“My Jews! These are my Jews!”
These were the closing remarks uttered by the heroic righteous gentile in Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2012). Like other efforts to capture the essence of the unfathomability of the Shoah, Holland employs beautiful cinematography, a subtle impactful score, compelling acting… Basically, all the elements of a good film. What is most interesting, however, is how this film, in particular, parallels the most common and socially acceptable portrayal of Jews in Holocaust cinema.
In Darkness tells the true story of a small group of Jews in Poland forced to live in a sewage system for 14 months in order to save themselves from decimation. From a subterranean (sub-human) existence, they ultimately manage to emerge to a “normal” one, just like regular people. Though, not without complete dependence upon the goodwill of the Gentile. Thus “victory” for the Jew, as portrayed here, is simply being on level ground (“equal”) with the rest of society. Furthermore, because of the conditioning Jews have suffered while in the Diaspora and the resultant self-perception, this is sufficient for most! Dare we strive toward exceptionalism? Might we celebrate our uniqueness? Perhaps, according to this perverted logic, it is precisely that which catalyzed the ostracization of Jews in the first place.
Rare are filmic examples such as Defiance, which breathed life back into the Jew as depicted during World War II, only to quickly be overshadowed by the next more “conventional” Holocaust movie. Yet, predictably, many young Jews identified more with Defiance than most other films of that ilk, and naturally so. Would they prefer their heroes to be Jews who fought the Nazis or Jews who survived the Nazis? Simply mention Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and watch a smirk of fantastical vengeance curl from their lips. Might that tell us something about how young Jews see (or want to see) themselves? I confidently surmise that they, too, are tired of seeing their ancestors portrayed as hapless victims, tugging on society’s coattails for meager rations of civility.
Beyond the complicity in perpetuating this stereotype, the bombardment of films about the Holocaust actually trivializes it. Similar to violence on TV, people have become desensitized to images and tales that should, by all accounts, shock and horrify. Instead, they are used to simply paint a graphic backdrop to a good storyline. Younger generations grow up with a scope of the Holocaust limited to the artistic tastes of movie directors. It is thus ironic that attempts to keep the Holocaust in the public’s consciousness through the medium of film, albeit often well intentioned, actually do the Jewish people a disservice. For those outside the community, I politely encourage you to find another subject to use to achieve your Oscar ambitions.
But how Hollywood does love a good Holocaust tale: Schindler’s List, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, The Reader, Life Is Beautiful, Sophie’s Choice, Au Revoir Les Enfants, and of course, In Darkness. All recognized by the prestigious Academy Awards, and all fortify the character of the Jews as a weak, downtrodden people, dependent on the charity of the Gentile. Perhaps that is why Israel, antithetical to this notion, is simply an anomaly to much of the world (and much of the Diaspora). Moreover, its sheer existence challenges a status quo that has existed for millennia and disseminated through cinema for more than 50 years.
Ultimately, if the Jewish people are to cast off the cloak of victimhood and reclaim its lineage as a strong nation with an enduring legacy of survival, it must stop presenting itself as the converse. If we are unable to catalyze this paradigm shift of perception, how can we expect the world to view (and treat) us any differently?
“I thought all Jews were cowards.” According to the hero in In Darkness and the message conveyed from a litany of similar films, they are. To many people, they should be. I am of the ilk, however, as are millions of other like-minded individuals (mostly in Israel), that is a serious misperception, which history will prove otherwise. It is now about time that present-day cinema portrayed a past that was more in line with this future.