Magazine article The Spectator

We Are Fast Forgetting How to Be Guilty about the Past

Magazine article The Spectator

We Are Fast Forgetting How to Be Guilty about the Past

Article excerpt

Kate Williams says that Tarantino's reduction of Nazi atrocities to entertainment is part of a dangerous trend in which the great evils of history become show business

One of this summer's big screen openings is Quentin Tarantino's hyperbolic battle movie, Inglourious Basterds.

Featuring Brad Pitt demanding his men search for '100 Nazi scalps', this ironic shootfest is bloody, explosive, rowdily entertaining - and a fantasy. 'You haven't seen war, ' screams the trailer, 'until you have seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino.' As the pound falls and Germany under Merkel is resurgent, 2009 is the year in which our representations of the Third Reich and the second world war have turned towards areas that we would have seen as excessive only a few years back.

At a time when we are seemingly more obsessed with Hitler than ever, Tarantino has released an historical film in which history is irrelevant. Now, when most of those who fought in the 1940s are dead, the war is becoming not so much a memory, but a series of images, as fit for creative revision and ridicule as the Boleyn sisters and Henry VIII.

'We are going to laugh at Hitler, ' declared Max Falk, the manager of the Admiral Theatre in Berlin, on the first staging of Mel Brooks's musical The Producers in May.

German audiences had never been exposed to a goose-stepping Hitler singing 'Heil Myself' and dancing stormtroopers. For Falk, the production was a 'great step forward for Germany'.

Brooks's tale of two New Yorkers creating the most tasteless musical possible in order to fleece their backers is a piquant comment on modern culture. The weighty seriousness of films focusing on the victims of the Holocaust such as Schindler's List and Sophie's Choice seems a thing of the past.

Now, if seriousness is present at all, it is confined to examining the roots of evil - and even excusing those who committed the atrocities. Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (2004), evoking the intimate life of Hitler's bunker, made audiences weep across Europe, and this year we have watched Kate Winslet as a former Auschwitz officer in The Reader, Tom Cruise as a would-be assassin of Hitler in Valkyrie, and Viggo Mortensen as a liberal professor seduced by the Third Reich in Good. Arguably the most important American literary novel of 2009 so far is Jonathan Littell's attempt to write as a SS officer in The Kindly Ones, winner of the Prix Goncourt in France.

Less successful was Fugitive Pieces, the film of Anne Michaels's sensitive portrayal of living in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

The novel won the 1997 Orange Prize but society and culture have altered much in the past ten years. Now we have Tarantino showing Hitler shrieking - and that wins profit and prizes.

All this comes when Germany is changing. Recent surveys suggest that the country's youth are putting guilt behind them.

The old prohibitions against its troops are over, there are thousands of German soldiers in Afghanistan, and Germany is lobbying for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Germans themselves make films about other aspects of their long and fascinating history, such as The Lives of Others, and the forthcoming biopic of Goethe.

But the English-speaking world is more obsessed with the Third Reich than ever.

Whether we show SS officers as decent men caught up in an inhuman system, or evil and deserving of death as in Inglourious Basterds, Nazis win column inches and awards.

Theodor Adorno argued that artists should not represent the Holocaust because the very act of turning such horrors into art would confer upon them elegance - and mask the true terror. …

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