Trauma Cinema

A Secret

The French movie Un Secret, is much more than a Holocaust movie. Source: Strand Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Strand Releasing

The first movie about the Holocaust I ever saw was Au Revoir, Les Enfants, French director Louis Malles' unflinching look at a defining moment of his childhood — the disappearance of three classmates in a Gestapo raid on his boarding school. I was eleven. It's probable I learned about the Holocaust when I was quite a bit younger than that; it's one of those events that lurks in the consciousness of Jewish families in perhaps the same way segregation does in African-American families.

I don't remember if I was especially moved by the film, then; but it was memorable as the first of a group of films I began to lump into one genre — the Holocaust film. Over the next twenty years I've seen more than a few, most foreign, with some notable exceptions. Many of them — I might even say most — are great films. I've been told that Schindler's List (one of the notable exceptions), only gets better on a second viewing.

Looking back, I've just begun to understand that Au Revoir, Les Enfants was actually the first of a certain kind of Holocaust movie. (Brace yourselves — here is where I say the bit that might sound heretic.) The problem that many Holocaust films must overcome is the temptation to succumb to a central trope in Holocaust literature: the epic clash of evil and humanity. That would be a fine, if simple, conclusion, except that humanity is usually portrayed with as much nuance as evil, leaving the viewer a sadly simplistic view of the atrocities. Nazis are portrayed as devils who may never have had a human moment, while Nazi victims are allowed a range of emotions from desperation to courage, which is a much smaller continuum, you must admit, then most of us possess even in the worst of times. Au Revoir Les Enfants, allows its protagonists to actually act like children, instead of cardboard angels or devils, giving the conclusion a devastating reality.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Un Secret, a French movie which has only just made it over here. It's a gorgeous movie, and yes, it's about French Jews caught in the disaster of the war, but it somehow escapes being a Holocaust movie. As I floundered around trying to figure out why it was so good, a friend (Gura's ladyfriend, truth be told), zeroed right in. "It was very different from most Holocaust movies," she said, "Acknowledging that even during that time — things like jealousy and lust still influenced people's decisions. And that those feelings and decisions were pushed in that direction because of the events going on around them." Having now seen the utterly maudlin Defiance, which relies on a solo violin for most of its humanity, I'm even more convinced she's right — Un Secret is about people, while Defiance is about a disaster. (It also is a disaster, but that's not for me to say.)

A.O. Scott argued persuasively in The New York Times that the Hollywood trope of the Holocaust movie prevents us from actually trying to understand it on our own, writing, "We don't have to ask what the Holocaust means to us since the movies answer that question for us." And I guess that's why I've been thinking about these films lately — as I listen to Avraham Burg argue that constantly looking through the prism of the Shoah isn't good for Jews, I realize that it might not be good for art, either. If we're going to insist that humanity triumph on and off screen — let's view ourselves, our politics, our books, and our movies through that lens, warts and all.



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