Old 03-08-2013, 01:37 PM
Importance of Art and the Demons of The Holocaust

Hey, so last month I was watching a lot of Oscar winning/nominated movies and among them were Holocaust related films: The Pianist, Schindler's List, and The Reader. So this is kind of a multi-review of the three movies or an essay of sorts, just written trying to exorcise my thoughts on the devastating movies I had watched, trying to find their common purposes and the good that can be found in movies dealing with a such a dark period in history. Watching these movies, especially so closely together, was really draining, I felt really depressed, so I guess writing this was just my way of dealing with it. So yeah.

*spoilers for The Pianist, Schindler's List, and The Reader to follow*


The Pianist is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, and the true horrific accounts of his life between 1939 and 1945, and how gradually and ominously The Holocaust unfolds before him. The opening of the film, you can observe as microcosm of Szpilman and his story. He performs on the radio, a microphone at his piano, playing Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp Minor and suddenly bombs hit the radio station. Producers signal to him to stop. The ground beneath him shakes, pieces of the ceiling fall on him, smoke enters the room. He keeps playing. And he keeps playing throughout the film, even when it reaches a point where he can only play in his mind. Because of some celebrity, the right connections, and in some cases just plain luck, he endures through the atrocities. In the final days of his struggle to survive he hides out in an abandoned house in the ruins of Poland. He's discovered by a German soldier, but after playing another beautiful piece on the piano inside the house, the soldier, somehow moved, decides to not only spare him but aide him and bring him food. We, the audience, wonder, should the German soldier have uncovered a Jew who lacked the artistic talent of Szpilman, would he have been as humane?

Szpilman's memoirs were written in 1946 (not widely published until 1998) with the occurrences still fresh in his mind. I remember reading the memoirs in high school, the first-person accounts by Szpilman are astonishingly detailed, albeit very matter-of-fact for the most part. The book, I don't suppose was meant as art. Music was his art. His story, though wrenching and saddening, is simply incredible, and a true inspiration, and sometimes stories like this just need to be told. The memoirs were molded into art in the form of the 2002 film by Roman Polanski, though little artistic license in terms of story was taken, it is presented at face value, but can be seen as a deeply personal film from the director, also a Holocaust survivor who also senseless lost his loved ones, and also lived on in the pursuit of art. We sense the rapport between Polanski and the protagonist, Szpilman, played by Adrien Brody. It's a carefully crafted and subtle performance by Brody, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. He bears witness to countless unspeakable horrors around him, he's almost incredulous to all the insanity, as if he can't believe any of this is happening and he should be performing at a concert at the moment. Note his cockiness in the opening scenes of the film as he's lost in his art performing, there's a pride in his gaze and a smirk ever-ready at the corner of his mouth. At the end of the film, after his unbelievable journey, he does, in fact, find himself performing at a concert. The pride is there, he smiles subtly and thankfully, but there's a sadness in his eyes that I swear could not be seen in the first scenes. A sadness that I think Polanksi knew and knows all too well, and pulled for to Brody to convey.

While The Pianist is a more intimate film portraying the experience of one survivor, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List explores The Holocaust on a broader canvass, using another true story, of Oskar Schindler as its drive. While not explicitly so, it's also a personal film from Spielberg, who infamously did not accept payment for directing it, attributing this to the fact that he would think of it as "blood money." Using this story, for all its horror, for all its tragedy, it can still be seen as positive, and how this enigmatic man, Schindler, saved the lives of Jews, and in turn preserved generations of future Jews. As art it tells its story and is wonderfully acted and filmed, put together by Spielberg, as something more it laments the millions of victims and tributes the real life survivors, who appear in the "List" sequence at the end of the film, serving as an important reminder that we have not necessarily been watching make-believe, but rather an interpretation and portrayal of true events taken place in a foul era of history. Movies have the ability to be art and art has the ability to reflect the world, and the world contains great evil, and goodness, and much in between.

With the goodness and in between seen with Schindler, with the victimization and survival of Szpilman in The Pianist, one of the most important things to observe of Schindler's List is the evil seen, and how if the story presented with Schindler's List can be seen as Yin and Yang, with Schindler being an ultimately good man with faults, then the story really is of two men, the other being Amon Goeth, a despicable man, but a man nonetheless. I don't think there's been a better personification of the evils of The Holocaust shown in a film than Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of Amon Goeth. Spielberg could have minimized the role, could have made him more a minor character, but instead, in a very bold move, he's explored almost as much as Schindler. Why? Maybe for some kind of understanding, some kind of fraction of a justification of the other side of the war, how evil was committed, but there was a commonality to it, it became an everyday thing. The atrocities of that period were not acts of nature but of human intervention, does Amon- does any human?- knowingly and happily commit evil? Questions and reasoning along those lines may shed some light as to why Fiennes, a great and talented actor, would take on the role. I think it helps that he is a handsome man, it really does, we hate him as a character but not to the point of absolute repulsion, otherwise it would be impossible to tolerate the movie. I have mixed feelings about admiring his performance, it is a great and celebrated one, but since he so effectively plays a wretched human being. I hated him. The American Film Institute listed Ralph Fiennes' portayal of Amon Goeth among their top villains in film- he ranked #15. To call him a villain somehow trivializes his crimes against humanity.

What this finally leads me to, in thinking of art and its importance, and the role of the filmmakers and their intentions, their personal stakes, and the actors playing out and recreating extremely sensitive material, is the causality of art on the part of someone like Fiennes. People make suppositions about actors, and the craft, like for example there are many people who hypothesize about Heath Ledger, and the toll it must have taken on him, how he'd keep a journal of obscene thoughts, and molded his mind to think like the character when he play The Joker in The Dark Knight. Even predating film, back to acting and performance art to its earliest days, there are those who would believe and make the case that these actors and performers were in fact possessed by spirits or demons of some kind. I often wonder about Fiennes and the demons- to be reasonable, the figurative ones- that he carried during and after playing Goeth in Schindler's List. I looked up interviews ranging as early as 1994 to 2010, and it would seem I'm not the only one curious about this. He's asked of how playing Goeth affected him quite a bit. "It's hard to put into words the sort of imaginative quest that you go on," says Fiennes in an interview with Bob Woodward, "Every actor will have a different idea about what their method is, what their approach is, but I think itís probably a good building block to look for that thing in yourself that might do what your character is doing or thinking or feeling. I mean I think there was something lost, in my head I suppose, I developed the idea there might be something lost about him. He drank a lot, he ate a lot, and these may be thingsÖpeople do this to themselves to sort of keep themselves together. But maybe that excuses him too much. I donít, I mean, I donít know. "

If actors do indeed carry around these types of demons, and little pieces of them that linger, especially one as detestable as Goeth, and if art can still endure, and redemption can be found, or some kind of spiritual penance can be made, then I'd make a strong case of it for Ralph Fienne's work in Stephen Daldry's film, The Reader. Fiennes once again plays a German, Michael Berg, not so much on the opposite side of the war but many years after, during its prologue of sorts, when Nazi war criminals were being unearthed and trialed. He reflects on his youth during law school, attending one trial in particular, and he looks back to a summer when he was 16 and had an affair with a much older woman, who he would later learn was one of these criminals, and jailed for crimes committed during service as a guard at Auschwitz. The love affair is the centerpiece of the film, and how their age difference isn't set in place to be particularly titillating or forbidden, but to establish the generational gap between his lover, Hannah (played by Kate Winslet in an Oscar-winning performance), and himself. For her it goes back to the idea of every day evil, the commonality of it. She needed work, the prison camp was hiring, she applied, she did her job and was paid well. The rest would best be forgotten. Michael, on the other hand, could not have experienced the war first hand, being so young. The universe works in strange ways, so random, to bring together these star-crossed lovers with one sort of free of original sin and the other reeking of it.

In some beautifully montaged scenes, Michael reads to Hannah, just about anything. She craves to hear more stories and more literature. Her emotional responses are intense. Michael would later learn she was illiterate.

Reflecting on this for many years, Michael finally reaches out to Hannah in prison by sending her tapes of his readings. In yet another beautiful montage, he desperately seeks anything, any written word at all, and reads, reads, reads. Sending tape after tape. I think there's some kind of karma working with this character here, and while it's not a conventional love story, there's something to be said of a character, and Ralph Fiennes decision to play him, who could fall in love and attempt some kind of understanding or some kind of sympathy for a Nazi war criminal. After the war, Hannah lived a life of guilt and dread. She lived alone and died alone. Michael was her only contact to the world. She left what little inheritance she had to be given to Jewish organizations.

Maybe the only times Hannah felt at ease was when she was being read to, and if art can inspire the survival of one man and provide some kind of catharsis in telling the story, if art can serve as a reflection of world and provide some kind of honor, then it can also work as escapism, tame tortured souls, and lead to salvation.
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