Essays: Road to Auschwitz |
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Road to Auschwitz

IT CAN’T be done and perhaps ought never to have been attempted, but if you leave those questions aside then there should be room to admit the possibility that Holocaust (BBC1) wasn’t really all that bad. At its best it gave a modicum of dramatic life to some notoriously intractable moral issues, and even at its worst was no disgrace.

One’s chief objection to the film ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ and the TV blockbuster ‘QB VII’ was not that they were cynical, but that their sincerity was mentally deficient. Approaching their frightful topic with a plenitude of reverence but an insufficiency of penetration, they left it less comprehensible than it had been before. ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ somehow encouraged the belief that the Nazis were a lot of cruel men who ganged up on Judy Garland, while ‘QB VII’ gave the impression that the whole nightmare of the Third Reich had taken place in order to help a Hollywood screenwriter solve his drinking problem.

The opening sequence of ‘Holocaust’ suggested that it might be headed down the same road. The scene was a wedding party. One’s first thought was of ‘The Godfather.’ One’s second thought, following hard on the heels of the first, was that we were in for a long barrage of schlock, since the sure sign of a schlock media product is that it is drawn not from life but from previous media products.

But things picked up. Let it be admitted that no character existed nor action took place except to make a point. What mattered was that most of the points were good. We were shown the Weiss family being slow to understand the fate that was overtaking them. It could be said that 1935 was a bit late for the Weisses to be embarking with such optimism on a mixed marriage. More trepidation would have been in order. But the general issue was not fudged.

The Weisses, and by implication all the Jews in Germany, were shown as being victims of wishful thinking. They thought that everything would come right. No reasonable person could doubt that what was happening could not continue. As with Stalin’s Great Terror, only a madman could guess what was on the way. Even the perpetrators had to go one step at a time, completing each step before they realised that the next one was possible.

The German Jews were the most assimilated in Europe. They were vital to Germany’s culture — which, indeed, has never recovered from their extinction. They couldn’t see that they were hated in direct proportion to their learning, vitality and success. In the first episode the Weiss family, representing the Jews, played Viennese classical music on a Bechstein. In the last episode the Dorf family, representing the Nazis, picked out Christmas carols on the same Bechstein. The point was not laboured and indeed would have survived being made more firmly. Though they claimed to be purifying it, the Nazis were in fact engaged in the destruction of Germany’s artistic heritage. They were dunces.

The aridity of the Nazi mind was the biggest poser the authors had to face. In creating Erik Dorf they went some way towards overcoming it. Played with spellbinding creepiness by Michael Moriarty, Erik spoke his murderous euphemisms in a voice as juiceless as Hitler’s prose or Speer’s architecture. Hitler’s dream of the racially pure future was of an abstract landscape tended by chain-gangs of shadows and criss-crossed with highways bearing truckloads of Aryans endlessly speeding to somewhere undefined. Dorf sounded just like that: his dead mackerel eyes were dully alight with a limitless vision of banality.

Dorf began as an opportunist and ended as a fanatic. There was a contradiction in there somewhere, perhaps arising from the authors’ otherwise commendable desire to cover all the themes. It is difficult to evoke outlandish crimes while simultaneously arguing that the criminals need not necessarily have been freaks. In her great book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ Hannah Arendt proposed that the truly frightening thing about Eichmann was his mediocrity. The makers of ‘Holocaust’ had obviously grasped this point, but Dorf’s low blink-rate and computerised voice were as close as they could go to giving it dramatic presence.

Eichmann himself was portrayed as a hard man who might have emanated from some German crime series called ‘Aus.’ Curling his waxen top lip — which counts as a neat trick — Tom Bell made reference to a Nazi hierarch called Gorbals, who unfortunately did not appear. In real life, if that’s the phrase, Eichmann fancied himself as an expert on Jewish culture and saw his ‘task’ as being mainly one of keeping the trains running on time. What was in them was a side issue. There can be no doubt that he would have served just as devotedly if they had been loaded with bags of beans. The script should have made the point. Better writers would have found a way.

On the other hand it was impossible to imagine how an exotic character like Himmler could have been made both authentic and plausible. Forgivably, they settled for making him plausible, giving the role to Ian Holm and throttling back the full power of the Reichsführer’s mania. Himmler was certainly banal, but he was also baroque, steaming around in a special train and diverting large amounts of the Third Reich’s increasingly thin resources to such ‘tasks’ as proving scholastically that the Japanese were Aryans. How could you show all that and be believed? The whole Nazi reality was a caricature. The more precisely you evoke it, the less probable it looks.

Other kinds of incredibility were more avoidable. Rudi and Helena were believable as spectators at Babi Yar, but not as instant lovers. Certainly the senior Jews in Warsaw went on co-operating for an unconscionable time, but did Josef Weiss have to be quite such a dummy? Even here, though, it is important to say that matters were being fumbled, not fudged. The script bravely faced the lamentable fact that Jewish police killed their own people in Warsaw. Nor did it succumb to the now fashionable illusion that survivalism is somehow to be applauded. There were failures in expressive means, but not in moral imagination.

The use of language was never better than adequate. As in all hack writing, the dialogue showed no sense of period. Prodigies of set-dressing were undone by a phrase. Erik Dorf, talking about ‘a few ideas I’ve been kicking around,’ sounded like a post-war Madison Avenue advertising executive. Going part way to make up the deficiency of good lines was the brilliance of some of the acting. Meryl Streep, as Inga Helms Weiss, was given the burden of being the Good German. She gave an astounding performance.

There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being able to remember. Santayana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too. Besides, freedoms are not guaranteed by historians and philosophers, but by a broad consent among the common people about what constitutes decent behaviour. Decency means nothing if it is not vulgarised. Nor can the truth be passed on without being simplified. The most we can hope for is that it shall not be travestied. ‘Holocaust’ avoided that.

The Observer, 10th September 1978

[ A copy of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]