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The One Holocaust Film You Really Need To See

Published January 27, 2020 by Zuzana Barakova

Holocaust Memorial Day, Divided We Fall, Jan Hrebejk, Musíme Si Pomáhat

On Holocaust Memorial Day and in the second of a series of reflective pieces, Woolf Institute & University of Cambridge MSt alumna Zuzana Barakova discusses the one Holocaust film you really need to see.

Holocaust films are de rigueur these days. It seems everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. An obscure half Jewish-half Maori (sic!) director brings forth a bizarre comedy involving a manic and comic Hitler. The iconic Terrence Malick releases a film about the heroic Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to serve in Hitler's army and paid the inevitable price. But Malick's trademark style (a rapturous worship of the natural world in soft focus) perhaps distracts from the seriousness of the theme.

I have always held Holocaust films to a higher standard. It is so easy to get it wrong – think of the buckets of kitsch sentimentality in Life is Beautiful or Boy in a Blue Striped Pyjamas for example. And that is just unforgivable. It's unforgivable for two reasons. Firstly, it can (and often is) used by Holocaust deniers who claim that if some elements are fictional then everything is fictional. Secondly, it is a kind of betrayal of the memory of the millions who perished. A rare case where the director gets it right, is the deservedly praised film Son of Saul. It's radically innovative because it guides the viewer in real time, second by second with a hand-held camera, through an accurate reconstruction of what really happened. The viewer, therefore, can experience pretty much what the victim felt at that time in that place.

For me, a film which is even more compelling than Son of Saul is Jan Hřebejk's Divided We Fall (Czech: Musíme si pomáhat), released in 2000. Rather than the typical black and white portrayal of the Nazi nightmare, Hřebejk cleverly deploys a whole range of moral ambiguities in which the viewer is never certain who is wholly good and who is wholly bad. Therefore, even the hero, Joseph, who, at the risk of his own life, saves the Jewish David, has fatal flaws. To distract from the 'crime' of trying to save a human life, he is forced to collaborate with the Nazis even to the extent of confiscating the property of the deported. His wife, Mary, (make of the biblical names what you will!) also does everything possible to help save David's life. She is, however, shockingly compromised when circumstances force her to ignore her religious upbringing and violate the 7th commandment. Even the main villain, the caricature of Volksdeutsche collaborator, is not the typical clichéd Nazi thug that we have seen a thousand times. Surprisingly, Horst is capable of acts of humanity. Not missing from the complex moral spectrum of these characters, is Herr Kepke, the true Nazi, the representative of absolute evil. But even he is able to extract a little empathy from the audience when he has a stroke. Such is the power of human suffering. On the other hand, there is Franta Šimáček, a proud representative of the Czech Resistance, who outwardly parades his patriotism but, in a critical moment, loses his nerve and acts like a coward. In this respect, the film is a salutary reminder that appearances can often be deceptive.

In my view, it's the successful use of humour that makes this film unique among Holocaust films. This is a master-class in how to insert genuine tasteful humour into the most horrifying and harrowing of subjects.

The director's artistic vision of the moral intricacies of history is so ambitious, that it even encompasses a depiction of the afterlife. This delightful and unexpected coda (accompanied by the sublime Bach aria, St. Matthew's Passion) leaves the viewer dazzled and inspired. Seeing this film is special. Humbled and thankful, we emerge blinking into the light.

Zuzana Barakova is a Woolf Institute & University of Cambridge alumna. She undertook the MSt in the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations between 2009 and 2011. She also has a BA degree from UCL in Hebrew and Jewish Studies & a Masters from Tel Aviv University in Security and Diplomacy.

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