Revisting the holcaust

Posted: Mar 30, 2006 12:05 AM

BERLIN -- It's not easy to find a swastika in Berlin. The only place for the morbidly curious to look is a museum, a book about the Third Reich, or in a room at the back of a squalid little shop on a side street where a dealer in contraband Nazi memorabilia peddles forbidden wares. So there was shock and awe when enormous swastikas were unfurled on Lustgarten Square in central Berlin, with helmeted soldiers of the Wehrmacht standing guard over der Fuehrer while crowds of blonde, blue-eyed men and women extended their arms in salute, chanting "sieg heil."
Passersby wondered whether they had died and gone to hell. "Swastika Shock in Berlin," screamed the headline in the tabloid Bild Zeitung. Cried der Spiegel: "Hitler Farce Breaks German Taboos."

But there were no protests. Only curiosity, at the making of a comic movie about the time of unique evil in Germany. If time doesn't heal all wounds, it can allow humor to assuage old pain, to make farce of fascist fanaticism. Or so says Swiss director Dani Levy, a Jew, who is making "Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler." 

Mr. Levy's parody not only satirizes Hitler, but also pokes fun at recent attempts to, of all things, humanize him. The movie will no doubt offend survivors of the horror of the concentration camps of the Third Reich, but 80 percent of the population was born after 1941. For the younger generation, Hitler's evil is merely medieval. To their credit, Germans address their moral responsibility for the Holocaust with memorials and museums, and schoolchildren get the message of their history with painful clarity. Perhaps humor with insight can channel memory.

The making of Dani Levy's movie coincides with the arrival in Berlin of "The Producers," the wildly popular American comic movie by Mel Brooks, about a Broadway scam with a musical built around the song "Springtime for Hitler." High-kicking chorus girls in leather and boots mock der Fuehrer in a Busby Berkeley-like number that horrified Jews in America nearly three decades ago. Says Mel Brooks: "I've received resentful letters of protest, saying things like: 'How can you make jokes about Hitler? The man murdered 6 million Jews.'" But the director argues that his comedy took away "the holy seriousness" that surrounded Hitler and robbed him of "posthumous power." Think Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator," bouncing a balloon as though he were clown king of the universe.

More problematic is the work of a Spanish performance artist who pumped carbon monoxide exhaust fumes into a former synagogue in a town near Cologne, inviting spectators to partake of the gas chamber experience. This, it seems to me and many Germans, trivializes tragedy and dishonors memory.

But popular culture can shock a new generation to remembrance of the Holocaust. Oprah Winfrey has done a public service with choosing "Night," the searing Holocaust memoir of Elie Wiesel, for her book club. She has made it a bestseller almost a half century after it was originally published, and the book deserves a renewed readership. (Some of her critics accuse her of choosing it to redeem her credibility for endorsing James Frey's fabricated memoir, but that seems churlish.) She brings attention to a personal story that grapples with the enormity of human degradation and at the same time forces hundreds of thousands of readers to contemplate without sentimentality the power of evil to destroy innocence when outsiders avert their eyes with studied indifference. Unlike "The Diary of Anne Frank," the Wiesel memoir adds no hopeful gloss to anecdotal experience. Like the night, its blackness is impenetrable by starry eyes. We are forced to look deep into the darkness lurking inside ourselves to try to understand how such things happen. 

Asks Francois Mauriac, the French writer, in his foreword to the French edition: "Have we ever thought about the consequence of a horror that, though less apparent, less striking than the other outrages, is yet the worst of all to those of us who have faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly discovers absolute evil?"

At the end of "Night," after Buchenwald is liberated by American soldiers, the little boy who has lost everyone and everything dear to him looks into a mirror with a stranger's eyes that seem to belong to a corpse. "The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me," Elie Wiesel writes. Nor will they leave us. No movie can erase that.