Its horror looms so large over history that it is too easy to forget that the Holocaust ended a mere 60 years ago. It's hard to conceive that such an unthinkable, massive tragedy is less removed from today than the lifespan of a recent retiree. In historical measurements, it's not as if it happened yesterday…it's as if it happened five minutes ago.
Yet the astonishingly fast changes in technology make newsreel footage of the liberation of the concentration camps seem prematurely ancient. More troubling, considering the significant acts of genocide that have happened in the years since the Holocaust, is that psychologically we may need to "put it in the past" rather than accept it as a modern event. Inhumanity is somehow easier to process when we think of it as belonging to another age.
Seen in that discomforting light, it is understandable that the German public hungered to distance themselves from the shame of the Holocaust as their country began rebuilding in the wake of Allied victory. Yet with the appalling truth of the concentration camps still coming to light, that shame had to be confronted, even in the movies.
"The Murderers Are Among Us" (1946) was the first feature produced in Germany after World War II. It is about a concentration camp survivor and a traumatized doctor and former Nazi officer who become roommates and unlikely lovers in the rubble of post-war Berlin. The images of the city in ruins are powerful, and the story's depiction of a population trying to recover its spirit is deeply moving.
As bold as it may have been in its time, however, today the film seems like a frustrating cop-out. While the camps are mentioned in a newspaper headline, a nightmarish flashback to the ordered shooting of innocent civilians is the only depiction of genocide. The Berlin residents, trying to rebuild their lives in the bombed-out city, are depicted as victims, but Jews are conspicuously never even mentioned (the background of the survivor heroine is never provided). The doctor's callous former commanding officer becomes the symbol of the Holocaust, and the easy target for revenge. It is not the German people who were responsible, the film suggests, but merely their leaders.
It's a dangerous message, but it's easy to understand why the filmmakers embraced it. There was simply too much guilt to bear, for filmmakers and audience members alike. Whether actively supporting or quietly accepting it, the vast majority of the German public had some complicity in Nazi rule. Considering how shortly after the war it was made, writer-director Wolfgang Staudte and his collaborators deserve credit for tackling the material at all and for doing it in a dramatically compelling manner. In the end though, "The Murderers Are Among Us" dodges the most difficult aspects and questions of the Holocaust. The film is available on a visually sharp DVD from First Run Features (suffering from minor sound distortion in spots), with a director's biography and filmography, background notes on the film, and a photo stills gallery.
Germany wasn't the only country timid about depicting the worst of the Holocaust on film. Despite a large number of Jewish executives in Hollywood, the American cinema was notoriously resistant to portraying the darkest elements of Hitler's empire before the United States' belated entry into the conflict. They remained overly cautious after the war, even in simply addressing the matter of anti-Semitism.
But a handful of films did make strong statements, and, ironically, one of the strongest was a light comedy. Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be" (1942) never specifically mentions Jews either, but there is little question who Polish actor Josef Tura (Jack Benny) means when, after his theater's anti-Nazi play is cancelled for fear of offending Hitler, he says, "Do you read what he says about us?"
Tura and his wife Maria (the wonderful Carole Lombard in her last role before a fatal plane crash) are the stars of a popular dramatic troupe that, through Maria's flirtation with a young pilot (Robert Stack), winds up as part of the underground resistance when Germany invades Poland in 1939. As Maria plays seductress to help the cause, Josef impersonates a couple of Gestapo operatives with unpredictable results.
"To Be or Not to Be" was not well received when first released. Audiences and critics alike seemed unprepared for such monumental tragedy to form the basis for a madcap comedy. But today the film is rightly considered a classic, a daring blend of sophisticated satire and biting commentary. For all its suggestive humor (check out Lombard's Freudian analysis of a Nazi agent's signature) and screwball antics, the underlying threat of fascism is somehow not diminished, even though the twisted ideology itself certainly is. It's as if Lubitsch and writers Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer were showing their own kind of defiance. Even one of history's greatest catastrophes would not dull their appreciation of life's absurd turns.
Benny, perhaps the most popular radio comedian of all time, had an uneven film career, but he's perfectly cast here as the vain actor and jealous husband who becomes a hero in spite of his profound insecurities. Lombard shows the same flawless combination of elegance and comic timing that made her a superstar in films like "My Man Godfrey" and "Nothing Sacred." The leads and a wonderful supporting cast excel under Lubitsch's playful sensibility and impeccable craftsmanship in the director's chair.
"To Be or Not to Be" is available on a Warner Brothers DVD with excellent visual quality. The extras are a 1930 MGM short, "The Rounder" (featuring a young Benny very much out of character as a drunken playboy), and an incomplete wartime savings bond promotional film with Benny and child star Carolyn Lee.
With the Holocaust now common subject matter for movies, it's fascinating to watch these two films made when the topic was far more sensitive. One addresses it with apprehensive seriousness, the other with audacious humor. Both are unique snapshots of popular culture's reaction to a madness far more recent than we would like to admit.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund