The fourth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s HBO comedy series, is over, but people are still talking about its second-to-last episode, “The Survivor,” which upends traditional views of everything from adultery to the afterlife. The episode’s centerpiece is a dinner party celebrating the renewal of Larry and Cheryl’s wedding vows. Colby Donaldson, one of the stars of the reality series Survivor and a friend of Larry’s rabbi, captures the attention of family and friends with his stories of deadly snakebites in the Australian outback. Suddenly, a withered man with a glass eye interrupts. “Let me tell you, I was in a concentration camp. You never even suffered one minute in your life compared to what I went through,” says Solly, a friend of Larry’s father. The conversation quickly devolves into a competition:
COLBY: We had very little rations, no snacks.
SOLLY: Snacks, what are you talking snacks? We didn’t eat, sometimes for a week, for a month….
COLBY: Have you even seen the show?
SOLLY: Did you ever see our show? It was called the Holocaust!
With civility out the window, each of them shouts, “I’m a survivor!” “I’m a survivor!”
scene from ‘The Survivor,’ an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm
It would be dangerous to dig too deeply into “The Survivor”—most of the show’s dialogue is improvised around a basic storyline—but the setup is perfectly timed. Given David’s talent for engineering scenarios as uncomfortable as they are improbable, there’s no telling whether he knew the episode would air the same week as the release of the Schindler’s List DVD, ten years after Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus won the Oscar. It’s a situation as twisted as Colby and Solly at the same dinner table, and not only because Spielberg and David approach the Holocaust from opposite ends of the artistic spectrum. A promo on the DVD touts the latest documentary project of the Shoah Foundation, established by Spielberg with proceeds from Schindler’s List, as “the ultimate reality TV.”
Larry David has a history with Schindler’s List. He cowrote a memorable 1994 episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry gets caught making out with a girlfriend during the movie. For all the outrage their behavior provokes, they might as well have made out at an actual concentration camp. “I for one will not allow my daughter to be involved with someone of such weak moral fiber,” her father tells Jerry. The joke rings true after ten years; Schindler’s List still feels less like a night at the movies than a moral obligation. It’s not just mothers like Helen Seinfeld—”You have to see it,” she tells Jerry—who made Schindler’s List a pseudo-sacred event: Spielberg frames the film in religious ritual, beginning with the lighting of the Sabbath candles and ending with the surviving Schindler Jews placing rocks on Oskar Schindler’s headstone.
Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List
The new DVD also suggests that Schindler’s List is more important than most Hollywood films because it is more real. Spielberg took pains to make Schindler’s List seem authentic in every way, whether it meant shooting in black-and-white or filming at the gates of Auschwitz. “I tried to be as close to a journalist in recording this re-creation,” Spielberg writes in the accompanying pamphlet. A behind-the-scenes featurette would only destroy the illusion. Instead of the usual extras, we get a 10-minute commercial for the Shoah Foundation, and Voices From the List, a moving if unoriginal 70-minute compilation of testimonies from real Schindler Jews.
In the introduction to Voices, Spielberg presents the Shoah Foundation, which has collected 52,000 survivor testimonies and now works to educate young people, as a direct response to Schindler’s List. By gathering testimony, Spielberg wants to help them “to survive a second time, in a sense, to survive forever”—in a sense, outdoing Schindler. Yet Voices feels suspiciously like footnotes to Schindler’s List, substantiating the movie, detail by detail, while exposing its limitations; for all its verisimilitude, Schindler’s List represents the horrors of the Holocaust and the humanity of Schindler without trying to explain either.
Spielberg has shifted his attention from Schindler’s List to survivors, and so has David. Holocaust humor is hardly new to American culture or Curb Your Enthusiasm: the first episode found Larry calling his wife Cheryl “Hitler” to the outrage of his manager’s parents. The entire fourth season is built around Mel Brooks hiring Larry to play Max Bialystock in The Producers—a hit musical based on the movie about an intentionally awful musical about Hitler. As the real Producers continues to play to sold-out audiences, Holocaust humor hardly seems taboo, but mocking Hitler isn’t the same as satirizing survivors.
In the final episode of the third season, Larry hires and then hesitates to fire a Tourettic chef, mostly because he appears to have a number tattooed on his arm. Later Larry learns it had only been the chef’s lottery number, jotted down in pen and easily rubbed away. The joke is on Larry—along with the audience—for making an assumption about the chef and treating him differently because of it. Likewise, Solly in “The Survivor” may not be an especially likable character, but he is startlingly human. Paranoid, self-centered, angry, and inappropriate—all the things we love and hate about Larry. Solly may have suffered more than Colby or anyone else can know, but it doesn’t make him a saint.
Larry David isn’t just satirizing Holocaust survivors; he’s satirizing a culture of victimhood—a culture that reveres trauma and the traumatized at the same time it enjoys the schadenfreude expressed in “reality” contests like Survivor and mock-reality television like Curb Your Enthusiasm. The joke may be played to its extreme on Colby, who thinks suffering is life without sneakers, toilet paper, or a personal trainer, but there’s something recognizable in his ignorance. Earlier in the episode, Larry’s rabbi says his brother-in-law died on 9/11—in a run-in with a bike messenger on 57th Street. Suffering becomes so revered on the one hand and so trivalized on the other that victimhood becomes a kind of victory. How can a culture that knows survival as an elaborate game show possibly understand the true depths of the Holocaust?
Like David’s show, many sequences of Schindler’s List were shot with a handheld camera, in vérité style. Yet Spielberg’s reality is always more myth than history: Schindler, Amon Goeth, the Jews, and the Germans are not real people; they’re symbols, stand-ins for good and evil, innocence and guilt. Larry David may not provide any brilliant insights into the Holocaust or the minds of its victims, but at least he breaks down some of the walls surrounding its discussion. A decade after Schindler’s List, it is the cynical comedian, not the reverent dramatist, who has us thinking seriously about the Holocaust, even if it means disrupting dinner.