How Our Culture Gets the Holocaust Wrong

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From 2010's Inglourious Basterds to 1959's The Diary of Anne Frank, few pop-culture renderings of World War II and the Holocaust have fully captured the devastation. The following is a selection of six movies and TV shows cited in a series of essays on the subject in this week's issue of NEWSWEEK, critiqued by film critic Caryn James and author Cynthia Ozick. (For more about Ozick, read her first-person essay about her experiences during the Great Depression).

"In an illuminating recent interview with Tarantino, Rachel Maddow argued that his film—with its band of American soldiers who enjoy scalping Nazis, and Resistance fighters who plot to blow up a theater full of Nazis and kill themselves in the process—tells 'the modern strategic history of Al Qaeda,'" writes James. "That may be an overstatement, but it is essentially right about why the movie feels relevant and unsettling. The film redefines heroism, taking the concept beyond platitudes." Ozick disagrees: "[It's] a ­def­a­ma­tion, a canard—what Frederic ­Raph­ael, writing in Commentary, calls 'doing the Jews a favor by showing that they, too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters,' even as he compares it to Jew Süss, the notorious Goebbels film."

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"A naive, well-intentioned, preposterous, painfully absurd, and ignorant lie," writes Ozick.

"Deep into HBO's megabudget miniseries, as Americans fight the Japanese in a gruesome battle to control tiny Peleliu island, a sensitive officer comforts a horrified young Marine, assuring him that the brutality is 'worthwhile because our cause is just,' " writes James. "It all seems so quaint: the idea that war is about controlling battlefields; the sentimental certainty that justice is on our side; and, most of all, the arrival of another old-fashioned World War II extravaganza that has no cultural resonance today."

"Like the novel it derives from, [The Reader is] no better than Nazi porn, and drawn from the self-serving notion that the then most literate and cultivated nation in Europe may be exculpated from mass murder by the claim of illiteracy," writes Ozick.

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"Its most honest moment, after its parade of fake-looking victims, comes at the very close of the film, and in documentary mode, when the living survivors appear on screen," writes Ozick.

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"So where can the truth be found?" asks Ozick. "In Anne Frank's diary? Yes, but the diary, intended as a report, as a document, can tell only a partial and preliminary truth, since the remarkable child was writing in a shelter—precarious, threatened, and temporary; nevertheless a protected space. Anne Frank did not, could not, record the atrocity she endured while tormented by lice, clothed in a rag, and dying of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. For what we call 'truth' we must go into the bottom­most interior of that hell. And as Primo Levi admonishes, only the dead went down to the Nazi hell's lowest rung."

How Our Culture Gets the Holocaust Wrong | Culture