Bible in Pop Culture Week 4: In El Salvador, “Jacob wrestled the angel / And the angel was overcome”

 

 

The track “Bullet the Blue Sky” by U2 was released in 1987 on the album “The Joshua Tree.” The lyrics of the song were inspired by a trip that Bono took to Central America in 1985 with Amnesty International. On the trip, he stayed in the mountains in the north of the country with a group of guerilla fighters. While he was in the hills, he witnessed Salvadorean planes firebombing villages nearby in an attempt to kill guerilla fighters. Officially, the U.S. was acting in an advisory role in El Salvadore to strengthen the military dictatorship running the country as a bulwark against Communism. What this meant in practical terms was that the U.S. government was supplying arms, munitions, tactical advice and often manpower that led directly the tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

Bono, who described himself as a person who regularly read Scripture, was upset that Christians in America were supporting a proxy war that resulted in the devastation he was witnessing, so he penned the lyrics for “Bullet the Blue Sky” using Biblical references. A section of the lyrics reads as follows:

“In the howling wind comes a stinging rain / See it driving nails / Into the souls in the tree of pain / From a firefly, a red orange glow / See the face of fear / Running scared on the valley below / Bullet the blue sky / In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum / Jacob wrestled the angel / And the angel was overcome.”

The lyrics describe strafing runs and the dropping of napalm, as well as an interpretation of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel that seems to present the good, innocent villagers as the angel being overcome by man’s evil.

Sources: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=911 & the above video.

Reading Response re: The Nanjing Massacre

The Great Nanjing Massacre, Zi Jian Li, 1992

Image (above): The Great Nanjing Massacre, Zi Jian Li, 1992

 

Mitter, China’s War with Japan: 119-140.

Primary Source: “The Rape of Nanking: Bearing Witness, The Nanjing ‘Murder Race,’” in The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection (1999): 324-30.

Mark Eykholt, “Aggression, Victimization, and Chinese Historiography of the Nanjing Massacre,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (2000): 11-69.

Takashi Yoshida, “A Battle over History: The Nanjing Massacre in Japan,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (2000): 70-132.

 

The readings for this week center on the events that happened in Nanjing in 1937-1938 when the Japanese Army took control of the city. The Rape of Nanjing, or Nanjing Massacre, was an exceptional event in the war between Japan and China, not only because of the scope of death, destruction and trauma inflicted on the population, but also because of the impact the event has had on the national memories of both China and Japan. The event has become a symbol more than a real event, a tool used to express feelings of victimization and growing strength or, on the other side, a key battlefield in the definition of post-war Japanese identity.

One of the most interesting debates regarding Nanjing is why it happened in the first place, and this is unfortunately one of the debates that has received the least attention. Mitter presents some possible reasons, but they reveal an assumption that the Japanese military was out of control. This plays on the idea that there was a break down in control of the military by the civilian administration. The introduction to the primary source, on the other hand, posits the massacre as a preplanned and deliberate military policy. Eykholt somewhat supports this by stating that the idea of the military being out of control isn’t supported by the facts. The nature of the reported killings and the organized lootings speak to coordinated action. This seems like a more reasonable approach to the situation.

This, however, brings up the problem of responsibility. Who is responsible for what happened? Was blame placed where it should have been? The War Crimes trials, according to Eykholt, focused on American interests in the Pacific and some of the evidence may or may not have been accurate. It seems to have become a symbol for the entire conflict between the two nations and, like Eykholt and Takashi both argue, guilt and blame have dominated the discussion, preventing a real analysis of the events.

The Wretched of the Earth and Journal 1955~1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War – Comparative Reaction Essay

The Wretched of the Earth Book Cover

In the selection from The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon, the author argues that violence is a necessary part of decolonization. At first glance, this seems like a difficult argument to make, but Fanon frames violence in a way that emphasizes its use as a tool and a reaction more than something to be enjoyed and promoted. According to Fanon, violence is necessary because colonialism itself is violence that will not be stopped by other means. Violence is a trigger and point of departure that creates the impetus for decolonization by making the situation untenable for the colonizer and, further, acts as a unifying factor.

Compared to Mouloud Feraoun’s Journal, which is personal and conveys a sense of what it was like to live through the Algerian revolution, Fanon’s work is much more abstract. He was not writing from within an anti-colonial environment, but was rather making observations about colonialism in general. Fanon’s work heavily emphasizes dichotomies, both between capitalism and socialism and the colonizer and the colonized, which is to be expected given the author’s context of the Cold War and how that conflict impacted national struggles around the world.

Is violence a necessary part of the decolonization process? Fanon addresses the voluntary decolonization of some areas as a reaction to violence in other areas. In other words, voluntary decolonization was really forced, because it was done to avoid further violence. When considering this, I thought of Mahatma Gandhi’s movement of non-violence, when he was attempting to free India from British colonial control. Gandhi’s movement was successful (though not entirely because of his movement alone) in pushing out the British, but how does it fit into Fanon’s theory?

Fanon makes the point that violence acts as a vehicle for driving otherwise separate peoples in one direction (73). This sounds like he is arguing that by unifying people, violence constitutes the nation through experiencing a common hardship, which serves as a unifying memory for future generations. The Revolutionary War of the United States against Britain is an example of violence creating a common enemy, but it did not result in a unified nation. The failure of the new country’s economy was the driving force behind greater unification of the former colonies under a stronger central government, which turned those former fighters into a more unified people, or American nation.

India also does not fit neatly into this rubric. Gandhi’s movement called explicitly for non-violence. There was common suffering among those who took part in the movement, but Fanon’s theory seems to suggest that this common suffering must escalate into a violent movement before independence can be attained, or a sense of nationhood can be developed. Does this only work in areas where people did not have a unified sense of culture beforehand? Modern India is composed of a multitude of groups that loosely fit into the same cultural category through religious affiliation, but which were historically multiple kingdoms and other political units. Is non-violence just as strong a unifying factor, or was the violence inflicted on India what caused them to become unified? In other words, does mutual suffering create nationhood rather than mutual violence against another group?

Fanon’s obsession with and aggrandizement of violence reads like intellectualized grand-standing to call attention to his position on socialism as the better option for people in general. He mentions that individualism is a position that must be abandoned. He places capitalist countries firmly on the ‘bad’ side of the dichotomy of good and evil, in terms of colonizers and colonists, and concludes the selection provided with a call for restitution framed in terms of reparations for war damages. It is an interesting argument. How much of what Europe has today is the result of wealth accumulated from exploited countries? How much should be returned? How should it be returned and to whom? To governments? What about regions that are still politically unstable? And is there not an argument that the technological, medical, and social developments invented or refined in the West and disseminated throughout the world are not in and of themselves a form of restitution, in that they better all of humanity?

Journal 1955~1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War, by Mouloud Feraoun – Reaction Essay

Journal, 1955-1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War Book Cover

Journal 1955~1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War (2000), contains the collected and translated notes of Mouloud Feraoun, an Algerian Kabyle who lived through most of the French-Algerian war and was ultimately assassinated by the OAS, an extremist group composed of French residents of Algeria that were attempting to prevent Algerian independence. Feraoun was born during the colonial period, educated in the French system and worked as an educator himself. He was intelligent, complex, and saw the conflict in a nuanced way that he feared would make him a target as the forces arrayed against each other in the country began to view the world as wholly divided between good and evil. He was especially conflicted about the education strike, because he believed that not everything inherited from the French was inherently evil, a position that was at odds with the FLN’s idolization of Islam as the native answer to French cultural domination.

The most prominent part of Feraoun’s recollections is the constant violence that he reports. The deaths become routine and he records them in a way that becomes standardized, because the killing had become standardized. Violence gripped the entire country and became a tool used both by the French and the FLN. Some violence is to be expected, but the level of violence escalated to a point that defied logic. Feraoun accuses the FLN of creating an atmosphere that will make people long for French rule, and as his memoir nears its end, that very thing begins to happen. Summary executions, rapes, round-ups, identity checks and oppressive home searches became the norm for people on both sides of the fight. Those caught in the middle tried to live their lives as best they could, but they were forced into a position where they were bound to be killed by one side or the other because there was no ideological room left to be neutral.

The French military’s use of violent tactics is more questionable than those of the “rebel” groups, not simply because one expects a rebel group to use terrorism and guerilla tactics, but because of France’s claim that Algeria is France. If Algeria is France, why were these “French” Algerians in “France” subjected to violence that a nation normally reserved for enemy nations? Feraoun compares French tactics in the villages and outlying areas to those used by Russia against Hungary. Even in a situation of martial law, would those actions be permitted in Paris? This shows that there was a distinct disconnect between rhetoric and actual policy that made clear Algeria’s place not as an integral part of France, but rather as a colony under another name, full of dangerous locals, none of whom were above suspicion. As Feraoun mentioned when trying to return to his village on the occasion of his father’s death, without the telegram from the French military official, he was a rebel commander and his cousin was a fighter as well. There was a presumption of guilt that placed all natives outside of the French nation and, as a result, outside of the state and the state’s protection.

Comparing Antonin Brtko and Oskar Schindler: Holocaust in Film

Tono Brtko, from The Shop on Main Street*, and Oskar Schindler, from Schindler’s List, are both main characters in Holocaust films that, while similar, have very different impacts on the Jewish communities they interact with.  The Shop on Main Street takes place in a small town in Slovakia during 1942, at a time when the fascist government is cracking down on Jewish residents. Schindler’s List** takes place in the latter years of World War II in and around Kraków, Poland. Both characters are non-Jews that are placed in positions of power over Jewish people, one as a shop manager and the other as a factory owner. The roles are similar, but because of the different motivations that guide Tono and Schindler’s actions, their relationships with Jews lead to very different results.

Antonin "Tono" Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová
Antonin “Tono” Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

The more complicated of the two characters by far is Tono Brtko. The Shop on Main Street is a highly symbolic film and endless meaning can be read into Tono’s actions, but it is fairly safe to say that Tono represents the Slovakian nation. He is “Mr. Everyman Slovakia” and his behavior in the film can be seen as a critique of how the average Slovakian citizen treated his or her Jewish neighbors. In the film, all of those Jewish neighbors are represented by Mrs. Lautmann, a widow that runs a bankrupt button shop on Main Street.

Tono’s relationship with Mrs. Lautmann is essentially predatory. Throughout the film, he acts only in his own interest. Tono’s only purpose in interacting with Mrs. Lautmann is to satisfy his greed. As part of the Aryanization process in Slovakia, Jewish people were required to turn over their businesses to Aryan managers. This is depicted in the film and, because of his brother-in-law’s position, Tono is appointed Arisator of Mrs. Lautmann’s button shop. The idea of stealing the wealth of another person and not having to work for it put Tono in good spirits, which were dashed when he realized Mrs. Lautmann’s store was bankrupt and had nothing to offer him. The only reason he continued to have anything to do with her was because the Jewish community offered him a salary to look after Mrs. Lautmann and her shop. So, Tono was only interested in Mrs. Lautmann when there was an apparent means of profiting from her situation.

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List
Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List, is easier to understand. He is the hero of the story and a hero of the Jewish people. His development as a character follows a path similar to Tono’s, but there is a key difference. Unlike Schindler, Tono never has a change of heart. He never wants to help Jewish people because it is the right thing to do. Instead, he is only interested in profit. Schindler is depicted as being far more altruistic. At the beginning of the movie, Schindler is a cold, calculating business man who sees an opportunity to make massive profit off of cheap Jewish slave-labor during wartime conditions. This is similar to Tono’s desire to become wealthy through the acquisition of Mrs. Lautmann’s shop. In both cases, they are stealing the labor of others and converting it into personal profit, but when Schindler comes to understand the brutality of the Nazis, he empathizes with the Jews and expends all of his wealth in an effort to save as many of them as he can.

At the end of The Shop on Main Street, Tono attempts to hide Mrs. Lautmann from fascist soldiers approaching the button shop. It is possible that he does this because, in that moment of crisis, he realizes he actually cares about Mrs. Lautmann and feels guilty about what is going on, but it is more likely that Tono acted out of self-interested fear for his own well-being and a desire to avoid being considered a “Jew-lover.” In contrast, Schindler takes much greater risks than Tono in an effort to save people.

At the end of the two movies, both Tono and Schindler are broke, but while Tono ultimately has nothing to show for his efforts except a town empty of Jews, Schindler has saved over a thousand lives. If Tono had come to the same conclusion as Schindler, he could have saved Mrs. Lautmann, but because he was only thinking of how to profit from her, he caused her death. In the end, Tono and Schindler really aren’t that alike after all. They start out in similar circumstances, profiting from the labor of others, but their motivations and desires set them widely apart.

*For more on The Shop on Main Street, see this post:

The Shop on Main Street: The Holocaust in Film

**For more on Schindler’s List, see these posts:

Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Criticism of Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

(For more on Schindler’s List, also check out this additional post that summarizes common criticism’s of the movie.)

Schindler's List DVD Cover Image

Schindler’s List is a movie by Steven Spielberg that was released in 1993. The movie is based loosely on a book written by Thomas Keneally, which is also called Schindler’s List. The book, in turn, is based on the eyewitness testimony of Holocaust survivors who were saved by the actions of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi Party who used his position and influence to turn his enamelware manufacturing labor camp into a refuge for Jews. The movie attempts to track the course of these events while also showing Schindler’s inner transformation from a cold, calculating businessman into a savior. The events depicted in the movie take place near the end of World War II in Kraków and later in the Płaszów labor/concentration camp, both of which are in Poland.

Various methods were used to turn this semi-historical information into an entertaining movie. Spielberg’s choice of coloring in the film was very intentional. Schindler’s List was designed in a way to make the audience feel as though they were viewing something historically accurate and making the film (mostly) black and white, rather than color, was a deliberate and effective means of making that connection. This was probably done to connect emotionally with the viewer and pull him or her along as the story progresses.  Spielberg also set up his characters in an oppositional way that is simple and easy to understand, probably to appeal to a wider audience, and reinforced this image of good vs. evil through the use of light and dark imagery.

Schindler’s List is almost entirely shot in black and white, but there are scenes that are in color for added effect. The opening scene of the movie is in full color and shows a Jewish family lighting the Shabbat candles on a Friday evening. As the candles burn down and the flame goes out, the film transitions to full black and white. The point of this switch to black and white is to give the movie a documentary-style feel, to impress upon the viewer the historical reality of what is being depicted and more easily elicit an emotional response. I won’t go into the problem of presenting fictionalized material in a way that makes it appear to be completely historically accurate here. Essentially, what Spielberg has done is make it easier for the audience to empathize with people they know are real. The climax of this effective use of color is in the final scenes, when the characters in black and white transition to the actual living survivors when the film was shot. They are shown moving across a field and then moving forward in a line to lay flowers on the grave of Oskar Schindler. That scene completes the emotional connection and reinforces the power of what the audience just saw in the rest of the film.

The most famous use of color in the film is the “girl in the red coat” in the Kraków ghetto liquidation scene. In this scene, everything is black and white except for the coat a little girl is wearing. The camera follows her as she walks down a street and adults are gunned down behind her and in front of her. This is meant to draw the audience’s attention and probably to emphasize the innocence of the children who suffered through this event. The next time the audience sees the red coat the little girl was wearing is when it is in a pile in a wheelbarrow. The audience is left to draw the conclusion that she no longer needs it anymore, because she is dead. Another instance of coloring in the film is during the Friday Shabbat candle lighting ceremony in Schindler’s factory. Schindler not only gives permission to, but insists that the rabbi in the factory welcome the Sabbath. During this scene, the flames of the candle are in color again, like they were in the opening scene of the movie. This may indicate a restoration of the Jewish people, through Schindler’s respect for them as human beings.

Color also plays an important role in the depiction of characters in the film, primarily in the use of shadows on their faces. This ties in with the essentially oppositional nature of the main characters in the film: Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth. To make this film more easily understood by a wider audience, Spielberg created a good vs. evil paradigm that posits Schindler as the hero and Goeth as the bad guy. Schindler is the troubled hero who starts out selfish and uninterested in others, much like Spiderman. Like Peter Parker, Schindler has to experience a traumatic event before he changes his mind about the Jewish people and uses his power for good. Like Parker’s uncle Ben, Schindler has the one-armed man and the girl in the red coat, among others. Schindler’s path to heroism is painted in a very easily understood way. Goeth is presented as an ultimate evil, a man that is beyond the bounds of sanity. He even has an evil sounding accent and an army of evil henchmen (the camp guards). To take the comic-book reference a bit further, we can think of Helen Hirsch as the damsel in distress that the hero, Schindler, rescues from the bad guy, Goeth.

This set-up of hero and villain is reinforced throughout the film by facial lighting effects. When Schindler is introduced, he is dark and mysterious and his face isn’t shown in full. When he is doing something negative, his face is in shadows. For example, when a Jewish woman shows up at his office to ask for his help, he is shown at the top of a staircase, in the distance and completely in shadows. Why? Because this scene shows him bowing to his dark impulses. In this case, he is acting on his lust for attractive women and because this woman is dressed conservatively, he sends her away. When she comes back dressed in a sexually appealing way, he agrees to meet her. When Schindler does something good, his face is shown fully lighted. An example is when he gives a chocolate bar to Helen Hirsch when questioning her in the basement, to reveal his good will toward her.

Fascism is not really addressed in this film, because it focuses more on Oskar Schindler and his transformation from Nazi party-man to Jewish savior. Oddly enough, the same can be said about the role of Jewish people in the film. There are many opportunities for character development, but the only Jew that really gets any serious screen-time is Yitzchak Stern. The Jewish people in Schindler’s List are essentially part of the backdrop of the Holocaust and act as supporting players to tell Schindler’s story. Not to belittle Schindler’s efforts, but it is odd that a film dedicated to the memory of six million dead Jews gives them so little time to tell their own stories, or act in any meaningful way.

Despite any flaws the movie has, Schindler’s List is an important part of the film industry’s portrayal of the Holocaust. It is the top rated Holocaust movie according to IMDB.com and has and will expose more people to the Jewish tragedy of World War II than any history book is likely to do, as sad as that may be. The use of color and the portrayal of the characters is very effective in drawing in and holding the attention of the viewer, allowing them to experience the film without having to think too hard about it.

Life is Beautiful: Holocaust in Film

(For more on Life is Beautiful, also take a look at this paper I did on general criticisms of the movie.)

Life is Beautiful DVD Cover
Life is Beautiful DVD Cover

Life is Beautiful, an Italian movie that was originally released in 1997 under the title “La vita è bella,” is a drama and romantic comedy. The story takes place in 1930s Arezzo, Italy and focuses on the life of a Jewish man named Guido Orefice, who arrives in town with plans to open a bookshop. Almost immediately after arriving in town, he becomes interested in a woman named Dora that he keeps running into (sometimes quite literally) around town. He begins to pursue her romantically, eventually winning her away from her fiancé and starting a family with her. Years later, Guido and Giosué are rounded up and deported to a death camp during World War II. Dora, who is not Jewish, demands to be placed on the train along with her husband and son, because she can’t stand to be apart from them. Ironically, she ends up as a prisoner in an adjacent death camp for women and is still separated from her family. For the remainder of the movie, Guido spends all of his time trying to convince his son that the entire experience is part of an elaborate game where the winner takes home a brand new tank.

Life is Beautiful is a complicated movie to analyze or compare with anything else because of how unusual the genre is for the subject. Comedy is not usually part of the Holocaust discussion, because there’s really nothing funny about it, in terms of the scope, the scale and the end result. When I think of the scene from Night and Fog where the camera pans out and then up, showing a mountain of hair, I think about how many people had to have died for that pile of hair to be created. It is both powerful and subtle and clearly indicates the nature and scale of the tragedy and it does so in a manner that I find wholly more appropriate to the subject. Nonetheless, comedy is used as an important plot driver in Life is Beautiful. Specifically, the main character, Guido, engages in slapstick comedy antics throughout the movie. In the first half of the movie, when Guido is attempting to woo Dora away from her fiancé, Guido’s antics seem to serve no real purpose, other than to entertain and endear himself to the audience. In the second half of the movie, the use of comedy is more questionable given the subject matter, but it is used to better effect as part of the plot. Guido uses comedy as a tool, along with distraction and elaborate stories, to distract his son from what’s going on in the camp. The problem with this use of comedy is that Guido sometimes ignores the well-being of himself, his son and everyone around him in an attempt to keep his son entertained, causing the situation to become unbelievable.

Comedy aside, one of the important themes in Life is Beautiful is the effect of the Holocaust on families. The first part of the movie builds up an almost fantasy-like love story where the “hero” gets the girl and settles down to raise his son and run his own business. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? Then, the fascists arrive, and everything Guido has managed to accomplish, the fairy-tale existence that is meant to appeal emotionally to the audience, is suddenly destroyed, simply because Guido and his son are Jewish. To maximize the emotional effect on the audience, Dora is presented as being willing to sacrifice herself to remain close to her family. During his time in the death camp, Guido puts himself and his son at risk to find opportunities to let his wife know that they are still alive. The idea that anyone could have actually pulled off the stunts portrayed by Guido in the movie is ridiculous, but the inclusion of these scenes in the movie is probably meant to call attention to the fact that families were ripped apart during the Holocaust in a way that would be emotionally appealing to the audience. The moment that truly symbolizes this loss, however contrived the plot, is when Guido dies while attempting to find and save his wife from the guards’ final extermination efforts before abandoning the camp.

The presentation of Jews in this movie is two-sided. On the one hand, “the Jews” in the movie are a faceless mass that acts in a supporting role to the main story of Guido and his son. They are shown as docile followers of orders in a rather two-dimensional way. On the other hand is Guido, who is the main character. The story of Life is Beautiful could almost be said to be Guido-driven, rather than character or plot driven. He is a one man show that overwhelms the narrative with monologue. He manipulates people, takes risks and actively engages in his survival and the survival of his son and wife. So, this movie presents both popular narratives of Jewish people during the Holocaust: passive sheep allowing themselves to be led to the slaughter and active resisters in any way possible.

Because of its use of comedy, Life is Beautiful is difficult to take seriously and, in light of the seriousness of the historical events the movie uses as a backdrop, many people find it offensive. More than that, some people find it insulting to the victims of the Holocaust. Not everything in the movie is emotional fluff, however. There are still worthwhile messages and themes that can be pulled from the movie, though it’s probably not something I will watch again.

Au Revoir Les Enfantes: Holocaust in Film

Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).
Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a 1987 film directed by Louis Malle. The film is a biographical war drama that focuses on events at a French boarding school run by priests during World War II. The film follows the developing relationship between two students, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet, who is actually named Jean Kippelstein. Father Jean, the school’s principal, has been hiding Jewish children in the school to save their lives. As the story develops, Julien realizes that Jean isn’t like everyone else. To hide his identity and excuse the fact that he doesn’t know the Catholic prayers, Jean Bonnet claims to be Protestant, but Julien discovers the truth. Instead of driving a wedge between them, this shared secret brings them closer together.

Based on a true story, this film demonstrates the level of common knowledge of Jews in France and how they were seen by their French neighbors. The relationship in France between Jews and non-Jews is presented as being complex, rather than black and white. This can best be seen in the restaurant scene, where an older man is sitting alone and Vichy government officials come in and ask him for his papers. When the official discovers the old man is a Jew the official begins to harass him. Some of the restaurant’s patrons express feelings similar to the official’s, but the majority believe the official’s actions are a disgrace and an affront to human dignity, including Julien’s mother.

But, how much did the average French person really know about Jews? When Julien asks his brother to explain what makes a person Jewish, his response is that a Jew is a person who doesn’t eat pork. When Julien asks why everyone hates the Jews, his brother tells him it is because Jewish people are smarter than non-Jews, and because they killed Christ, which Julien dismisses as an obvious lie, since the Romans were responsible for crucifying Christ.  Perhaps this scene is meant to convey the idea that there really aren’t any significant differences between Jews and non-Jews, since Julien continues his friendship with Jean. It is interesting that Jean was at the top of his class, along with Julien, and they manage to develop a strong friendship, while their less intelligent peers are still spouting stereotypes and comparing Jews to Communists and Germans. Perhaps the message here is that a little intelligence and thought leads to peaceful coexistence.

Jean spends most of the film trying to blend in with his classmates, for obvious reasons, but throughout the film he’s shown as being slightly different. He stands out, not necessarily because he looks different, but because of his demeanor. He carries himself differently from the other students. In many scenes he appears to be hunched over slightly, or he walks differently. It almost looks like he’s physically struggling with the mental burden of staying hidden. He does tell Julien that he is afraid all the time. Jean’s desperate need to fit in causes him to attempt to take communion, perhaps to prove to his friend that he is not so different from him, or perhaps because he feared that since Julien noticed that he is Jewish, he should redouble his efforts to appear Protestant. That could also explain why he hid during choir practice, to avoid revealing his unfamiliarity with Christian hymns.

The scene I found most interesting in the film was when Jean was removed from the classroom, because of how his classmates reacted. After the schoolyard repetition of stereotypes and expressions of dislike for Jews, the students did not react violently when they discovered that Jean was Jewish. When the priest came in and asked the boys to say a prayer for their classmates, there wasn’t any rowdiness. In other scenes that involve prayer, there is rough-housing, mocking or laughter. But in this scene, there is solidarity, and later, the non-Jewish students are proud that Negus was able to avoid capture, implying that familiarity dispels ignorance and breeds acceptance and friendship. I wonder if, when producing this scene, the director was specifically thinking of laïcité, the French conception of secularism, which states that religion doesn’t matter because the French are French first.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is an interesting film that depicts the French response to German occupation and fascist doctrine regarding the Jewish community. Some collaborated, some resisted, some were apathetic and some profited from exposing Jews in hiding. But, the film also shows that understanding and familiarity are important tools to overcoming stereotypes. The acting in the film is excellent and the director’s portrayal of Jean Bonnet and his classmates expresses the emotions and ideas buried in the story of Julien of Jean’s friendship excellently.

Why Life is Not Beautiful in Life is Beautiful: Holocaust in Film

Life is Beautiful, originally titled “La vita è bella,” was released in 1997 in Italy (1999 in the United States). The movie is a drama and romantic comedy that takes place during the 1930s in Arezzo, Italy and revolves around the comedic antics and acting talent of Roberto Benigni, who plays the role of Guido, a Jewish man who arrives in town with plans to open a bookshop. The first half of the movie follows Guido as he attempts to woo Dora away from her fiancé and starts a family with her. The second half of the movie takes place in what the audience is meant to believe is a death camp, where Guido and his son Giosué are interned. During this internment, Guido deceives his son into believing their incarceration is a game, where points are awarded for good behavior and the first person to earn a thousand points will win a tank.[1]

Life is Beautiful DVD Cover
Life is Beautiful DVD Cover

In 1999, Life is Beautiful won three Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score. The movie won 55 other awards and received 31 nominations.[2] But, did the movie actually earn those awards? Despite the movie having been called a modern masterpiece, there are many critics and reviewers who believe the movie doesn’t live up to the hype it received, referring to it as an “unholy film,” or a “cinematic abortion.”[3] This paper will explore and present major themes in those negative reviews, looking for common complaints that may be used to point out potential weaknesses in the movie. There are a number of criticisms of the movie among reviewers, but surprisingly, after reading approximately one-hundred reviews from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes (which links to external sites, including Time Magazine, Salon.com, and SFGate), I discovered that almost all of the complaints fall into just a few categories, including poor acting, implausibility of the plot, historical inaccuracies, the poor choice of humor, and a general insensitivity to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust itself.

The main complaint regarding the quality of acting begins with Benigni himself, who one reviewer describes as “a six-year old trapped in the body of a middle-aged Italian man on a steady diet of Red Bull and Ecstasy.”[4] Benigni’s performance of Guido became difficult for some viewers to watch, for a few reasons. Benigni is, first of all, overly energetic throughout the movie and talks incessantly, rarely allowing any other character get a word in edgewise. This problem is also indicative of bad directing, since Benigni was both the director and lead actor. His overwhelming of the storyline through Guido leads directly to the next problem with acting in the movie: the nature of the other characters. Perhaps because they have so few lines, they have no room to develop as independent characters and remain two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts. One reviewer complained of the irony of Jews being dehumanized into a faceless mass by Life is Beautiful in much the same way they were dehumanized by the Holocaust itself. Overall, reviewers noted that all of the characters in the movie merely act as targets for Benigni’s gags or as foils to emphasize the good natured optimism of his leading character, Guido.[5]

The second largest complaint generally centers on the implausibility of the plot itself. The movie is divided into two distinct portions: the town scene, where Guido woos Dora, they get married and have kids; and the concentration camp scene, where Guido lies to his son about the nature of their surroundings in an effort to shield him from the horrors of reality and thereby preserve his innocence. Regarding the first half of the movie, most reviewers complained that Guido’s buffoon antics make him a completely unbelievable character that would not have been able to attract Dora, who would have, in the words of one reviewer, been more likely to have a restraining order issued against him. The first portion of the movie was generally described as contrived, predictable and ultimately useless in terms of lending anything useful to the second half of the movie. One reviewer summed it up quite well by saying that when the movie transitioned to the second half, he felt as though he had changed the channel on his television.[6]

In the second half of the movie, the implausibility of the plot was even more evident. Reviewers cited specific cases which make the movie impossible to believe or take seriously, starting with Guido’s intentional failure to relay important instructions to the Jews who have just arrived in the death camp, instead creating a fanciful speech about the rules of the “game” that he says is being played, for the sole benefit of his son. Had this really happened, it is entirely likely that it would have been discovered, leading to Guido’s death, either by the Nazis or by the Jews who were left in the dark about what was going on because of Guido’s disregard for their lives. Also hard to believe is that Guido is able to hide his son in a death camp after all of the other children are exterminated. And not only did Guido hide him, he had his son speaking on an intercom system to communicate with his mother in the conveniently nearby women’s camp, which did not result in the death of either the father or the son, though it should have. The biggest implausibility of all is that the kid actually believed the lies his father was telling him. Reviewers stated that the kid is depicted as being intelligent, so how could he have spent any time at all in a death camp without realizing what was going on, especially after all of the other kids disappeared?[7]

This leads directly into the next major complaint, which was the lack of historical consistency present in the movie. To start with, Guido and Dora’s marriage never could have happened, because marriages between Jews and non-Jews had been made illegal. The camp that Guido and his family are taken to is mentioned to have a crematoria and mass killings, which would make it a death camp, and yet, according to reviewers, all of the death camps were in Poland and Italian Jews remained in Italy. Most of the historical criticisms revolved around the conditions portrayed in the death camp itself. In a real death camp, people would not have appeared well-fed and well-dressed. People would not have had a bunk to themselves. Guido would not have had freedom of movement to wander the camp as he pleased. Central areas with intercom systems would not have been left unattended and had a Jew taken it upon himself to use the camp intercom without permission, he would have been killed on the spot. Had a Jew spoken to a guard, he would have been killed on the spot. Death wouldn’t have been hidden away in foggy piles of dream-like bodies; it would have been casual and ever-present. There is no way Giosué could have missed it. One reviewer wrote that the death camp looked more like a fat kids’ summer camp than a place where people were being systematically murdered. [8]

And perhaps that’s the biggest problem with the movie. The audience is led to believe that the lies being told are meant to spin a horrible situation into a fable to preserve the innocence of Guido’s son. In the beginning of the movie, the story is presented as a fable, but some reviewers didn’t feel that labelling the movie as a fable helped make it any more believable, because fables are meant to deliver a moral truth and what moral truth is there to Life is Beautiful? That lying makes life bearable? That’s certainly not what the movie is billed as delivering. The DVD box cover insists that “love, family and imagination conquer all,” but that’s not possible, or at least it’s not possible given the way the movie is portrayed, because if it were, no one would have died in the Holocaust. Certainly Guido wasn’t the only person who loved his family and had imagination. What about all of the other people? Why didn’t their humor save them? Maybe they weren’t funny enough.[9]

The type of humor used in the movie was another big issue with reviewers, including many reviewers who gave the movie moderately good ratings. Benigni’s brand of humor is very physical and includes a lot of slapstick humor, which for some was bad to start with, but for others could have been fine, had he been able to pull it off well. Many people complained that his jokes were entirely predictable and because you could see them coming, there was no reason to laugh when the moment arrived. For example, when an egg goes in a hat, it’s eventually going on someone’s head. Benigni was accused of grandstanding and trying so hard to be cute that he forgot to be funny. He was also accused of trying too hard to be Charlie Chaplain, but wound up just being loud and obnoxious. Reviewers also stated that instead of creating his own version of “The Great Dictator,” Benigni produced something much more similar to an extended episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” He was accused of using the Holocaust as a prop to hide his poor comic ability and earn himself an Oscar, because including the Holocaust would make his movie critic-proof.[10]

That point brings us to the final, and perhaps most often cited, complaint about the movie: it is completely insensitive to the nature of the Holocaust, what it meant for the people who were victims of it, and what it should mean for those of us who learn about it today. The movie was, according to multiple reviewers, so sanitized that it probably wouldn’t even have offended the Nazis. A few reviewers said Life is Beautiful would have made great Nazi propaganda for Goebbels to show the Red Cross, to prove that life in the camps wasn’t so bad after all. Many reviewers called the movie an attempt at neo-Nazi revisionist history that denies the overwhelming horror of the Holocaust and that the movie obscures the human and historical events it set out to portray. It doesn’t expand our knowledge of the Holocaust and instead acts as a plot device to help Benigni bring more attention to himself.

The negative reviews of this movie have very strong arguments that point to serious flaws in the movie that could have been addressed to create a better movie. The movie doesn’t really show that life is beautiful. It shows that life for characters created in the author’s imagination is beautiful. If depicted realistically, this movie would not have ended well for any of the characters involved, and without those elements of realism, the movie cannot really hope to deliver a message as strong as family, love and imagination conquering all, because in the movie, that doesn’t happen. Instead, events are set up in such a way, and history is rewritten in such a way, to make it possible for “all” to be conquered. Had elements of real terror been included in the movie, alternated by more fantastical scenes as recollected by Giosué, it could have been possible to pull of what Benigni intended, but instead, he created a platform for selling himself, reducing all but the leading character to caricatures of human beings, doing implausible things in inaccurate settings using poorly thought out humor and ultimately desecrating the memory of millions of people who died in the camps.


[1] IMDb, “Plot Summary For Life is Beautiful,” 2013.

[2] IMDb, “Life is Beautiful (1997),” 2013.

[3] IMDb, “Reviews & Ratings for Life is Beautiful: La vita è bella (original title),” 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

References

Flixster, Inc. 2013. “Life is Beautiful (La Vita è bella) Reviews.” Rotten Tomatoes by Flixster. March 8. Accessed June 13, 2013. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1084398-life_is_beautiful/reviews/.

IMDb. 2013. “Life is Beautiful (1997).” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 15, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/.

—. 2013. “Plot Summary for Life is Beautiful.” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 15, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl.

—. 2013. “Reviews & Ratings for Life Is Beautiful: La vita è bella (original title).” Internet Movie Database. June 8. Accessed June 13, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/reviews?filter=chrono.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: The Holocaust in Film

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Image appropriated from Tumblr).
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Image appropriated from Tumblr).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, originally released in Italy in 1970 under the title “Il giardino dei Finzi Contini,” was directed by Vittorio De Sica. The film uses the lives of an aristocratic Jewish family to tell a story about the Jewish community and fascism in 1930s Ferrara, Italy. The plot of the story seems to revolve primarily around the interactions between Giorgio and the Finzi-Contini family. The increasing limitations on the rights of Jewish people in Italy plays out in the background and only reaches center stage in the closing sequence of the film, when the Jewish people of the town are rounded up and concentrated in the school building.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a color film that contains two very noticeable camera techniques. One technique used throughout the film is the blurred lens or soft focus. In some scenes, the soft focus is light and feels a little pointless. In other portions of the film the soft focus creates heavy blurring. An example is the scene where Micol is sitting in the back seat of a government car that is taking her and her family to the town’s school house as part of a collection and deportation process.  The blurring may have been added to the scene to emphasize the dreamy or surreal quality of the experience.

The other camera technique that is used extensively is zooming. In some scenes, the camera starts with a long-shot and zooms out until the actor is in the frame. In other scenes, the camera zooms in on things the director may have wanted to make sure his audience took note of, like the Hebrew inscription on the lintel of Giorgio’s home, or Micol’s Star of David necklace. Perhaps there is another reason for the zoomed in scenes of Jewish symbols, but it comes across to me as the director not trusting his audience to be able to figure out on their own that the Finzi-Continis and Giorgio’s family are Jewish without prompts and reminders. Maybe that’s the point, though? Reinforcing the fact that, despite social advancement, they’re still “only” Jews.

A large portion of the film takes place on the property of the Finzi-Continis. All of the characters that we are introduced to are wealthy, but the Finzi-Continis are exceptionally well-off, own extensive property and employ at least half a dozen servants. The film begins after the racial laws had already started being passed in the country, barring Jewish people from entering public buildings and clubs. Because of this, the Finzi-Continis are essentially restricted to their walled-in property. As Alberto puts it, even if he went out, what would he do? Where would he go? Alberto also mentions the fact that when he used to go outside of his family’s estate, he felt that he was constantly being spied on and envied. The Finzi-Contini family’s semi-voluntary seclusion behind their garden walls is an excellent foreshadowing of the fact that they will later be involuntarily restricted to a ghetto, or perhaps placed behind the “walls” of a concentration camp.

It is hard to relate to the lives of the people shown in the film, because they live such privileged lifestyles and, despite all that happens, manage to continue living privileged lives. I believe this was an important aspect of the film, because even though the Finzi-Continis are able to ignore many of the rules and live well in their walled garden, in the end, their wealth makes no difference. The fact that they are relatively non-practicing also makes no difference. For all their wealth and privilege and ability to ignore some of the racial laws, like continuing to employ domestiques after Jews are banned from having Italian servants, they receive no special treatment or consideration from the state. For example, the Finzi-Contini’s integrity as a family unit isn’t considered and they are placed in separate classrooms after they are arrested and transported to the school house. They are lumped in with the rest of the Jewish community. The message here may be that there was no escaping one’s Jewish heritage when the fascists came knocking. To the Italians, there was no distinction that mattered other than whether one was Jewish or not.

Trees are an important symbol in the film. At one point, Micol mentions that one of the trees on her family’s property was rumored to have been planted by Lucrezia Borgia and might be as much as 500 years old. The same tree is shown at various points during the film, including the last scene with Alberto, just before he dies. The camera focusing on the tree during Alberto’s death scene may have been done to emphasize the long presence of Jews in Ferrara and the imminent death of that community, because Alberto’s failing health can be seen as an indicator of the state of the Jewish community in Ferrara. As the film progresses and the Jews’ status in the town becomes more tenuous, Alberto’s health declines. In the scene right after Alberto’s funeral procession, we’re informed, through Giorgio’s interaction with the fair booth attendant that the round-up of Ferrara’s Jews has begun.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is an important film that gives the viewer a glimpse of what life was like for wealthy Jews in Ferrara during the round-ups and deportations during World War II. Beyond being a fascinating love-drama that sheds light on class and status within Jewish society, this film presents the Holocaust as an event that touched all Jewish lives in Europe, from the poorest to the wealthiest. It was the great equalizer. Religiosity and self-identification did not matter. All that counted was whether or not one was Jewish.