Early in Agnieszka Holland’s Academy Award-nominated film, In Darkness—which opens in theaters today—Socha, the movie’s Polish hero, stumbles upon a group of Nazis herding naked Jewish women into a forest clearing to be shot (it’s a Holocaust movie, this is not a spoiler). Their pale flesh stands out amidst the gray bark of the surrounding trees, some of the bodies Rubenesque, some more withered. It’s beautiful, their bodies like some kind of early Impressionistic rendering, almost two-dimensional; a Manet scene gone dreadfully wrong.
At just that moment I realized: No More Holocaust Films. For me, anyway. I know going into them, as we all do, that there will be atrocious and stunning acts of violence on display. There will, likely, be some romance and a hero whose flaws humanize him. Holland is a seasoned and talented director—if there is a Holocaust film to see this year, hers will be the one (Daphne Merkin reviewed the film for Tablet Magazine in December).
Later in the film, there is a Passover scene, in which Jews—hiding, with Socha’s help, in the sewers of Lvov—read from the Hagaddah and eat matzoh. I was reminded of a seder at my parents’ house where a non-Jewish attendee asked about the passage “Pour Out thy Wrath,” an expression of desire for revenge on all enemies of the Jews (which means, really, on all non-Jews). My father explained that Jews historically recited this passage during periods of oppression to give themselves a brief opportunity to pretend that they were, in fact, empowered.
I wondered during Holland’s film about the vicarious glee filmmakers and viewers feel in watching anti-Jewish violence. I know the arguments about never forgetting; that making movies or writing books about the Holocaust is a way to keep these memories alive. But books—libraries full of them—have been written. Plenty of good films (bad ones, too) have been made, and this output will endure. Why do we need fresh entries at this point? Is anyone truly going to see In Darkness to learn about war-time atrocities? Or are they driven by some pornographic instinct?
Maybe we go to Holocaust films for a different reason altogether. It’s not okay to yank the hairs out of the beard of a Jew or to shoot a Jewish woman dead in the forest any longer. Yet malevolent impulses endure; prejudice does too. When, thankfully, we know better than to express these feelings in real life, we turn to art for vicarious thrills. And Holland and Spielberg and countless others are willing and able to satisfy.