Monday, 24 May 2010

Holocaust films and the issue of repeat viewing.

Films about the Holocaust are placed in a fairly unique category. There is no doubt that classic films, some of the best of the last 20 years, have been made on the subject. But, by their very nature and the sheer brutality of the subject matter they become extremely difficult to watch. This is far from being a criticism; telling the stories of the Holocaust is highly necessary and cinema has a crucial role to play in ensuring we never forget the evil acts of the concentration camps and ghettos. Several generations have passed since the Second World War, and though the younger of us will probably never have the slightest inkling of its horror, we can at least begin to get a grasp of it through cinema.

Once we have seen these events put on screen, they become very difficult to watch again. I know many people who regard Schindler's List as a brilliant film but very few who have seen it more than once or twice. Indeed, I have relatives from Germany who cannot bring themselves to watch these films at all; a mistake in my eyes. Even Life is Beautiful, which made the audacious attempt to derive comedy from the harshest of situations makes difficult repeat viewing.

It is here that we come to a film that somehow manages to buck this trend, despite including one of the most brutal and shocking scenes imaginable. I refer to The Pianist, a film that was showing late at night on television last week. I happened to stumble on this film at the exact moment this scene takes place; an elderly man in a wheelchair is mercilessly dumped from a fifth story window before scores of innocent Jews are gunned down. It is arguably the most shocking moment in the film, yet it is utterly believable and leaves you dumbstruck by its power. I watched the film in its entirety yet again. The Pianist is a film that is no less shocking than any other Holocaust film, indeed it is more so than most, but it is a film that demands repeat viewing.

By shifting the attention away from the concentration camps to the squalor and destitute setting of the ghettos, The Pianist created an angle on the Holocaust we had seen little of before. We witnessed strong, proud characters slowly realising the desperation and hopelessness of their situation. In Adrien Brody (in perhaps the finest performance of the 21st century so far) we see a supremely talented man resorting to a desperate struggle for survival. The Pianist is the most human and personal of Holocaust films; the atrocities of the Nazis play second fiddle to the strength and resilience of the Jewish characters. Where The Pianist bears repeat viewing where others can not is that it works as more than a dramatic account of the horrors of the Holocaust, it works simply as a film. It may not be enjoyable to watch in the conventional sense, but the strong characterisation and pathos evoke a range of emotions that make re-experiencing it once in a while necessary, if traumatic.

The scene in question is below. If you haven't seen it in the context of the film, I urge you to watch The Pianist in its entirety. Be warned, its shocking stuff:

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