- The "Jew" in Cinema: From The Golem to Don't Touch My Holocaust
Omer Bartov's venture into the history of cinematic portrayals of the "Jew" from the early period of classical silent film to a film as recent as Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ (2004) is a tour de force. Ambitiously engaging stereotypical representations of Jewishness in European, American, and Israeli filmic production from the Twenties through the early twenty-first century, Bartov examines both how this lexicon has reflected popular culture and how it has influenced the creation of other films that in turn have shaped public perception of Jewry. While books like Annette Insdorf 's Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (2002) and Joshua Hirsh's Afterimage: Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust (2003) have focused on the portrayal of Jews in Holocaust-themed films and others have examined the portrayal of Jews in particular national cinemas such as Amy Kronish and Costel Safirman's Israeli Film: A Reference Guide (2003), Patricia Erens' The Jew in American Cinema (1984), and S. S. Prawer's Between Two Worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910–1933 (2005), Bartov's book is far more ambitious, seeking instead to plumb the meaning of filmic portrayals of the "Jew" that transcend the vicissitudes of history and the boundaries of national culture.
The book originated as the Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies delivered at Indiana University in 1999, and a postscript refers to the Gibson film as evidence of the persistence into the twenty-first century of the very stereotypes that had informed earlier films. However, despite its origin as separate lectures, the volume is unified by Bartov's focus on the evolution of the cinematic "Jew" in four primary modes of representation. The earliest antisemitic images, particularly those purveyed by the Nazis, portrayed the Jew as a perpetrator; these negative images were followed by filmic depictions of the Jew as a victim, particularly of Nazi genocide. In apparent reaction to this excessive focus on Jewish weakness and victimization, a second binary of imagery arose. In the wake of World War II there was increasing representation and commemoration of heroic Jewish resistance to Nazism as well as of Jewish heroism that emerged in the violent birth of a Jewish state in Israel. More recently, as a result of growing criticism of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian [End Page 191] territories and of Zionism itself, a resurgence of antisemitism globally, and the emergence of more complex concepts of the roles Jews played in the Holocaust, there has been a marked propensity to represent Jews in film as anti-heroes. While these categories may be permeable at times and influence one another, they are useful tools in examining the tenacity of such stereotypical representations and the subtle ways in which such imagery has been subverted or reinvented by the more imaginative films like Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997) and Asher Tlalim's Don't Touch My Holocaust (1994).
What Bartov provides for his readers is a rich historical context for the interpretation of each film that scrutinizes the films both in terms of their historical veracity and the motives prompting their departures from factual accuracy. In addition, he pays careful attention to cinematic detail that might elude less prescient observers. Bartov's style is refreshingly free of theoretical jargon and accessible to a wide audience. He also is willing to deal seriously with works of popular culture like the television miniseries Holocaust (1978), recognizing its significance in calling public attention to Jews not merely as victims but also as engaged in an heroic struggle for survival, while drawing unprecedented attention to the implication of ordinary Germans in every phase of mass murder.
While it is possible to take issue with some of Bartov's interpretations and categories, they nevertheless provide an important set of lenses through which one can gain greater understanding of the filmic portrayal of Jewry. For example, Bartov argues that it does...