By Nick Schager
The Holocaust is a serious subject. And November and December is serious subject matter time in Hollywood. No surprise, then, that every awards season sees its fair share of dramas set in and around WWII concentration camps. But even in light of this predictable pattern, 2008 has, to put it diplomatically, lost its freakin’ mind. In the last two months of this year, there will have been six — SIX?!? — films released that, in one way or another, deal with Nazis. Part of the problem is simply quality, as all of these releases barely rise to the level of mediocre. Yet the issue of quantity seems just as troubling, as their basic, simultaneous existence calls into question not only the continuing viability of extracting drama from this most momentous (and, consequently, well-trod) of historical tragedies, but also, fundamentally, the growing absence of originality or ingenuity in mainstream cinema, especially during the Oscar-hungry stretch run.
To even suggest putting Holocaust dramas on hiatus is probably going to be taken by some as an example of insulting ignorance on the part of yours truly. Yet when viewed in the context of 15 years worth of post-“Schindler’s List” cinema, the recent preponderance of highfalutin’ cinematic sagas about the “Final Solution” has created a situation in which there’s virtually nothing left to say about anything — about heroism, sacrifice, cowardliness, treachery, collusion, intolerance, mass hysteria, etc. — through the prism of Nazi Germany. What we’re left with are stories that either regurgitate familiar lessons about the Holocaust, or ones that use the genocide to give added weight and importance to their stock morality play lessons. The following sextet is a collection of such functional, faux-prestigious dullness that the greatest moviegoing tribute one could pay to those who perished in (or survived) the death camps would be to skip this dispiriting lot and instead rent “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
In Mark Herman’s adaptation of John Boyne’s novel, an eight-year-old German boy befriends a Jewish kid through a concentration camp’s fence, wholly oblivious — as the title implies — to the fact that the former is a prisoner rather than simply too lazy to get dressed for the day. This premise is, ahem, problematic on a number of levels (is the German kid dim? Since when could Jews loiter about camps’ barbed wire fences?), and its child’s perspective hardly enhances truths apparent to anyone over the age of, well, eight. The result is an overwrought clunker that comes off like a parody being played straight.
This film is in effect Paul Schrader’s “Dog People”; Jeff Goldblum’s popular German clown (shades of Jerry Lewis’ infamous “The Day the Clown Cried”) grapples with the trauma of having been made during the war to act like a pooch by Willem Dafoe’s concentration camp commandant. Lucky for him, a boy conveniently shows up in his cuckoo ward behaving just like a dog — redemptive healing, here we come! Schrader treats his material seriously, but between the canine role-playing, Goldblum’s unchecked overacting and the third-act appearance of a burning bush (don’t ask), it’s no wonder the film is tonally helter-skelter.
Like “Adam Resurrected,” “Good”‘s most powerful moment involves a death-march serenade by violin. Other than helping to cement this as 2008’s defining Holocaust-movie image, however, Vicente Amorim’s film (an adaptation of C.P. Taylor’s 1981 play) merely uses Nazi Germany as an obvious, easy setting for its complicity-via-passive-acquiescence sermon. As the spineless professor who goes with the world-domination flow rather than standing up for his ideals, Viggo Mortensen effectively, and aptly, dials down the hunkiness. Once 20 minutes have passed and the central point about human behavior has been definitively made, however, the urge to see the “Lord of the Rings” star broadsword someone becomes overwhelming.
There’s plenty of talk in Stephen Daldry’s film about a German teenage boy’s relationship with an older woman who, it turns out, was an SS guard years earlier. And it all amounts to: “Paging Mr. Oscar!” One of those prim-and-proper sub-“Masterpiece Theater” efforts that equates “tastefulness” with intelligence, Daldry’s follow-up to “The Hours” is ostensibly interested in the German population’s conflicted feelings over the horrific WWII actions of their ancestors, though the real focuses that emerge are Kate Winslet’s gawked-over nude body in Part I, and her lacking old-age makeup in Part II. Exploiting the Holocaust for shallow psychologizing and sexual MILF fantasies? Now there’s something to feel guilty about.
“Defiance” and “Valkyrie”
Daniel Craig! Tom Cruise! Killing Nazis, or dyin’ tryin’! Phooey with moral complexity and ghastly tragedy — we need a hero, and preferably, he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight. Directors Ed Zwick and Bryan Singer clearly agree, lavishing googly-eyed affection on their respective National Socialist haters — Craig’s freedom fighter, who created safe haven communities for his Jewish brethren in the Belarussian forest, and Cruise’s wannabe Hitler assassin — who can deliver guns-and-explosions action under a “true story” guise. And, in Cruise’s case, can do so while wearing an awesome eye patch to boot! Who said the Holocaust wasn’t fun?
[Photos: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” Miramax Films, 2008; “Adam Resurrected,” Bleiberg Entertainment, 2008; “Defiance,” Paramount Vantage, 2008]