Academic journal article Post Script

The "Sub-Epidermic" Shoah: Barton Fink, the Migration of the Holocaust, and Contemporary Cinema

Academic journal article Post Script

The "Sub-Epidermic" Shoah: Barton Fink, the Migration of the Holocaust, and Contemporary Cinema

Article excerpt

"Like the particles of dust filling the air in Tile Grey Zone, images and themes from the Holocaust permeate popular culture" (1)--Lawrence Baron

"Migrating images from the Holocaust appear in movies that are not about World War II and the murdering of the Jewish people. They are more and more used as universal icons for atrocities and emerge in various genres of popular cinema. This is not limited to war films, of which the Holocaust is an important reference point for epitomizing the barbarity of war and terror" (2)--Tony Ebbrecht

This essay explores a new phase of the Holocaust genre in film. Starting with Tobias Ebbrecht's observation above, I argue that the migration of the Holocaust away from films which are not about World War II and the genocide of the Jewish people, has expanded both quantitatively and qualitatively in contemporary cinema, particularly since 1990, moving beyond its simple usage "as universal icons for atrocities" or for "epitomizing the barbarity of war and terror." After setting out the context in which these changes have occurred, I explore their impact through close textual analysis of Barton Fink (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 1991) as a representative example of this shift, to argue that there is a clear phenomenon in which the Holocaust has now migrated far beyond the confines of serious or historical drama.

While the migration of the Holocaust in film began much earlier than 1990, what has changed is the sheer numbers and nature of these representations. Namely, the Holocaust has become normalized or casualized in film, which, in turn, has rendered it "matter of fact," ordinary, even quotidian. Indeed, one might go as far as to say that, at times, the Holocaust appears as "gratuitous" and "superfluous." There is certainly a clear tendency to render the Holocaust something other than the main point of its presence in the story. Often, in the past, in order to see the Holocaust onscreen, films with a significant and overt Holocaust content had to be viewed. Since 1990, however, there are a growing number of films in which the addition of the Holocaust is neither essential nor intrinsic to the trajectory of the story, plot, or narrative arc, except perhaps to remove a clue to be deciphered by those who understand the cultural codes. It is not confined to any one country, although it is particularly evident in America--the focus of this article--the paradigmatic example of Jewish filmmaking given the sheer volume of Jewish-related films emerging from the U.S. As has been argued elsewhere (3), since 1990 films about Jews together with representations of Jews across the world not only multiplied but also took on a new form, which, within the context of a century of cinema, marked a departure from the past. There had been a steady flow of such representations, particularly since the late 1960s, but from 1990 onwards, it became a veritable flood. What has changed since 1990 are the sheer numbers of films, but also they are less pockmarked by the contradictions of the 1960s and 1970s in which there was a retreat into affectionate, schmaltzy, and sentimental nostalgia, as symbolized by Fiddler on the Roof (dir. Norman Jewison, USA, 1971) on the one hand, with neurotic, anxious stereotypes, as mastered by Woody Allen, whose richest period was from 1971-89 on the other hand, or a combination of both, as depicted in the parodies and black comedies of Mel Brooks.

Furthermore, they "essentially continued the 1970s trend of unselfconscious representations of Jewishness, while also occasionally making possible deeper and more nuanced treatments of specific themes." (4) Given the predominance of Hollywood in general and in Jewish films in particular, this trend was particularly evident in America where Vincent Brook observed a "postmodern surge in American films featuring Jewish main characters and Jewish themes" (5) and Harry Medved (6) proclaimed a "new wave" in US Jewish film. …

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