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The morality of making movies about the Holocaust.

The morality of making movies about the Holocaust. (photo)

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Bernard-Henri Lévy’s “Shutter Island”/”Inglourious Basterds” op-ed in The Australian has been making the rounds for the last few weeks, jumping from one paper to another. (If you haven’t seen “Shutter Island” and want to go in rasa, stop reading now, though there’s nothing here that isn’t in the first reel.) The editorial, which claims the films display “a real and potentially dangerous revisionism” in their treatment of Nazism and the Holocaust, is mostly bunk, but it does raise an interesting point.

Lévy, a French journalist and philosopher, was recently publicly embarrassed by writing a whole book attacking Kant — based, as it turned out, on satirical writings. So there are reasons besides moral ones as to why Lévy might want to weigh on the truth underlying “Shutter Island”‘s Holocaust passages. It’s certainly a good time to call out someone else for historical ignorance.

Lévy’s only substantive point is that Scorsese (either deliberately or mistakenly) conflates Dachau and Auschwitz visually (“What can one say about the film’s use of images from Dachau confused with those from Auschwitz in casual unawareness, notably the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the gate? Is it ignorance or wilful confusion?”).

But what’s really bugging him is the long-standing debate about the aesthetics of the Holocaust — what can be shown on-screen without cheapening the magnitude of the event (if anything), and what degree of aestheticization is too much. On this point, he couldn’t be clearer: Lévy’s with Claude Lanzmann, director of the monumental documentary “Shoah,” who declared unambiguously “I am deeply convinced that there is a ban on depiction.”

Fair enough. But that isn’t really Lévy’s stance. Mostly, he’s worried that “Shutter Island” — where the POV of the wavering protagonist could, you know, explain the inaccuracies and conflations — is, like “Inglourious Basterds,” a sign that “Nazism is becoming a new playing field for the amusement of the bad boys of Hollywood.” That’s a more interesting proposition, that the Holocaust isn’t necessarily undepictable, but that it’s certainly not to be toyed with.

03302010_judgmentatnuremberg.jpgWhat unites “Basterds” and “Island” isn’t so much rewriting of history (“Island” doesn’t rewrite it at all) as their insistence on fusing the undeniably pulpy with what’s about as serious a genocide as is known to history — a new development. Hollywood first took notice of the Holocaust with some haunted protagonists (Kirk Douglas on the run in Israel in 1953’s “The Juggler”) and some big productions that yoked seriousness with appropriate running times and a sense that the films in question (“The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and so on) deserved to be applauded just for existing.

The Holocaust film as a genre took a long time to get off the ground it was more likely to exist in the background (like the flashbacks haunting Rod Steiger in “The Pawnbroker”) than as the focus of the running time. But when the Holocaust-as-primary-setting films came, they were not shy of grim footage. Even “Life Is Beautiful” — until recently the most iconoclastic take on the subject — didn’t have the nerve to let its hero escape. At the end, grim history must always be reckoned with as the primary subject.

What’s unnerving about “Basterds” and “Island” (especially the latter) is that there’s really no way to know, going in, how important the Holocaust will be to both of them; the movies don’t announce what should be, theoretically, the Most Important Thing about both films. “Basterds” posits movie-love as a backhanded way of getting revenge. “Shutter Island” goes further in showing how mass genocide could serve as the first triggering trauma for a man who came as close as possible to it without actually being complicit. Both, though, evade responsibility and refuse to stop dead to show the footage you’d normally expect.

03302010_inglourious.jpgThat could be what’s unnerving some, though it’s worth noting — like The Auteurs Danny Kasman did a few weeks ago — that “It wasn’t until the 1950s’ adult cinema that it became widespread and mainstream for movies to be so self-conscious of their own seriousness, and placate the audience with it.” This kind of B-movie-with-a-budget approach to the ultimate in the unrepresentable is long overdue. The alternative isn’t very productive.

If you believe that nothing is unrepresentable (and I kind of have to), far better than this than some weepy violins and a return, again, to the camps. What “Shutter Island” makes vivid, finally, is trauma from another angle; its images are problematic, but indelible precisely because they’re problematic, something no one watching them could be unaware of.

[Photos: “Shutter Island,” Paramount, 2010; “Judgment at Nuremberg,” United Artists, 1961; “Inglourious Basterds,” Weinstein Company, 2009]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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