[Delivered at Lunds University on 15th 1999.]
The success of Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful seems to mark the beginning of a new sub-genre or at least a new trend: the holocaust comedies. It was followed by Jacob the Liar with Robin Williams, the remake of the old GDR classic about the owner of a small shop in the ghetto who pretends to have a hidden radio-receiver and regularly tells his terrified fellows uplifting news about approaching German defeat that he allegedly learned from the radio. Forthcoming is the American release of the Rumanian The Train of Hope, the story of the residents of a small Jewish community who, when the Nazis occupy the country and plan to transport them to the extermination camp, organize a fake train with Nazi guards, board it and, of course, insteads of the camp, take the ride to freedom. Significantly, all three films are centered on a lie that allows the threatened Jews to survive their ordeal.
The key to this trend is provided by the obvious failure of its opposite, the holocaust tragedy. There is a scene which condenses all that is false in Spielberg, although many a critic praised it as the strongest scene in Schindler’s List, containing the “Oscar winning” performance by Ralph Fiennes: the scene, of course, in which the commander of the concentration camp confronts a beautiful Jewish girl, his prisoner. We listen to his long quasi-theatrical monologue, while the terrified girl just silently stares in front of her, totally immobilized by mortal fear: while she attracts him sexually, he finds her unacceptable as his love object due to her Jewish origins. In this battle between the human erotic attraction and the racist hatred, racism wins the day and he casts off the girl.
The tension of this scene consists in the radical incommensurability between the two subjective perspectives: what is for him the light-hearted flirt with the idea of a brief sexual affair is for her the question of life and death. We see the girl as an utterly terrified human being, while the man is not even directly addresing her, but rather treating her as an object, a pretext for his loud monologue… So what is so thoroughly false here? The fact that the scene presents a (psychologically) impossible position of enunciation of its subject: it renders his split attitude towards the terrified Jewish girl as his direct psychological self-experience. The only way correctly to render this split would have been to stage the scene in a Brechtian way, with the actor playing the Nazi villain directly addressing the public: “I, the commander of the concentration camp, find this girl sexually very attractive; I can do with my prisoners whatever I want, so I can rape her with impunity. However, I am also impregnated by the racist ideology which tells me that Jews are filthy and unworthy of my attention. So I do not know how to decide…”
The falsity of Schindler’s List is thus the same as the falsity of those who seek the clue to the horrors of Nazism in the “psychological profiles” of Hitler and other Nazi figures. Here, Hannah Arendt was right in her otherwise problematic thesis on the “banality of Evil”: if we take Adolf Eichmann as a psychological entity, a person, we discover nothing monstrous about him – he was just an average bureaucrat, his “psychological profile” gives us no clue to the horrors he executed. Along the same lines, it is totally misleading to investigate the psychic traumas and oscillations of the camp commander in the way Spielberg does. The way out of the predicament seems to be to turn to comedy which, at least, accepts in advance its failure to render the horror of the holocaust. Paradoxical as it may sound, the rise of the holocaust comedies is thus strictly correlative to the elevation of the holocaust into the metaphysical diabolical Evil – the ultimate traumatic point at which the objectifying historical knowledge breaks down and has to acknowledge its worthlessness in front of a single witness, and, simultaneously, the point at which witnesses themselves had to concede that words fail them, that what they can share is ultimately only their silence. Holocaust in advance disqualifies all (explanatory) answers – it cannot be explained, visualized, represented, transmitted, since it marks the black hole, the implosion of the (narrative) universe. Accordingly, any attempt to locate it in its context, to politicize it, equals the anti-Semitic negation of its uniqueness.
However, this very depoliticization of the holocaust, its elevation into the properly sublime Evil, can also be a political act of utter cynical manipulation, a political intervention aiming at legitimizing a certain kind of hierarchical political relations. First, it is part of the postmodern strategy of depoliticization and/or victimization: is holocaust not the supreme proof that to be human today means to be a victim, not an active political agent? Second, it disqualifies forms of the Third World violations of human rights for which Western states are (co)responsible as minor in comparison with the Absolute Evil of the holocaust. Third, it serves to cast a shadow on every radical political project, i.e. to reinforce the Denkverbot (prohibition to think) against the radical political imagination: “Are you aware that what you propose ultimately leads to the holocaust?” In short: notwithstanding the unquestionable sincerity of some of its proponents, the “objective” ideologico-political content of the depoliticization of the holocaust, of its elevation into the abyssal absolute Evil, is the political pact of the aggressive Zionists and the Western Rightist anti-Semites at the expense of TODAY’s radical political potentials.
No wonder, then, that no one, not even the most severe keepers of the flame of the Absolute Evil, was offended by Life Is Beautiful, the story of an Italian Jewish father who, in Auschwitz, he adopts a desperate strategy of shielding his young son from the trauma by presenting him what goes on as a staged competition in which you must stick to the rules (eat as little as possible, etc.) – those who win the most points will at the end see an American tank arriving. The miracle of the film is that the father succeeds in maintaining the appearance to the end: even when, just before the liberation of the camp by the Allies, he is led away by a German soldier to be shot, he winks at his son (hidden in a nearby closet) and starts to march a goose-step in a comically-exaggerated way, as if playing a game with the soldier…