Lawrence Baron. Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005. 336 pp. $87.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-4332-4; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-4333-1.
Reviewed by Heike Polster (Department of Foreign Languages, University of Memphis)
Published on H-German (April, 2006)
A Non-Genre in Film: Contemporary Holocaust Cinema
Baron's study provides an excellent overview of recent movies dealing with the Holocaust. While broadening the common notion of "Holocaust cinema," Baron's cultural historicist approach casts light onto the increasingly larger role visual media play in the process of raising public awareness of historic events. Teachers and students of cultural, intellectual and film history will find the volume particularly helpful due to its format of individual film reviews, its nearly comprehensive filmography and its extensive bibliographical information.
In order to contextualize his book within the larger framework of Holocaust studies, Lawrence Baron maps out the specificities which a cultural and intellectual historicist perspective such as his may provide. His approach focuses on the most common genres and themes in recent Holocaust films for each decade since 1945. Baron attempts to situate each movie within the history of Holocaust feature films that preceded it. Although Baron has chosen some fairly unfortunate titles for the individual film reviews--such as "A Gefilte Fish out of Water: 'Mendel'"; "Oz-Schwitz: 'The Devil's Arithmetic'"; "Collective Silence is Not Golden: 'The Nasty Girl'"--his method nevertheless proves very effective. He successfully contextualizes each film within the remembrance of the Holocaust in the country that produced it; he also reviews the plot of each movie, as well as the cinematic techniques employed in each one. In order to ascertain whether each film communicated the intent of its director, Baron discusses the movie's reception by critics and audiences. Since Baron footnotes extensively with bibliographic information of relevant scholarship in film and media studies, cultural history and Holocaust studies, readers will find it easy to use his book as a starting point or reference work for further study.
Besides the attention given to each film in particular, Baron also enters the discussion of the Holocaust as both a historical event and a trope in cultural production. He criticizes the assumption that because the Holocaust is "'unique' and 'exists outside of human meaning,' it can never be accurately represented in cinema or literature" (p. 3). This caveat bothers him "as a Holocaust educator and historian" because "human beings planned, implemented, condoned, perished in, resisted, and survived the Final Solution. Consequently, it should not be regarded as a supernatural phenomenon beyond human comprehension and representation" (p. 3). Baron therefore suggests reorienting the inquiry away from asking whether the Holocaust can be represented in feature films to asking which cinematic genres and themes will be used to represent and render it relevant to future audiences. Consequently, his approach focuses on providing a historical perspective on how public memory of the Holocaust has changed over time.
To this end, he examines the most frequently used genres and themes in Holocaust movies made in the 1990s to yield an approximation of the events, images and issues most commonly associated with the Holocaust by those who currently produce or watch such films. Holocaust movies have been produced in genres such as the "biopic" or love story, comedy and the children's film. Baron identifies a "globalization" or "internationalization" of the Holocaust and outlines specific examples that mark it as a cross-cultural trope evident even in Chinese or Icelandic movie productions. In identifying the Holocaust as a filmic trope, Baron argues that the Holocaust film does not constitute a discrete genre, since genre commonly describes the way in which "groups of narrative conventions (involving plot, character and even locations and set design) become organized into recognizable types of narrative entertainment" (p. 13). He thereby broadens the spectrum of what is considered a Holocaust film to "include movies that depict the postwar displacement and immigration of groups the Germans and their allies victimized on ideological and racial grounds. Films featuring the capture, trial, and punishment of the perpetrators of wartime atrocities also belong in this category" (p. 13). Films exploring the continuing impact of the event on the collective memory of states like France, Germany, Israel, Poland and other nations directly or indirectly affected by Nazi crimes against humanity are also included, as are "character studies of how the Holocaust shaped the personalities and values of perpetrators, survivors, and their children fall under the rubric of Holocaust cinema, as do motion pictures about postwar white supremacists who embrace Nazi ideas and symbols" (p. 13).
Baron's cultural history of contemporary Holocaust cinema takes into account how the motivations of film audiences for watching Holocaust films have shifted. Viewers born after 1960, he states, "seem to be more receptive to films that are more creative than literal in their portrayals of the Holocaust" (p. ix). Drawing on his academic experience as teacher and scholar, Baron claims that younger viewers are "less offended by the inclusion of characters from other persecuted groups, like Gypsies and homosexuals, in films about the Nazi era" (p. ix). In his final chapter, Baron outlines how directors and studios have started to accommodate this shift: the profitability of the studios' creations, he explains, depends on attracting young adults and teens into buying tickets to see them in theaters or renting or buying them to view at home. Baron does not believe this shift is evidence that the Holocaust is necessarily being trivialized by turning it into a trope in blockbuster entertainment. "Presenting serious themes as a form of entertainment," he concedes, "may rob them of their social impact, but if done well, it can also make the historical and current justices endured by diverse groups accessible to audiences anywhere" (pp. 262-263). Embedding the Shoah into "an action movie like X-Men may spark an interest in it and other instances of genocide and political repression" (p. 163).
Baron's work on "The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema" raises the question we scholars and educators must ask ourselves: how do we show the Shoah's relevance to our lives today without trivializing it, or, conversely, without turning it into a cultural, political and historical meta-narrative? Baron's contribution is an excellent example of how to strike that balance: by keeping the Holocaust and its representations in contemporary cultural productions accessible to serious inquiry.
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Heike Polster. Review of Baron, Lawrence, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema.
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