- The "Jew" in Cinema: From The Golem to Don't Touch My Holocaust
Omer Bartov surveys how cinematic depictions of Jewish characters deliberately or inadvertently perpetuate Christian, Jewish, and secular stereotypes of the Jew as perpetrator, victim, hero, or anti-hero. He contends that the economic, physical, political, or religious traits commonly ascribed to Jews are so deeply ingrained in Western culture that even directors who attempt to create complex Jewish characters inadvertently idealize or vilify them depending on the stereotypes of Jews audience members already possess. He analyzes more than seventy films, the vast majority of which document or dramatize stories about antisemitism, the Holocaust, or Israel, and he illustrates the continuities and variations of the roles Jews play in the plots as antagonists, protagonists, an exiled and oppressed minority, a sovereign nation, or an oppressor of Palestinians. [End Page 334]
Here I will limit myself to Bartov's contribution to the study of Holocaust cinema. Unlike many historians, he neither judges movies solely by their verisimilitude nor yields to the metaphysical lament that the event defies representation. Instead, he persistently tries to demonstrate how archetypal images of Jews "keep resurfacing no matter the aesthetic or political stance" (p. 311) of the filmmakers who tackle the Holocaust and its impact on postwar Jewish characters in the Diaspora or Israel. He is at his most persuasive when applying this thesis to movies in which the message intended by the directors and screenwriters leaves little room for different interpretations by members of the audience. One can only nod in agreement with Bartov's analyses of the classic Jewish conspirator in Veit Harlan's Jew Süss, the emotionally numb Jewish victim in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, the passive Jew transformed into communist hero in Andrzej Wajda's Samson, or the title character of Moshe Mizrahi's Madame Rosa, whose disreputable career as a prostitute and degradation at Auschwitz have imbued her with compassion for the illegitimate children of other prostitutes, whom she cares for regardless of ethnic or religious background.
On the other hand, Bartov strains to discern latent Jewish stereotypes in movies designed to subvert such essentialism. For example, in Agnieszka Holland's Europa, Europa, the Jewish teenager Solly exploits his angelic appearance, linguistic abilities, and quick thinking to dupe the Soviets into believing he is a communist and the Germans into thinking he is a fanatical Nazi. As long as he can conceal his circumcision from the latter, they regard him as a paragon of Aryan purity. The irony in his ruse resembles that of the Jewish barber switching places with the Hitler caricature in Chaplin's The Great Dictator. If either Solly or the barber can fool their persecutors, then the immutability of Jewish genetic traits must be, as one of my colleagues once quipped, a pigment of the imagination. Though Bartov recognizes that these role reversals serve as a survival mechanism, he nevertheless maintains that "they carry the stigma of antisemitic views of the 'Jew' as an insubstantial, protean parasite" (p. 161).
To be sure, antisemitic bigots would fixate on the dissimulation of Solly or the barber. Yet the narrative strategies employed by the directors of the two films and their critique of racism and totalitarianism foster empathy with their Jewish protagonists and inhibit the kind of perverse interpretation Bartov fears. After all, Solly is an adolescent in effect orphaned by the murder of his sister and separation from his parents and brother. His disguise as a Hitler Youth constitutes protective coloration in a lethal environment that always seems on the verge of revealing the absence of his foreskin. When Solly worries that his Nazi persona might supplant his Jewish one, he reminds himself of his lineage by riding a trolley through the Lódź ghetto and futilely trying to catch a glimpse of his mother or father. The real Solomon Perel felt that Holland had captured his wartime vulnerability as a modern Candide "cast among cannibals" eager to devour people like him.1...