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Fables of Assimilation

‘Leopoldstadt’ and ‘The Fabelmans’

Marco Roth
December 20, 2022
A Wandering Jew
Marco Roth on literature and culture in exile.
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Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Now in old age, Tom Stoppard—knight of the British Empire and author of transformative pieces of postwar modern theater Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Thing, and Arcadia, as well as the screenwriter of Terry Gilliam’s classic 1980s dystopia, Brazil— has turned his attention to a tragedy of origins, namely his own. The result, Leopoldstadt (which premiered in London in January of 2020) is a play of great relevance to the current cultural conversation around antisemitism in Britain, touched off by the media’s unrelenting focus on the internal politics of the British Labour Party during the brief epoch of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. That debate, notionally concerned with “anti-Zionism,” managed both to reveal and conceal the persistence, extent, and denial of everyday Jew-hating and Jew-baiting in British life. Understood within that context, Leopoldstadt provides an important reminder of the high costs borne by those who’d honored the terms of British society’s unofficial postwar settlement of its own Jewish question: As one of Stoppard’s characters puts it, “being Jewish wasn’t something you had to know, or something people had to know about other people.”

The curtain opens on Christmas Eve in Vienna at the finely appointed Ringstrasse apartment of Hermann Merz, family patriarch, clothing manufacturer, loyal subject of Emperor Franz Joseph, and Catholic convert. The intellectual currents of the day flow through the play of children and ordinary family conversations about where to spend Passover, following the techniques of the new history play that Stoppard devised for his Coast of Utopia series about Russian political exiles in 19th-century Britain. The ladies whisper about Arthur Schnitzler’s scandalous play La Ronde; Hermann has just read Herzl’s Der Judenstadt and wants to refute it, but his brothers-in-law, a doctor and a mathematician, would rather discuss Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and the new science of psychoanalysis. In different ways, each of these intertexts provide clues to what will follow.

The question of a Jewish state hangs over everything like the Magen David Hermann’s son, in a Freudian lapse, places atop the Christmas tree. “Poor boy, baptized and circumcised in the same week, what can you expect?” But it’s Schnitzler who gives us the dramatic key: Stoppard has adapted the structure of the fin-de-siècle play about the whirligig of sexual exchange—beginning with a prostitute and a soldier and ending with the aristocratic count and the same prostitute—into a transgenerational drama of a different kind of transmission.

For all its eroticism, Schnitzler’s play is also an epidemiology, tracking the spread of syphilis across the social order. In this case, the disease is Jew-hatred. We track its progress from the mild, self-hating varieties of that Christmas in 1899 across 30 years, into ever more virulent forms, until we return to the new beginning, in 1955, when the three survivors of the Merz family gather in the same apartment. These are Aunt Rosa, a psychoanalyst who married an American Jew; cousin Nathan, mathematician and teenage survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz; and Leo, a young Englishman with a posh accent and Etonian manners, who back in 1938 was the 5-year-old boy known as Leopold.

Like Stoppard himself—born Tomáš to Czech-Jewish parents—Leo was saved at the last minute from the ashes of Europa as well as rescued from statelessness or eventual emigration to Israel-Palestine—thanks to his mother, who remarried a British goy. In a Gilbert and Sullivan sense, Leo is an Englishman, “I’m proud to be British, to belong to a nation which is looked up to for … you know … fair play and parliament and freedom of everything, asylum for exiles and refugees, the Royal Navy, the royal family ...” But along with this “greatest good fortune”—a version of a line used by Stoppard’s own adoptive father—Leo also acquired the restricted British range of sympathies. “I’m sorry you had a rotten war,” he says to his cousin, the Auschwitz survivor.

To American audiences, the first four acts of Leopoldstadt, until its dénouement on "erev Kristallnacht,” should be so familiar as to feel like watching a rerun of a favorite show—the consumption of stories about the Holocaust having become, during the 1990s, a new ritual of American Jewish life, a secular sort of Passover Haggadah. It shouldn’t be surprising that in the atmosphere of “revival,” déja vu, and celebratory post-COVID “return to normal” that pervades our gerontocratic cultural institutions, Leopoldstadt has become the Broadway hit of this season. A friend’s parents, now in their 70s, risked infection and flew all the way from Los Angeles just to see it. Talk about a pilgrimage!

No less ritualistic is the way the play has been dragged into conversations about contemporary American antisemitism and the uniquely American cultural form of “oppression Olympics,” deployed as a hook for New York Times op-eds about Trump and Kanye West and Elon Musk. In a perverse way, it’s comforting to see all these microaggressions against old-time Jews represented on stage, like when the cavalry officer who cuckolds Hermann refuses to duel with him because one doesn’t lower oneself to fight on equal ground with a Jew. Today’s Jews can gather on Broadway to celebrate their brief demotion from common “whiteness” and delight in the burnishing of their tarnished victim status. But these are accidental pleasures, and American Jews are not really the intended audience of this play.

What saves Leopoldstadt from a kind of stale belatedness is its final act, which Stoppard has been setting up all along. The very British Leo, brought back to postwar Vienna, the birthplace of psychoanalysis as well as his own, is given a tragic recognition scene to play that’s worthy of Oedipus by way of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The audience watches Leo as the facade of his Britishness disappears: He learns that all that stuff about asylum and refugees was at best a half-truth when Nathan tells him about postwar Britain’s policy of continuing to restrict Jewish immigration both to England and to Palestine. In response, Leo becomes defensive and irritable. Eventually, he is brought back to the childhood moment of separation and breakdown that his whole being has been organized to forget, but that the audience has just witnessed in full.

The recovered memory is staged as a kind of dynamic family therapy with the help of a broken teacup. The catharsis, when it comes, shows that the repetition of the desire to assimilate—presented here as an unconscious transgenerational inheritance—can be perversely reinforced by the very traumas that make the ultimate realization of that desire impossible.

An echt American version of an accomplished artist’s late-in-life personal and collective reckoning with a vexed postwar inheritance of Jewish assimilation also exists, and you don’t even need to leave Los Angeles (or your apartment) in order to see it. Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans answers the burning question of how a nice, overly sensitive Jewish boy from New Jersey, transplanted to the West Coast, grew up to become one of America’s greatest silver-screen propagandists since D.W. Griffith and John Ford. The Spielberg stand-in, young Sammy Fabelman, even meets the latter, played sublimely by David Lynch, in the film’s concluding scene.

The movie opens on the eve of a white Hanukkah in the suburbs—Christmas is a step too far for the Fabelmans, but Spielberg walks us through a winter wonderland all the same—an early shot of wide-eyed Sammy in hunter’s cap, holding his parents’ hands on the sidewalk pays homage to Miracle on 34th Street. Assimilation, American style, comes in many shades of white: Jews are just like you, only slightly different. Sam’s parents take him to his first movie and the boy is—as only the Americans could say—“traumatized” by its depiction of a train crash. The parents then buy him an early home movie camera and a model train set and he proceeds to restage the scene, over and over, until the horrifying becomes known, familiar, and safe. It’s Stevie’s (I mean Sammy’s) first movie.

The family then relocates to Arizona for papa Fabelman’s new job designing computer components. Sammy, on the cusp of adolescence, joins the Boy Scouts and becomes popular by enlisting his troop in remakes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and Stagecoach, and even convinces them to make a World War II GI film romanticizing “Dad’s war.” A few years later, when Mama Fabelman—a gifted concert pianist who’s sacrificed art for the safety of homemaking—falls into depression after the death of her mother, Sam’s father enlists the boy to make productive use of what he condescendingly refers to as Sam’s “hobby” and asks him to edit a home movie out of footage taken on a camping trip with their best friend, “uncle” Benny, a business colleague.

Pouring over the footage, Sam discovers the obvious truth of their home life: His mother is in love with a man who is not his father and they have been holding hands in secret and possibly worse! The illusion of family happiness is preserved with a few artful slices of the editor’s razor, and another pattern is thereby established: the power of cinema to remove unpleasantness, while also incidentally providing one possible explanation for the astounding sexlessness of Spielberg’s oeuvre.

All that is mere melodrama and Freudian shtick compared to what comes next, when the Fabelmans move again to the nascent computer industry hotbed of Northern California. Not only does the marriage crumble, but Sam, now a high school junior, falls afoul of a bunch of bullying jocks with letterman jackets. They punch him in the face, call him “Bagelman,” and put a noose around a bagel in his hall locker. The girls are nicer, and Sam begins dating one of them who wants to open his heart to Jesus. The dating scenes are cute. Eventually, his girlfriend gains him a measure of social acceptance and he borrows her dad’s camera to film the senior class day beach excursion, which is screened at the senior prom. The movie is like Beach Blanket Bingo meets Triumph of the Will, with the tanned, Aryan jocks given starring roles, none more than his chief tormentor, who is shown in a montage of volleyball spikes and bare-chested sprints in all his youthful perfection.

What happens next is, for a Spielberg film, a moment of almost European sophistication: The bully corners Sam, and shoves him up against the bank of lockers. The film has humiliated him because he knows he’s unworthy of his own image and that the clever Jewish kid has seen through him, he thinks, and he is laughing at him behind his big nose. Fabelman is genuinely perplexed: He only wanted to be liked! And he was only doing what he had always done with the movies from the moment he’d covered up his mother’s affair.

A substantial portion of Spielberg’s work—the Indiana Jones series, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan—is cut from this primal cloth of the bullied kid who wants to imagine his tormentors in a better light than they in any way deserve. Americans were the good guys—and therefore to be an American was to be “a good guy,” somewhere deep inside. Even a Nazi like Schindler could be a good American once he responded, in true muscular Christian fashion, to the sufferings of others—who sometimes happen to be helpless Jews.

There could be no greater myth behind postwar American Jewish assimilation than the idea of postwar American perfection, and it’s a myth that Spielberg used his talents as a director to serve with notable faithfulness and skill. To do so, Spielberg had to conspicuously ignore the less savory aspects of postwar American history, even when it sometimes punched him in the face. Not a single African American appears in The Fabelmans—perhaps not a wholly inaccurate reflection of Spielberg’s suburban childhood, but an indictment all the same. Neither is there any mention of the Korean and Vietnam wars, or the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement.

Previously Spielberg relegated this dark side of America to different genres of fable. E.T. was a film about what happens when a Jewish kid or a Black kid moves into an all-white neighborhood (the government wants to conduct studies!). Or, the director’s poignant collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in A.I., a film about robots who become smarter, stronger, faster, and also more humane than their human creators (again Jews and Blacks) and are punished for it. The Color Purple was another fable in which Black American suffering was caused by Black American men, who are represented by both Spielberg and his source, the novelist Alice Walker, as violent, childlike caricatures.

The Fabelmans isn’t exactly an apology for or even a mild revision of Spielberg’s American boosterism, but a kind of muted late-style continuation of the excuse-making he has trafficked in all his life. Spielberg’s mode is often “triumphalist,” and The Fabelmans is framed as an American Jewish success story, although with more shades of gray than usual. The bully’s tormented response to Sammy’s high school prom movie isn’t wholly wrong: We also want to know whether what we just watched is deadpan irony or wishful stupidity. When it’s a question of the psychodynamics of Jewish assimilation, the answer is often: both.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.