Harold Behr

Can movies about the Holocaust act as a deterrent to antisemitism

The recent controversy over Oscar-winner Jonathan Glazer’s acceptance speech for his movie, “The Zone of Interest”, about the family life of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz who, with his family, lived in the shadow of the extermination camp, has stirred thoughts about whether exposure to movies pertaining to the Holocaust can make a dent in the armour-plating of antisemites. I believe that it can’t, and that if anything, such exposure has the undesired effect of distancing Jews and non-Jews alike from what is essentially a Jewish tragedy.

Glazer has hoist himself with his own petard. In his short speech, which was rapturously received by a gullible audience, he decries what he sees as an Israeli attempt to hijack ‘his’ Jewishness and the Holocaust by conducting a war against Hamas (not mentioned by name), thereby implicating Israel in an accusation reminiscent of the antisemitic blood libel and destroying any credibility which he might have had as a moral person.

Movies which appeal entirely to the emotions of shock and anguish do nothing to deepen our understanding of terrible events like the Holocaust. They are a simplistic form of entertainment, fascinating in their horror but capable only of strengthening the audience’s determination to steer clear of such happenings in the future.

As any serious student of Jewish history knows, the Holocaust was the culmination of a centuries-old vilification of the Jewish people. It was a systematically planned, sustained campaign of mass murder, in no way comparable to Israel’s war against Hamas. The stated intention of Hamas, a murderous death cult, is the destruction of Israel and the very genocide of which Israel, bizarrely, now stands accused.
Glazer’s conclusion that Israel has ‘hijacked’ the Holocaust, announced during his moment in the limelight, has simply exposed a flaw in his judgment.

I have not seen “The Zone of Interest”, nor do I intend to. Watching it is apparently a deeply disturbing experience. Although the audience is spared direct exposure to barbaric acts, hinted at only by background effects such as smoke from the crematoria and screams emanating from the gas chambers, the overall effect of juxtapositioning the Commandant’s family life alongside the horrors of life and death in the extermination camp is said to be gut-wrenching. The movie is acclaimed as a magnificent artistic achievement, yet in my book the person who created it has now proved that artistic talent and moral judgment run on separate tracks through the mind and that there is no correlation between them.

It is human nature to dwell morbidly on horrific experiences. Movies about the Holocaust capitalise on this foible. They educate, after a fashion, those who prefer to acquire their historical knowledge the easy way, without recourse to reading, but as a medium for deepening understanding, they fail miserably. An undesirable side effect of the genre is that it strengthens the ‘Never Again’ mindset, without signposting how this might be achieved. It is sheer entertainment, designed to horrify without enlightening.

Those who file soberly out of the cinemas after seeing a Holocaust movie are likely to have had their pre-existing assumptions reinforced. Most viewers will have been appalled by yet another example of man’s inhumanity to man, which was presumably the short-sighted intention of the maker of “The Zone of Interest”. The perception of Jews as eternal victims will have been underlined, while prejudice against Israel will continue to exist unabated.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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