Academic journal article Shofar

"Show Me the Shoah!": Generic Experience and Spectatorship in Popular Representations of the Holocaust

Academic journal article Shofar

"Show Me the Shoah!": Generic Experience and Spectatorship in Popular Representations of the Holocaust

Article excerpt

This essay explores the relationship between the textual features of popular cultural artifacts pertaining to the Holocaust and the circumstances of their reception. Comparative cultural studies methods are deployed in analyzing a film, Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997); a children's book, Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches (1961); and the Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind.

I. Introduction

Critical attacks on films like Schindlers List (Steven Spielberg 1993) proceed from the assumption that a populist form like the melodramatic cinema does injustice to the victims of Nazi genocide. However, there may be generic strategies that ate just as moving intellectually ptecise, or important as the "proper" representations of the Holocaust - solemn and reverent - found in the documentary, Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955). While it is certainly possible, and indeed currently in cultural practice, to do damage to the victims of the Shoah - as the case of the Holocaust deniers attests - there are a number of other well-known texts which deserve academic recognition as significant representations of this particularly heinous event in human history. Tb rescue these popular texts will require paying attention to reception contexts rather than only placing critical emphasis on their form and content.

One can have a profoundly important experience with either Schindlers List or Night and Fog if one brings to bear a working combination of emotional and intellectual acumen. But, just as important, one can have a devastatingly inappropriate response, as in the case of the high school students who laughed during depictions of Nazi atrocities at a screening of Schindlers List, prompting Spielberg himself to appear before the students in a valiant attempt to transform the authence reaction to his well-meaning, if flawed, film.1 In my own classroom screenings of even short selections from Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), initial student response is inevitably that it is "boring." These brief pedagogical anecdotes reveal that, even with the most solemn texts, we must struggle to construct the most beneficial conditions for our students to learn about, and react to, the historical events which gave rise to the Holocaust. There are alternative texts that may prove at least as useful in conveying the horrors of this time to a world which consists now almost exclusively of individuals who have no immediate personal connection to these events.

Steven Alan Carr has defined contemporary America's "Literal Correctness" as a tendency of the culture to rely only on "common sense," or social science poll data, for making claims about political and textual meaning. In his 2002 analysis of Peter Jackson's film, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), he sees an allegory for President Bush's antics in Afghanistan. In terms of Holocaust culture, this Literal Correctness indeed holds sway; only the "surface" experiences of the Holocaust (the grim realities of the camps) and not any allegorical engagements with its deeper meaning, are the appropriate domain of representation.2 In his discussion of Holocaust comedy, Sheng-mei Ma refers to a "post-Holocaust interdiction . . . against comedy [which] arises from the Holocaust discourse which encourages certain literary and artistic strategies while condemning others."3 To combine Ma's and Carr's terms to form this paper's method, the post- Holocaust interdiction uses the litmus test of Literal Correctness to approve of the proper representations of the Holocaust, denying a place for work which requires more allegorical analysis.

I propose then to discard the notion that some representations of the Holocaust ought not to be attended, and instead focus on the cultural climate in which such representations are received. As the anecdote of Spielberg's screening of Schindlers List indicates, it is as critical to grapple with a spectators engagement with a text as to consider the content of the text itself. …

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