Sob Fest 2009: One Holocaust movie at a time is enough. I took on five.
Admit it. Sometimes you love to be depressed at the movies, and nothing depresses quite like a Holocaust film. That schmaltzy love story in a concentration camp, the tale of quiet rebellion among prisoners, the subversive, maybe-the-Germans-weren’t-so-bad-after-all flick. A new wave of appropriately gloomy Holocaust-themed movies stormed American multiplexes this holiday season. Alongside the typical foreign indie movies like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” there were big-budget studio films full of high-profile actors trying to be taken seriously. Need an example or two? There was Tom Cruise attempting to escape his couch-jumping days by playing a rogue Nazi (”Valkyrie”) and Daniel Craig trying to un-Bond himself as a Jew on the run (”Defiance”). On the television series “Extras,” Kate Winslet, as herself, joked about trying to nab that elusive Oscar the only way she knew how - by making a Holocaust movie. Then she went and did it in real life, finally winning her little golden statue during February’s Academy Awards and confirming that Holocaust roles are prime Oscar bait.
In honor of the spate of remembrance Hollywood seems to be having, I grabbed my tissue box, popped some popcorn and delved into the must-see Holocaust movies that I’ve never been in a sufficiently downer mood to endure. Here are the findings from my Holocaust movie mini-marathon:
Europa, Europa (1990, Germany/France)
Bite-Sized Recap: This is the strange (and true) story of Solomon Perel, a teenage Jew who fought in World War II - but on the other side. Moments of extreme silliness combine well with scenes depicting death, destruction and the psychological trauma of hiding one’s true identity.
Best Scenes: 1) Perel having sex with a woman bearing a swastika on her arm who screams “Mein Fuhrer!” at her climax. 2) A dream sequence in which Hitler ballroom dances. Enough said.
Oscar History: Nominated for its screenplay, 1992.
Sob Factor: 3/5. The silly fantasy sequences help offset the tougher emotions.
Yay or nay? Yay. It’s a fresh look at the subject, as long as you’re not distracted by the subtitles.
Sophie’s Choice (1982, USA)
Bite-Sized Recap: Meryl Streep puts on a Polish accent and plays a concentration camp survivor, immigrant to Brooklyn, and…a Catholic? She befriends her new neighbor in her boardinghouse and tells him all her deepest secrets. Throw in a heavy dose of regret and Kevin Kline as an abusive (and crazy) husband.
Best Scene: Can you guess? The oft-quoted scene where Sophie must make the impossible choice. Beautiful acting, and we finally learn why Sophie’s so screwed up.
Oscar History: Meryl Streep won Best Actress. The film was nominated for four others including screenplay and score, 1983.
Sob Factor: 5/5. Beautiful language, flashbacks, tragic endings to once-meaningful relationships and enough hardship to drive anyone insane.
Yay or nay? Yay, because Meryl Streep is glorious and it’s certainly a beautiful story. Keep the tissues handy.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961, USA)
Bite-Sized Recap: An American judge falls in love with Germany and its people throughout his stay, all the while deciding whether to condemn its greatest judges for knowingly convicting innocent Jews.
Best Scene: The trial’s opening, in which the transition from German to English happens so smoothly, you might miss it. It sets the tone for the film: simple and
Oscar History: Best Actor (Maximilian Schnell) and Best Screenplay. Nominated for nine others, including Best Picture, 1962.
Sob Factor: 0/5. No epic scenes of mass destruction - only a brief scene of archival footage from Dachau. This film relies on words rather than sentiments to make its point.
Yay or nay? Yay, yay, and yay. Clocking in at more than 3 hours, it is a lot of talking heads, but it’s great acting, simple camerawork, and raw facts that drive this movie’s point home.
Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) (2007, Austria/Germany)
Bite-Sized Recap: The world’s best counterfeiter is captured and brought to a concentration camp. The Nazis are broke, so they enlist him and others in related professions to counterfeit money for them in exchange for a comfortable prison stay - but can their consciences endure it?
Best Scene: The sequence where we see Salomon, the great counterfeiter, painting beautiful pictures at concentration camps and steadily getting more and more food for his labor. It sets up the movie’s central conflict: comfort and survival or doing what’s right?
Oscar History: Best Foreign Language Film, 2008.
Sob Factor: 2/5. Not so schmaltzy until the end, when the quiet rebels are recognized for their work.
Yay or nay? If you like jump cuts, hand-held cameras and artsy indie films, yay.
The Reader (2008, USA/Germany)
Bite-Sized Recap: The Graduate, Holocaust-style. A 30-something-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy have a torrid love affair. She is illiterate and makes him read to her. Later, as a law student, he attends the trial of six SS prison guards responsible for selecting the prisoners sent to Auschwitz - and one looks pretty familiar.
Best Scene: The brief scene where we find out what eventually happens to Kate Winslet’s character once her prison sentence is up. Artfully filmed.
Oscar History: Best Actress for Kate Winslet and nominated for four others, including Best Picture, 2008.
Sob Factor: 2/5. Courtroom dramas just don’t tend to elicit sappy emotion. Besides, this film is more about illiteracy than the Holocaust itself.
Yay or nay? Nay, unless you’re a Winslet fan. The story doesn’t coalesce, and no amount of tenderness makes the love affair between woman and boy palatable.