Hashtag History: The Missteps of Young-Adult Holocaust Films

There is little danger of the Holocaust being forgotten; instead, we now face the thorny question of how artists do the remembering.
Dan Schindel

White Bird (Marc Forster, 2023).

The repeatedly delayed film White Bird, based on the 2019 graphic novel by R.J. Palacio, follows an elderly Jewish woman looking back on her youth in France during World War II, particularly the time she spent hiding from the Nazis. The framing is odd: She is telling this tale to impart a lesson to her grandson, a bully character from a different, earlier novel by Palacio, Wonder. Both stories are part of a wider fictive universe authored by Palacio, the “World of Wonder,” which comprises spinoff books, film adaptations, and merchandise, all branded with the poptimistic slogan/hashtag “Choose Kind.” A friendly schoolmate refusing to persecute White Bird’s protagonist for being Jewish is implicitly an example of “choosing kind,” divorced from any historically based understanding of solidarity or resistance to fascism. More problematically, White Bird has as its epigraph George Santayama’s famous quote “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—reducing one of the monumental tragedies of the 20th century to an object lesson for one rotten adolescent.

It is inevitable that as the Holocaust recedes into history, fewer artists will treat it as a hallowed subject. By now, those who directly experienced these events have nearly all passed away. We are approaching the precise circumstances which for decades motivated filmmakers like Claude Lanzmann and Steven Spielberg to fervently document and record the testimony of survivors. Their conviction was that these people’s stories would not die with them. “Never forget”—which ontologically ties memory to continuity—has been the animating sentiment. Despite continued denialism from fringe quarters, it appears that this mission has been accomplished. There is little danger of the Holocaust being forgotten. We now instead face the thorny question of how artists do the remembering. 

There’s no shortage of films about the Holocaust, but the ways they approach these events vary greatly. Some are ensconced in the canon, from The Shop on Main Street (1965) to The Pawnbroker (1964) to Schindler’s List (1993), helping to shape conventions around depictions of World War II and memory in cinema. In more recent prestige films like The Reader (2008), Never Look Away (2018), and Ida (2013), the Holocaust is a key event in the backstories of the leads. In Ida, this feels appropriate for the main character, a novitiate grappling with the revelation of her Jewish heritage. The Zone of Interest (2023) makes the immediate surroundings of Auschwitz (but pointedly, not its interior) the setting for a haunting study of the banality of evil. Less successful is Never Look Away, which in fictionalizing the life of Gerhard Richter posits some truly facile, blunt connections between trauma and art. Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Black Book (2006) freely play with history and the war and spy genres, remixing familiar tropes and our knowledge of the real events (in the case of the former, to the point of gleeful counterfactual revisionism). But when tragic history mixes with cloying, thuddingly obvious filmmaking, it can spawn disaster.

Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997).

The idea of bungling the Holocaust onscreen used to be fraught enough to spark endless industry chatter. Looming over this topic is Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried, cinema’s most infamous unfinished work. Meant to feature Lewis as a clown press-ganged into luring children into a gas chamber in a concentration camp, the movie was shut down during principal photography due to production mishaps, a mismanaged budget, and rights issues. Subsequently, it became legendary for its rumored bathos. Harry Shearer, one of the few to see a rough cut of the film, thought it so bad as to be “a perfect object,” calling it “so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy … so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.” In the more than 50 years since the project was shelved and the footage locked away, multiple films that could similarly be described as possessing “wildly misplaced pathos” have been released—sometimes to acclaim.

An early example of the hazards of the Holocaust film is Life Is Beautiful (1997), which was extremely successful and lauded with many awards, but was also met with dissension over whether it was appropriate for writer/director/star Roberto Benigni to introduce whimsy to concentration camp life. He handled the material in a manner not dissimilar to The Day the Clown Cried: Benigni plays a man who shepherds his son through their internment by making him think the experience is one big game. A few years earlier, Schindler’s List unfortunately set the precedent that tackling the Holocaust could be a viable ticket to Oscar gold, and Life Is Beautiful codified the trend. In this line of well-budgeted pictures mounted with an eye toward glossy respectability—and subsequently feted with handsome box office returns and awards—we also see The Pianist (2002), The Counterfeiters (2007), and Ida. Those three films are aligned with the points of view of Jewish characters—moreover, The Counterfeiters and The Pianist are based on true stories, with the latter also directly informed by director Roman Polanski’s experience surviving the Holocaust. 

Over time, though, the genre has broadened beyond the experiences of victims and survivors. In a way, Schindler presaged this by foregrounding a righteous gentile. This shift brought titles with dubious methods of representation. The Reader focuses on a perpetrator, a former concentration camp guard who’s posited as sympathetic because she’s illiterate. (Kate Winslet’s Oscar win for this was perversely foretold in her guest spot on the satirical series Extras, in which she explicitly says she’s doing a Holocaust film to finally win the statuette.) Meanwhile, Son of Saul (2015) approaches Auschwitz as a playground for a formal roller coaster. The movie is full of self-consciously, showily difficult tricks, like long takes and “artfully” selective focus-pulling. It’s all very impressive, which becomes more than a little perverse when considering the subject matter.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman, 2008).

Then there are films tied to the recent boom in young-adult literature, such as White Bird, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), and The Book Thief (2013). We have come a long way from Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, which was written simply but addressed the smuggling of Jews in German-occupied Denmark in a way that didn’t talk down to kids. Lowry renders her young protagonists with basic signifiers to help a contemporary audience identify with them (a bratty little sister, for example), before throwing them into a harrowing encounter with the Nazis. It is as instructional in intent as White Bird, but trusts a young reader to intuit the lesson rather than beat them over the head with belabored parallels to the present.

The first warning shot in this genre was Mark Heyman’s cringe-inducingly goopy The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, about a German boy who befriends a Jewish boy imprisoned in a nearby camp. Historians have severely criticized both the film and the original book by John Boyne, and the Auschwitz Museum has cautioned people against reading the book on multiple occasions. The film perpetuates the myth of broader German ignorance and non-culpability during the war. The idea that a child of an SS officer not only harbors no antisemitism but doesn’t even know what a Jew is strains credulity. The film avoids naming the camp, a maddening rejection of specificity which is supposed to make the story feel somehow more universal, but which instead makes it more generic, reinforcing the idea of “the Holocaust” as a kind of all-purpose historical backdrop rather than a complex event. The book, at least, names the camp as Auschwitz. Here, the story’s pandering to the characters’ supposed beautiful innocence is undone by the basic, brutal fact that a Jewish child most likely would have been murdered right after arrival at the camp, with no opportunity to form any heartwarming friendships. One 2022 survey found that 35 percent of teachers in Britain used the book in lessons on the Holocaust. Such cultural penetration, fantastic sales, and a robust box-office take for the film speak louder than any concerns from experts. 

Since then, we’ve seen trend-chasers like the atrocious Where Hands Touch (2018), which addresses the sorely under-explored subject of Afro-Germans during the war by positing a star-crossed love story between a biracial girl and a member of the Hitler Youth. Once again, the plot devices deployed to make a member of the Nazi death machine sympathetic uncannily rhyme with postwar attempts to absolve the broader German populace, such as the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht.” The boy regurgitates Nazi rhetoric about Jews, but is redeemed by his interest in Black culture and love for a Black girl. He is shown as an innocent whose honest nationalism is being exploited, as if there was such a thing as innocent, honest German nationalism. Like in White Bird, the Holocaust is invoked to an aggravatingly mundane end; here, the real tragedy seems to be that it came between these soulmates.

Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019).

But no YA-flavored work trips over its good intentions as badly as Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (2019). This is a film whose promoters viewed the general public with such condescension that it was explicitly marketed as “An anti-hate satire.” (What exactly would be a pro-hate satire?) Despite this, Jojo Rabbit is one of the most unintentionally pro-Nazi movies ever made. Like The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Where Hands Touch, its attempts to humanize Nazis lead it to dark places. Turning army officers and Hitler Youth into inoffensive bumblers who mindlessly repeat propaganda with no conviction in racism or fascism, Waititi’s script makes them nearly golly-gee sympathetic. Several even get heroic exits, facing down invading Americans with dramatic flair; Sam Rockwell’s captain is apparently not so bad because he’s hiding his homosexuality. The title character’s love of Hitler is rendered via the leader himself appearing to him as his imaginary friend, a suitably infantile understanding of the fascist mindset. This make-believe Hitler is played by Waititi, the assumption being that embodying the avatar of white supremacism through a man of Jewish and Indigenous descent is automatically subversive. But this is left only to the metatext, and Waititi’s actual performance is characterized by generic buffoonery that’s a pale shadow of the feat Chaplin performed in The Great Dictator (1940), a movie nearly eight decades older that’s far more cutting and urgent. Jojo overcomes his brainwashing through his love of Elsa, the Jewish girl whom his mother is hiding in their attic, placing the burden on an oppressed people to patiently make others recognize and accept their basic humanity. For this, Waititi won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Jojo Rabbit is also based on a book, Christine Leunens’s Caging Skies, and its differences from the source material are instructive. Leunens never coddles the main character; rather than remaining a winsome moppet, he ages into a teen and then a young adult over the course of the story. (Notably, he’s never called “Jojo,” only his proper name, Johannes.) He refrains from turning over Elsa not out of love or morality, but confused lust. He does not come to understand her as a human being, but as a possession to be guarded. His love of Hitler (who is not present in the book as a wacky figment of his imagination) never wavers, even after the war. The boy lies to Elsa that the Nazis have triumphed to keep her in hiding for years after Germany’s surrender. Leunens draws vivid discomfort out of this scenario, crafting a metaphor for the persistent evil that simmered in the country even after its supposed reform. Johannes never repents. But in the transition to the screen, he became Jojo, fundamentally harmless and lovable, apologized for and embraced by filmmakers claiming to be against the hate he nurtures. In the film, Jojo’s deception is brief, and he admits the truth to Elsa, who slaps him but then immediately forgives him, and it ends with the pair dancing in the streets to David Bowie. In the book, she figures everything out on her own and immediately leaves Johannes, who ends the story bitter and alone.

To justify their productions, Waititi and others have cited surveys of young people that suggest generational ignorance of the Holocaust, but awareness is a weak baseline for education and offers no guarantee of true, nuanced understanding. If you so choose, you may now visit a Holocaust museum, “Voices of the Forgotten,” in Fortnite. This enterprise is an extension of Fortnite’s expansion to incorporate “experiences” beyond its Battle Royale mode, in line with its famous virtual concerts. Learning lessons from the disastrous “March Through Time” event, which let players onto a recreation of the National Mall during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “Voices of the Forgotten” does not allow the use of emotes (short expressive gestures, often dances). Yet the fact that one still can peruse this museum in the skin of Batman, Rick Sanchez, or a Star Wars clone trooper renders the experience absurd nonetheless. And restrictions cut both ways—creator Luc Bernard boasts that this is a Holocaust memorial that can’t be defaced, but because of publisher Epic Games’s standards regarding violent content, this is also a Holocaust museum that can’t show any photos of concentration camps. 

The professed motivation of “Voices of the Forgotten” is to educate the youth, presuming their ignorance without attempting to build understanding of the Holocaust. But the parameters of Fortnite, a shooter game in which players dress up as colorful pop culture characters, are not conducive to serious historical study. The project is steeped in lurid invocation of atrocity yet bizarrely sanitized, abandons the deep interlocked vagaries of history for simplistic narratives, and is self-congratulatory over “raising awareness” without seeking to build understanding. There is a rich tradition of thoughtful, rigorously considered, emotionally honest cinema about the Holocaust—ranging from The Pawnbroker’s blistering portrait of trauma to Shoah (1985) and its epic assemblage of oral history. But these were works that were in one way or another informed by lived experience. Removed from this, pop culture has less of a handle on the events. Fortnite portends a dismal possible future for artistic representations of history, even beyond repackaging the Holocaust as YA fare. What if, eventually, the Holocaust is just another piece of intellectual property?

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Jerry LewisRoberto BenigniTaika WaititiMarc ForsterMark HermanAmma Asante
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