Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This past Sunday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and nothing drove that home for me more than to see Agnieszka Holland's name in the opening credits of Treme as the director of the series' pilot episode.

You see, Holland became well-known around the world for her work as director and writer of the film Europa Europa, based on the story of Solomon Perel, who escaped the horrors of deportation and the death camps by becoming, through a series of improbable events, a member of the Hitler Youth. Although the following clip is in German with subtitles in Spanish, the basic idea behind the scene in the classroom is there: the fear that the young Solomon, hiding in plain sight, expresses throughout the lesson in the "scientifically proven" physical superiority of the Aryan race, and his sheer discomfort turning to relief in being singled out, measured, and finally declared an example of the superior Nordic ideal, "diluted" by some Baltic ancestry. Holland is masterful at showing the absurdity of this class in bigotry, making us giggle a little at how the boy's very appearance turns the pseudo-science into a big lie and enables him to live another day:

Europa Europa, as films about the Shoah go, is one of the best; it seems as though, at every turn, Perel is finding people around him who have things to hide at a terrible time in world history when, if one couldn't physically escape the war-torn countries of Europe and the Pacific, you had to fight the hells they presented in any way you could, just to survive, even if it meant becoming someone else....and I think, as far as the film's critical reception went, it helped that, although it was controversial and seemed crazy at times, it was based on a true story. Comparing Europa's reception to that of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful showed what a fine line creative people walk when making art about the awful times when, through willfulness or even the sheer banality of neglect, large numbers of the human race did (and still do) unspeakable things to each other. How dare a non-Jewish actor and director make the Shoah a backdrop for comedy?

Even after many decades, the memory of the six million executed for being Jewish and the mass killings of other peoples deemed "lesser" by the Nazis looms painfully large...just as the suffering incurred by those who survived the levee breaches here with little more than their own lives is still ever-present, a sore spot that must be treated with care on a creative level still, even though nearly five years has passed.

If anyone can bring that out in moving pictures and make it live even for the people who weren't here, it's Agnieszka Holland, and I think she took a good stab at it this past Sunday night.

I don't know if she'll be directing any more episodes of Treme. If she does, I know they'll be well worth watching.

Update, 4/15: Found this Shai Oster article concerning humor and the Shoah as seen through the eyes of the children of survivors thanks to the Utne Reader's online site:
"Fun!" Moshe Waldoks spits, imitating the accented fury of a survivor. "You're making fun of our suffering?! What do you know about vat vee vent through!" Into the silence ripped by Waldoks' scripted fury, Lisa Lipkin drops an answer: "We're not making fun of what you went through. We're making fun of what we're going through now."

...But humor does more: In every joke is the hint of the hidden horror. This is not laughter through tears, it is laughter despite tears. Humor also punctures, wounds, shocks, and reveals. If they're doing the job right, the prophet and the jester have similar roles, Waldoks says: "Both are making the comfortable uncomfortable."


Mark Folse said...

I don't think Life is Beautiful is a comedy but a deeply ironic tragi-comedy, and the intent through its comedic aspects is to show something of the strength of human spirit amidst the most terrible circumtances, to find joy in the ability of the human species to endure anything.

Leigh C. said...

I regard it as a brilliant tragi-comedy, but I do recall some controversy over its release, explored most vividly in an issue of "Moment" magazine, or "Commentary", or some other Jewish publication grappling with the implications of using the Shoah in a creative work in that way. Now I gotta go look for it...

Leigh C. said...

This touches on a little of the controversy

but I'm still digging for the one I'm thinking of...