The Curious Allure of Movies About Nazis

Operation Finale starring Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in bureaucratic command of the final solution of the “Jewish Question,” opened on Wednesday (Times review here). This is not the first, second or third film about the monster who was captured by MOSSAD agents while hiding in plain sight (under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement) in Argentina. There are at least a half dozen others (including the chilling The Man In The Glass Booth) about him and even more that feature his presence. Posters for the new film are plastered throughout the subway stations and on bus shelters in New York City. For three days before the opening the film’s distributor MGM was mentioned as a sponsor of NPR’s Morning Edition. That’s a lot of publicity. Kingsley was bound to be good in the role. He’s played his share of villains and heroes (the latter includes Schindler’s Jewish accountant in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List).

I am, well, addicted to watching contemporary dramatic films that deal with Nazi horrors, but I also watch vintage, foreign-language and all documentary movies on the subject. Among my recurring favorites are the German films Europa Europa, The White Rose, Sophie Scholl and both English and German Wannsee Conference films about the meeting where the final solution was planned (In the English version, Conspiracy, Stanley Tucci makes an odd yet effective choice as Eichmann). Since another film so movingly addresses the complexities of justice and expedience in the complicity of many in crimes against humanity, I annually watch the Spencer Tracy version of Judgement At Nurnberg, 

Which raises the question why are there so many movies about this oppressive regime and its extraordinary crimes — ranging from real life dramatic recreations, like the heartbreaking La Raple (The Round Up) about the French Vichy government’s complicity in the deportation and extermination of 13,000 French Jews, to individual stories of suffering and heroism, like The Pianist, to the totally absurd, largely unwatchable and decidedly exploitative, Terror Squawd and Nazi Dawn.

These films are invariably showing misanthropy at its most intense. But there is also a sense of disbelief – how can this have been? How can it be? Are they made so we never forget? Do they offer voyeuristic pleasure? Are they historical documents? Maybe all three and more. They are, after all, marketed as “entertainment.” But where does entertainment end and morbid curiosity begin? Could it be one and the same?

The film Downfall, one of three films about the last days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker, suggests an accurate behind the scenes account of the historic moment. While Inglorious Basterds addresses certain atavistic impulses in the viewer — based on truth. There is only one that is even too horrific and brutal for me, The Grey Zone directed by Tim Blake Nelson with Harvey Keitel as a sadistic SS man.

Added up, there are virtually infinite numbers books, films and TV shows on this history — both fact and fiction — nary a year goes by without at least one devoted to the Nazis and Holocaust. For me it is an obsession that borders on compulsion. But there are obviously others who either never want to forget or continually choose to remember.

 

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Daily Heller, Steven Heller

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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