ORLANDO — For a lot of casual moviegoers, the idea of a film about the horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust would probably mean Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, or The Diary Of Anne Frank.
Samm Deighan is having none of it.
“While there are many, many mainstream World War II films, generally they seek not to tell genuine stories of war trauma, but to propagate myths. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) is a classic example of this,” he wrote.
As Deighan noted, the problem with the Schindler’s List mode of Holocaust cinema is that the stories seem too obviously produced to be digestible for mass audiences, “presenting the audience with a simple tale of black and white morality where it can be clearly understood who is good and who is evil,” he noted. In other words, Holocaust melodrama along with popcorn and soda.
Deighan has far more respect for filmmakers who explored the horrors of the Holocaust and the agonizing brutality of World War II, but not necessarily through quaint mainstream efforts. Films that got lumped into the exploitation field, the sexploitation genre, and the often radical art film are considerably more interesting, he notes — and despite being a fan of Schindler’s List, I found myself agreeing with him. He makes an exceptionally convincing argument that the Holocaust might actually be better presented in films that are wildly experimental, surreal and willing to explore highly sensitive and touchy subjects than the ones that strive too eagerly to be “tasteful.”
Deighan is the author of a terrific new film book, The Legacy Of World War II In European Cinema, recently published by McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers. If you’re a cinema lover, or if you’re fascinated by history and the second world war, or if you maintain an interest in the Holocaust and its lasting legacy (both politically and artistically), this is the book for you.
Deighan focuses his book on how European filmmakers depicted the war and the Nazi’s Final Solution in their cinematic efforts, covering a wide swath of nations directly impacted by the war, including France, Italy, Poland, the then-Soviet Union and of course, Germany itself among them.
Filmmakers, he noted, faced major hurdles when attempting to make Holocaust movies. In Eastern block nations controlled by the Soviet Union, censorship was a major concern, as the Soviets wanted films that depicted the glorious victory of the Red Army over the fascist Nazis and how the war brought people together under socialist values, and there was little appetite for showing the Soviets’ own role in mass slaughters.
In other countries, such as France, there was the question of what post-war audiences wanted to see, with an understanding that the Vichy Government’s role in sending France’s Jews to the Nazi death camps wasn’t at the top of the list.
Faced with these restrictions, filmmakers often charted their own path, in creative and unpredictable ways. In what Deighan humorously calls “Postwar Perversion,” he charts how Italian filmmakers thrived on showing Nazi decadence, such as Luchino Visconti’s highly acclaimed The Damned. Then there was the run of Nazi-themed exploitation films such as Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS that hit the grindhouse market and and didn’t shy away from vividly showing every possible degradation that occurred in the concentration camps.
Deighan champions films that got poor reviews on their initial run, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s apocalyptic Salo and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, that walked a fine line between exploitation and art — in Deighan’s view (and in mine), successfully.
Quite a bit of the book explores the role each nation played in both World War II, the efforts to wipe out Europe’s Jewish population, and handling the complex and difficult post-war years. Few nations come off with spotless records with it comes to mass deaths, and as Deighan notes, it was often film directors and screenwriters who were most eager to shine a light on the atrocities their nation committed during the war — even as more mainstream cinema seemed willing to simply blame Hitler and the Nazis for all that was done in the name of genocide. As he so meticulously documents, the Nazis got a lot of voluntary help.
As a film lover, I particularly appreciated the way Deighan was so eager to shine a spotlight on films that, in my view, have never received the full recognize they deserve, whether the movie looked directly at the aftermath of the war, like Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946), or used the Holocaust as a subtext, such as Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). He also does a fascinating job documenting how filmmakers in the Soviet bloc nations, including Russia itself, used the horrors of WW2 and the Holocaust to make subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — comparisons to the dictatorial nature and human rights abuses of the Soviets themselves.
As Deighan notes, many of these films got banned or censored, and have only in recent years become more widely available. Read this thoroughly entertaining and well documented book, and then set out on your own journey to discover some of these lost masterpieces.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.