Herod's shadow is still with us

By  Michael Higgins
  • December 18, 2008
{mosimage}The Christmas season is the prime film-launch time of the year. There are the award nominations to consider as well as the simple commercial fact that this is the time when families go to movies in droves. So, brace yourselves for the onslaught of the sublime and the absurd, the elegantly crafted and the insipid, the insightful and the hopelessly banal. 

Alas, the numbers of genuinely accomplished works of art are few, the formula-driven installments of previous successes omnipresent, and the range of offerings shamelessly constrained by myopic distributors.

Still, there are some films that have the potential to be a few notches above the ordinary, and if the two that I have seen in the last week are representative of the seasonal wave then there is more than a little grounds for celebration.

Celebration seems a strange word to use when talking about the Holocaust, Nazi villainy and post-war German angst, but you know what I mean. This Advent has seen the release of Max Herman’s adaptation of John Boyne’s heart-wrenching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as well as Stephen Daldry and David Hare’s brilliant adaptation of Bernhard Schink’s The Reader. These films are signal accomplishments.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas portrays the savagery of the Nazi world-view as seen from the perspective of the innocent and uncomprehending. Bruno, the young son of a concentration camp commandant, finds himself incarcerated in a psychological and physical prison that has all the veneer of German civility and camaraderie, earnest patriotism and ethnic solidarity, but is in fact a hellish domain of fear, emotional brutality, deception and self-loathing. He finds a companion in a  neighbouring “prison” but with no understanding that the striped pyjamas of his new friend is simply the uniform of the damned. Slowly and inexorably Bruno’s ignorance seals the fate of his disintegrating family. His childish blunder speaks to the demonic folly of an ideology so vile that nothing and no one is in the end spared.

The Reader is set years after the end of the Second World War and addresses with a ruthless and complicated honesty the consequences of complicity in evil. A love affair between a young male student (Michael) and an older woman (Hanna) unfolds in ways that are devastating for all the players. There are social and political consequences to one’s behaviour and their full impact may be delayed but never — in history’s judgment, at least — avoided. This is an exquisitely acted film, the script evocative of the torturous struggles of individuals caught in the vortex of events over which they have no control but not exonerated from the moral judgments that bear directly on their humanity and salvation.

Both The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader are atypical films in that they avoid the easy outrage, the panoramic sweep and the Manichean simplicities that define so many of the Holocaust-themed movies we are accustomed to seeing. And for these very reasons they are more compelling in their treatment of complex issues, more credible in their portrayal of human desperation and the seductiveness of evil, and far more affecting in their capacity to move us emotionally and intellectually.

Soon to come are Valkyrie (actually slated to premiere on Dec. 25) and Defiance, both films about resistance, with the former chronicling the doomed assassination attempt on the Fuhrer from within German ranks and the latter narrating the brave counterattack of three Jewish brothers to Nazi genocide. Valkyrie stars Tom Cruise as the heroic Claus von Stauffenberg and, although I have yet to see the film, Cruise’s simplistic grasp of the intricate web of conspiracy as revealed in the pre-launch interviews and his limited range as an actor of subtle depth lead me to think that this will be less a moral tour de force and more a Hollywood entertainment. Defiance features a Daniel Craig who has shed the togs of James Bond for meatier fare.

These four films will undoubtedly vary in calibre and impact, and their appearance around the season of humble waiting and penitential self-knowledge may well prove for many of us an ideal moment to search our souls. It beats the tinsel, clamour and easily purchased pleasure that define so much of our society’s obsession with Christmas, reminding us that Herod’s shadow is with us still.

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