During the second part of “War and Remembrance” on ABC last week, some viewers might have been struck by how Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, seemed so “real"--even more than the other characters played by an international cast. Perhaps it was because this is not the first time the actor has incarnated Hoess: Gunther Maria Halmer was indeed the same commandant in Alan Pakula’s film version of “Sophie’s Choice.”
Although he had played his part alongside Meryl Streep in German, and was now speaking accented English in Dan Curtis’ mammoth re-creation of World War II, a subliminal link was made for those who had seen “Sophie’s Choice.”
“War and Remembrance” utilized a similar connection in Part 5 Sunday, where Hoess proudly showed Col. Paul Blobel the new gas chambers and crematoriums of Auschwitz. If the colonel seemed even more sinister than the other Nazis in “War and Remembrance,” it may be because this actor, Kenneth Colley, had already played Adolf Eichmann in “Wallenberg” opposite Richard Chamberlain.
Casting these actors is not merely effective, but invites us to look more closely at the relationship between “authenticity” and convention. The number of films about the Holocaust has grown to such an extent over the past 10 years that “reality” often boils down to how a movie compares with previous film treatments.
As the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1981, “Fiction films do live as much by cumulative dramatic convention as they do by fidelity to fact, and addiction to stereotypes dilute their value as historical evidence.”
This is not to say that the first 18 hours of the 32-hour miniseries are inaccurate: “War and Remembrance” is not only an extraordinarily ambitious and often moving drama, but also the most meticulous reconstruction of Auschwitz in a film made for television.
It is equally scrupulous and compelling in its reenactment of Babi Yar (airing at 8:30 tonight)--a horrific chapter of the Holocaust that has not been dramatized in American TV films.
As Herman Wouk, author of both “War and Remembrance” and “The Winds of War” (the 18-hour miniseries telecast in 1983), acknowledged in an essay, “It may grieve the judicious that the great public learns much of its history from works of entertainment. But such is the case.”
Indeed, what sets “War and Remembrance” apart from ground-breaking television films, such as “Holocaust” (1978), “Playing for Time” (1980) and “The Wall” (1982) is not only its scale, but also its capacity to reach a much larger audience than these avowedly Holocaust dramas. It cleverly tricks those who think they’re watching a wartime adventure movie--starring Robert Mitchum as naval hero “Pug” Henry--into looking at the wrenchingly graphic reproduction of both Auschwitz and Babi Yar.
And whereas the other telefilms focused on European individuals, one of the main characters in “War and Remembrance” is Natalie Jastrow Henry (Jane Seymour), Pug’s daughter-in-law, who had the bad luck to be in Italy with her uncle Aaron (John Gielgud)--formerly a Yale professor--when World War II exploded. The fact that even an American Jew married to a Gentile could become a victim of the Nazis (at the end of Part 7 tonight, she is interned in Theresienstadt) makes the story more accessible to an American audience.
Since, for some viewers, “War and Remembrance” will be the first encounter with concrete images of Nazi atrocity, the responsibility of the film makers is all the more weighty. It would seem that Dan Curtis and his colleagues fulfilled their duty, first through scrupulous research, and second by filming inside Auschwitz.
Although ABC is incorrect in claiming that this was the first time the Polish government had permitted a dramatic film to be shot there (Jack Eisner arranged for his autobiographical tale “War and Love"--a Cannon release--to be filmed in Auschwitz in 1984), it is the first time that one of the death camp’s crematoriums was re-created on that site. Having found the original plans and specifications in the files of Auschwitz, the crew built to exact size one of the four crematoriums that the Nazis blew up at the end of the war to hide evidence.
Even more significantly, Part 2 presented a “Special Action” (for the audience’s benefit as well as for Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler’s) from beginning to end: A trainload of unwitting Dutch Jews disembarked; they were told there was “plenty of work here for everybody,” then were led to the “disinfection center” where towels and soap were neatly arranged, forced to disrobe and herded to the showers as panic ensued.
To the satisfaction of the SS, the Jews screamed while gas filled the crowded chamber, until silence accompanied their death. Viewers then saw the corpses of men, women and children being thrown into mass graves as Hoess complained that “disposal is the problem”; Himmler complied by agreeing to make the construction of crematoriums a priority over war labor needs.
Such neat Nazi terms as “disposal” and “final solution” are also given meaning in tonight’s Babi Yar sequence, which reproduces the Nazis’ massacre of more than 30,000 Jews outside of Kiev. Blobel proudly narrates the flashback, which does not spare details as defenseless Jews are stripped, beaten and machine-gunned into mass graves.
Nevertheless, Elie Wiesel’s contention that Holocaust art is a contradiction in terms bears mention. Melodrama and crematorium are hardly compatible, and the concentration camp experience cannot be accommodated by a square tube associated with diversion.
After all, we were invited in Part 2 to be horrified when Hoess insisted that the “Special Action” must follow rather than precede lunch; but don’t we often get up during the commercials to get a snack or drink, even after scenes of horror?
Possibilities for trivialization and distortion are inherent in the television medium, whatever the scale of the production. For example, the first half of “War and Remembrance” presented daily life in Auschwitz primarily through the male prisoners Berel Jastrow (Chaim Topol) and Sammy Kuterperl (John Rhys-Davies); they were not only strong enough to be useful as labor (and look reasonably well-fed) but were part of the political resistance--with access to film evidence that Berel smuggled out. Their situation, however, was the case for only a fraction of the Jews in the death camp; most (and especially women) were too starved, degraded or isolated to enact resistance or escape.
Should one quibble about such facts when “War and Remembrance” manifests such admirable intention and execution? After all, isn’t there still a need--even in the United States--to create and sustain awareness of the Nazis’ demonic efficiency? The answer, unfortunately, is yes, and the grimmest sections of this production are not only commemorative but also cautionary--especially if we glance at three other films of 1988.
“Betrayed” begins with the assassination of a talk-show host by a white supremacist organization in the United States--based on the actual killing of Alan Berg by a neo-Nazi hit squad in Denver four years ago. This material is also dramatized in “Talk Radio,” directed by Oliver Stone from Eric Bogosian’s scathing play. It will be released next month, around the same time as “Mississippi Burning,” a powerful reconstruction of American racism in the mid-1960s; directed by Alan Parker, its vivid scenes of white men burning churches and killing blacks are disturbingly reminiscent of Kristallnacht 50 years ago.
In this context, “War and Remembrance” is a necessary reminder of what can happen when prejudice runs rampant and becomes doctrine.