on the Holocaust—American films have done a noble job telling World War II stories in ways that illuminate rather than exploit the inherent drama. They are still as much a product of their times as of their historical inspiration. "The Pawnbroker" (1965) told the tale of Sol Nazerman, a survivor who can't repress his concentration-camp memories—a metaphor for an America that had not yet absorbed the psychological ramifications of the Holocaust. By the late 1970s and '80s, Americans had grown accustomed to images of violence from the Vietnam War, so Holocaust movies could challenge more concretely the limits of what we could bear to watch—even if they usually found some way to give viewers a Hollywood catharsis.

What's remarkable about this year's releases is the acknowledgment that we no longer need the neat Hollywood ending. Hitler is not killed in "Valkyrie." There is no catharsis in "Good" or "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," the story of an innocent German boy who befriends a Jew on the other side of the concentration-camp wall, only to discover what happens to the people inside—and his own family's ghastly role in their fate. There is no escape or transcendence in the films addressing German guilt, no Oskar Schindler rescuing more than a thousand Jews, nor Wladyslaw Szpilman saved by his piano. There is only awareness: the attempt to grapple with the horrors of the past is all that anyone can hope to accomplish. Having lived through our own (much, much smaller) moment of senseless death on 9/11, perhaps Americans are now ready to examine the darker, more ambiguous elements of tragedy.

These films are hardly devoid of Hollywood tropes, however. Except for "Valkyrie," they are all based on successful novels or plays. Hollywood is still unwilling to gamble on a Holocaust movie if the material hasn't proven to be commercial in another medium. All of these movies, like nearly every other film about Nazis, center on a male protagonist. Even in "The Reader"—much like "Sophie's Choice"—the woman with a World War II secret is viewed through the perspective of an enamored younger man. This is more narrative strategy than sexism: mainstream Holocaust movies have long relied on an audience surrogate—neither a victim nor a villain, but a neutral observer with whom we can identify. These new movies take the concept a step further by giving us protagonists who defy an easy good-or-evil classification. In "Good," Mortensen's disdain of Nazism is not enough to keep him from being swept up in it (reminiscent of the masterful "Mephisto"). "The Reader" crystallizes this moral ambiguity when we learn during Winslet's war-crimes trial that she protected and fed some of the concentration-camp inmates. She didn't do more, she says, because no one could actually quit their jobs as a camp guard. "What would you have done?" she asks the judge.

Some might wonder if the Holocaust genre is nearing exhaustion. These movies counter that question by raising so many of their own: How much do we really know about the Holocaust? How much can we bear to know? And what do we do with that knowledge? Because answers do not come easily, the victims, villains and victors of "The Good War" remain an endlessly vital source of movie material. The new releases will surely be followed by others that bring us into the mystery of the human psyche, where wars begin, and sometimes never end.