Tag Archives: Holocaust

Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

Just before I left the Philadelphia area, Ashley and I sat down to a romantic evening watching a Holocaust drama – namely, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Adrien Brody, who deservingly won an Oscar for his performance, is Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (duh) living in Warsaw during World War II. Brody is the film’s core, yet he’s never histrionic or larger than life; as a matter of fact, he’s smaller than life, as he grows more and more emaciated and is forced into tiny, claustrophobic spaces. It’s a very understated film that replaces the expected emotional outpours (see Schindler’s List) with muted reactions and muffled sobs.

Whereas Spielberg’s List almost becomes giddy with the process of duping the Nazis (sort of like a prestige version of Indiana Jones), Szpilman is always receding and taking anything he can get. There’s no room for huge gestures when a sip of water is a miracle. For long portions of the film, Brody barely says anything while his friends and family argue about possible courses of action. After he escapes the ghetto and is smuggled into a series of apartments, he becomes purely a survivalist, ultimately risking his life for a can of pickles. Szpilman’s story combines luck with animalistic perseverance because, as the film suggests, those two traits are necessary to survive.

If you’re like me, your ears pricked up when I said the word “apartment” back there, for it’s no coincidence that Polanski also directed the “Apartment Trilogy” of horror films (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Pianist is, perhaps surprisingly, very much of a piece with this earlier work – only this time around, Polanski’s paranoid, fidgety style is applied to real-life horrors experienced by the director himself, albeit in Krakow.

It’s useful, I think, to look at The Pianist as an autobiographical/historical companion to Polanki’s fiction-based films. It shares its basic characteristics with much of his filmography: a frightened individual must escape from an overarching conspiracy that s/he is powerless to stop and incapable of fully understanding. Rosemary crumbles physically and emotionally in the satanists’ hands; Jake is rendered speechless by Noah Cross’s unfathomable, wide-reaching evil; Trelkovsky is warped by the posthumous pull of Simone Choule’s habits; and Szpilman is reduced to a shadow of a man by the unyielding grip of the SS.

All of these fights are intrinsically unfair because the characters’ opponents are conspiratorial and nebulous. Szpilman and the others are just human beings, ordinary and alone, being oppressed by indestructible systems. This comparison clarifies Polanski’s view of the Nazis: they’re agents of horror with the scales tilted violently in their favor, able to gaze down with ease on Szpilman even as he tries to escape their field of vision. Imbalances in vision, and therefore knowledge, are vital to the conflict in Polanski’s films. Just think of Jake Gittes’s investigation in the first act of Chinatown as he peeks through spyglasses and cameras, not realizing that he’s being set up.

Szpilman is similarly myopic, but unlike Jake, it’s not because he’s too headstrong to see; instead, it’s because he’s an individual and hence unable to perceive the historic arc of the war surrounding him. All he can do is listen for immediate developments; the Nazis have too tight a lid on their future plans. (In one horrifying scene, a woman asks a Nazi officer, “Where are you taking us?” and he promptly shoots her.) The visual equivalent to this myopia is the keyhole shot.

The keyhole shot, in which an object is viewed through a narrowed scope akin to a silent film iris, is one of Polanski’s stylistic trademarks. It was the entire substance of his early film Toothy Smile and was most famously used to look at Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. In the shot pictured above – and, later on, through a crack in a hospital window – Szpilman struggles for a glimpse of the hostile outside world. Like Polanski’s other apartment-bound protagonists, he wants to keep up a protective barrier while still sizing up external threats. For Carole in Repulsion, that threat was a single young man; for Szpilman, it’s the carnage that engulfs Warsaw in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising.

It’s not just Szpilman’s relationship with his volatile wartime world that reminded me of the Apartment Trilogy. It’s also the way the denizens of that world are represented. The Nazis and their Polish allies take their position of authority over the Jews seriously to an absurd and irrational degree. One Nazi insists that Szpilman’s father walk in the gutter, a ridiculous request that suggests the ridiculousness of its historical context, and a landlady who demands Szpilman’s papers greatly resembles Shelley Winters’ bitchy concierge in The Tenant. The Jews in the ghetto, meanwhile, adapt to their grotesque situation in different ways – some by lashing out, some by grifting their neighbors, and some by turning inward like Szpilman.

Polanski’s presentation of the ghetto, in scenes like the one pictured above, is sometimes tinged with the very blackest of humor. These little ironies aren’t “ha ha” funny; they emphasize the utter, incomprehensible injustice of it all. Another example is when Szpilman is discovered by the Russians as they march into Poland, but is shot at because he’s wearing a Nazi officer’s coat. The Russians corner him, conclude that he’s Polish, and ask, “Then why the fucking coat?” Szpilman’s response almost sounds like a bleak punchline: “I’m cold.” His suffering is so obvious that pointing it out verges on comedy.

The Pianist is a film about the kafkaesque side of the Holocaust: about how it slowly descended on an unsuspecting family who didn’t realize its enormity until it was too late. Structurally, it’s very much like one of Polanski’s psychological horror movies or conspiracy thrillers, but greatly magnified, as the villains here have created an efficient killing machine that encompasses an entire continent. Szpilman could never stop the Nazi onslaught, but the film does hold out one saving grace. Despite the loss of his family and community, he does live to play the piano again. In Polanski’s world, which was partially shaped by firsthand experiences with the Holocaust, that’s the best you can hope for.

As a final treat, I noticed a few images that very clearly echoed Polanski’s other films. It can’t be coincidence that Szpilman is given a potato that has begun to sprout, identical to the symbolic tuber from Repulsion:

And it’s not surprising that the order-into-chaos image of papers scattering in the air would appeal to Polanski. Here’s a shot that appears to anticipate the ending of The Ghost Writer by nearly a decade:

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Visions of wartime: Casablanca and Maus

So, continuing my unintentional theme of art involving WWII, I think I’ll now add more about Claude Rains’ performance in Casablanca, and possibly touch on Art Spiegelman’s comics masterpiece Maus.

So, back to Captain Renault: as I was saying, he’s an appropriate intermediate between the city of Casablanca and the rest of the world. Rains plays him as happily corrupt, amoral, and indifferent; while he may sympathize with Rick as a friend, ultimately he “blow[s] with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” Renault takes Rick’s indifference and one-ups him by adding a layer of pleased detachment. While Rick may claim to stick his neck out for nobody, we know he has a soft heart, between his past underdog sympathies and his romantic fixation on Ilsa. But Renault really doesn’t stick his neck out – even with his famous line “Round up the usual suspects,” he’s not so much sacrificing himself (especially compared to Rick’s monumental self-sacrifice that immediately precedes it) as he is giving in to the prevailing wind, all with an air of absurd amusement.

The slippery, dissolute Captain Renault

While the “same old story / a fight for love and glory” may form the core of the film, it’s characters like Renault, hanging around in the periphery, who give it the bottomless appeal of a “classic” and make it the conventional epitome of classical Hollywood filmmaking. The film, after all, is titled after the city where it takes place, and with good reason: its denizens, corrupt or innocent, victims or villains, are its subject of inquiry, and Rick & Ilsa are only two out of many. As Rick tells her during the climax, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Casablanca is a city of in-betweens. It’s marginal: politically – stuck between Nazi-occupied France and Lisbon (the gateway to the free world) – and geographically, as it’s not quite Europe but not quite Africa.

In Casablanca, the baggage of the past is up for grabs as people can redefine their nationalities, political identities, and relationships with the law and other people. It’s also a cosmopolitan city, where refugees from all over Europe (and the world) pool their collective cultural and monetary resources. And in the middle of the middle is Rick, his status as a “drunkard” overwhelming any sense of national identity. My point is that, in the end, Casablanca is a story about people crossing borders, whether physical or political; whether of the law or of the heart. So it’s fitting that one of its funniest, most memorable characters should be Captain Renault, a perfect centrist, who blows with the wind between Vichy and Free France, shutting down Rick’s or covering up Major Strasser’s murder, and does it all with a knowing smile. I think this character is just one of those great mergers of writing and performance, where the right man is reading the right lines, in this case the multitalented Claude Rains.

So, that said, I now want to talk about one of the most-lauded works of graphic fiction ever written, Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The concept is surprisingly simple: Spiegelman’s father Vladek narrates the story of his life during the Holocaust, from the late ’30s until his transfer to Auschwitz (this is where volume I leaves off; Spiegelman published volume II five years later, but I have yet to read it). The book’s distinguishing conceit? The Jews are drawn as anthropomorphic mice; the Nazis are cats. (And Poles are pigs.) So the big question: why is Maus so great it became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer?

A feline Hitler presides over Jews in hiding

Where to start: Spiegelman’s storytelling techniques bring us deep into his and Vladek’s lives while the use of anthropomorphic animals creates the perfect amount of distance; it’s an amazingly achieved balancing trick. The story is simultaneously presented through Vladek’s voice and perspective as an old man who’s endured decades of pain and trauma (including the relatively recent suicide of his wife, who figures prominently both as a shadow cast over the present and a living person in the past) and also, through cross-hatched illustration, as an objective account of Jewish life under the Third Reich.

Maus is subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” and the first volume bears the additional title of “My Father Bleeds History.” I think the latter goes a long way toward introducing us to Maus‘s attitude toward the past. Spiegelman treats his parents’ stories as living things; volume I concludes with him castigating his father as a “murderer” for burning his mother’s old diaries. In addition to the storytelling sessions, we see Art and Vladek’s interactions in day to day life, and they’re constantly colored by the past. Art discusses Vladek’s miserliness with his stepmother Mala, another survivor, and the Holocaust is always lurking in the background.

The specter of anti-Semitism intrudes on Spiegelman's creative process

Any interaction with Vladek is like a puncture wound causing him to “bleed history”; writing Maus is like an attempt to let it run until the blood starts coagulating (i.e., the story is fully told). While Inglourious Basterds may ask nothing much deeper than “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”, Maus instead confronts the question of “How do we cope with the fact that…?” In Spiegelman’s present, the past is alive and well, an elephant in a room full of mice (if you’ll indulge the mixed metaphors). And depicting the Holocaust in cat-and-mouse terms is, I think, as valid a coping device as any. To use the great opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And our understanding of how “differently” they do things in the past is entirely reliant on finding the right port through which to enter that country – and in Spiegelman’s case, it’s through the lens of mice.

Much of Maus‘s effectiveness, I think, comes from this contrast: the mice do not speak or act like mice; they act like Jewish human beings. But it’s the superficial appearance that alters our perception. I’d compare the effect to George Orwell’s Animal Farm – maybe it’s easier to understand Stalin when he oinks and has a squiggly tail. But the crucial difference is that Maus isn’t an allegory; it’s a direct memoir. We’re told the plain, real-life facts of Vladek’s life during the Holocaust. The only difference is that Spiegelman draws the characters as mice. It’s just a question of how, exactly, we can best perceive this atrocity, and in this case, it could be that it’s just easier to comprehend the story with the Jews as mice than it is to handle seeing human forms straight out.

Historical realism meets recontextualized propaganda imagery

A few months ago, I wrote a mini-essay for a publication at my school entitled “Anthropomorphic animals in animation”; among the points I made are these:

I think it’s legitimate to say that children at some level can gravitate toward anthropomorphic animals (and sure, plants & objects) because they sympathize their position…

[W]e like seeing things and animals triumph over the destruction humanity hath wrought because we sympathize with their peril…

Ultimately, it’s ironic for Spiegelman to present the Jews – villainized as “ratlike” in so much Nazi propaganda – as mice who innocently conduct their day-to-day lives, only to be systematically rounded up and victimized by the militaristic cats. But he’s not writing “a child’s guide to the Holocaust” – it’s a brutally honest, explicit, personal, and devastating book that I think conveys the true horrors even better than, say, Schindler’s List. Whereas Spielberg’s Holocaust is somberly excessive, with one larger-than-life hero and one demonic villain, Spiegelman’s is the story of one flawed man among many who just wants to save himself and his family – so basically, a normal human forced to cope with tragically abnormal circumstances. It’s the story of a mouse, not a Schindler (i.e., a movie star).

I think I’ve said most of what I’m able to say about Maus for the moment though of course a lot more has already been and has yet to be said. It’s an endlessly fascinating document, a brilliant approach to a very difficult subject, and it’s of vital importance in remembering and comprehending a past that still touches all of us, Jew or goy, American or European, whatever. It’s a great book and if you haven’t yet I strongly recommend reading it.

Real trauma distorted through art

I just want to make one last point: embedded in the middle of Maus, and also featured in Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, is a short comic called “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” It’s a stark, expressionistic tale of his reaction to his mother’s suicide, painful and depressing, but powerful and not easily forgotten. I think it can resonate with the part of anyone that recalls the sting of a sudden, life-changing revelation, and it’s very fitting for it to reside within the pages of Maus. Spiegelman is just an incredible, talented, influential artist and I’m happy to have the opportunity to read his work; his successful experiments have proven beyond any doubt the cathartic capabilities that exist in comics.

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