A negative review of the movie The Book Thief posed the question this way:
When I reviewed 12 Years A Slave, which is based on the true story of a free black man who was kidnapped and brought to the Deep South as a slave in 1841, I said that it might help America come to grips with the horrors of slavery and our nation’s racist roots if slavery was addressed more often in film — our most powerful storytelling medium — the same way World War II, the Holocaust, and Nazism have been portrayed in popular entertainment over the decades, leaving little doubt amongst generations of Germans and the rest of the world (regardless of one’s interest in history) that the Nazis’ goals, beliefs, and methods were an absolute wrong and a crime against humanity. That said, with seemingly every aspect of this tragedy examined exhaustively, is it possible that all the lessons of World War II have been learned and there are no new stories left to tell?
For reasons that anyone can deduce by looking slightly to their right on this page, I have a rooting interest in the answer to this question. Summer of Long Knives isn’t, strictly speaking, a story of the Holocaust, which began five years after its story ends. It is, however, a story about the Nazis and the state they were building, when their “goals, beliefs, and methods” were becoming all too clear. During its conception, I wondered why yet another story about the Nazis was needed, and, even if it were, why I should write it, when there were other projects I could have invested my time in.
I think of something Terry Gilliam said that Frederic Raphael said Stanley Kubrick said about Schindler’s List, a movie whose production led Kubrick to suspend his own film, which was to have been called The Aryan Papers. According to the story, Kubrick that the trouble with Schindler’s List was that it was a story about human success, when the Holocaust was the story of human failure.
I admire Spielberg’s work on Schindler’s List, and I don’t think he let us forget that Schindler’s success was limited to saving a small number of people from the slaughter of millions in Poland. (The sequence in which Amon Goeth and his men shoot everyone in the Krakow ghetto haunts me even now.) Still, Gilliam (and Kubrick) have a point. Film presentations of the Holocaust are usually about a success of one kind or another. Schindler saves his workers. The prisoners escape from Sobibor. Roberto Begnini dies, but he keeps his son alive until the camp is liberated. Inglorious Basterds changes the history of the war so that the Jews, represented by the Basterds and by the movie theater owner, can wreak bloody vengeance on Hitler and Goebbels personally. The best of these films remind us of how terrible the Nazis were, yes; but in the end, the protagonists triumph, the evil is dispatched, and justice, after arduous struggle, prevails.
I agree that this particular way of rendering World War II, and the Nazi period generally, feels more than a little shopworn. We certainly don’t need additional reminders that the Nazis were abominable people. But if stories of the Nazis have less impact than they once did, it may be because Hollywood, and American culture generally, approaches them from the same angle most of the time.*
That was why I wanted Summer of Long Knives to be, in the end, a story of failure. Kommissar Wundt had to lose. Even when he won, he had to do it in a way that cost him as much, or more, than he gained. Mine was to be the story of a someone trying to be a decent man in an indecent time and finding himself constantly thwarted, not just by external forces, but by his confidence that his intelligence, his reason, his bureaucratic legerdemain, and his dedication to justice are sufficient weapons against those forces. In the end, he can’t bring the killer in the story to justice because there is no justice to bring him to. His greatest success is that he and his wife get to escape Germany. (They seek refuge in France. Oops.)
The Nazi period doesn’t so much have lessons left to teach as warnings to issue. Civilizations fail. Institutions fail. Individual human beings fail. Crisis can bring the best out of a few people, but the worst out of many, many more. History’s function is to tell us how that happened in Germany from 1918-1945. Art’s function is to explore how that felt, to make it relevant to us now, to tell the inspiring stories, yes, but also to tell us how it must have been to rebel, knowing that the knock on the door was the inevitable end. Or how it must have felt to have been the person next door to that rebel–to have been the neighbor who betrayed him to the Gestapo for no better reason than spite. Or how would have been to watch your neighbors get shipped away, knowing what was going to happen to them while pretending you didn’t know what was going to happen to them? On how it must have been to know that your life depended on your success in fashioning some kind of cooperative relationship with an evil regime. How much of ourselves might we recognize in each of these situations, and what does that say about us?
I don’t think it’s time to stop telling stories about the Nazis and the Holocaust. But perhaps, having so long devoted our narratives to those few people whose individual heroism did make a difference, it’s time to turn our attention and our imagination to the millions of people who were less lucky, or less strong, and give a few more of them their hour upon the stage.