Holocaust (1978)

We bookend today’s flurry of posts with articles in observation of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Our first (The Last Laugh) was about a very recent film that explores the event in contemporary terms. This one is about one of the first mainstream cinematic depictions, the NBC TV mini-series Holocaust (1978). And damn! How I wish I thought of this post last year, to honor the 40th anniversary of the special. But I didn’t.

“One of the first?” you ask, “33 years after the end of World War Two?” Yes. The Holocaust may actually be the historical event for which the phrase “Too soon?” was invented. If living people still remember a traumatic event of this magnitude, people for whom the very mention of the event will open old wounds, whom you will HARM by even MENTIONING it, then it’s worth discussing whether it’s Too Soon. For the easiest possible math, if you were 45 in 1945, you were 78 in 1978. So there were MANY Holocaust survivors still around. It was a risk, and one of the things that was debated at the time was the question “Is it a risk worth taking?” Some thought the very existence of the series trivialized the Holocaust; others thought the way it was presented did so. As a measure of the dangers involved, I very nearly titled this post “Holocaust — the Mini-Series”, in order to clarify that it’s not about the event itself directly. But such a title risks becoming comedy, trivializing, reducing it to a TV show. We’ll return to why I think the show was a risk worth taking. But first, let’s talk about its value and significance as a television event.

Apart from the important story it tells, Holocaust was my first introduction to nearly everyone in the cast, not just then-newcomers Meryl Streep, James Woods, Michael Moriarity, Joseph Bottoms, Tovah Feldshuh, and Blanche Baker (who, like Streep and Moriarity, won an Emmy for her performance) but also important stage and screen veterans like Fritz Weaver, Sam Wanamaker, David Warner, Rosemary Harris, Ian Holm and Lee Montague. Premiering one year after Roots, it was widely seen as a sort of “next logical step”. Roots proved that a serious, touchy historical subject could be successful both critically and in terms of audience response (and frankly the original Roots was much less sensitive than Holocaust — there are some damn cheesy actors in Roots). Airing over 4 episodes, Holocaust got a 49% audience share; nearly half the people in America who were watching television chose to watch this relentlessly somber and heartbreaking drama.

My family watched it. It was not assigned at school but it was recommended by teachers. But our family would have watched it anyway; it was important and it was history. It’s among the reasons I’ve been flabbergasted by certain aspects of the Trump phenomenon, with its crackpot Holocaust deniers and concomitant Anti-Semitism. My family were the farthest thing from bleeding-heart liberals. But something like this is about basic humanity. There’s nothing “liberal”or left-wing (or there oughtn’t be) about thinking you shouldn’t slaughter millions of people and deprive millions of others of health, happiness and rights. Controversial? What’s the “controversy” if you’re not a monster? You mean a THIRD of us are monsters? That’s a wake-up call.

So we watched it and were affected by it. I was the impressionable age of 13. It will always stick with me. Sanitized? No doubt. But powerful and eye-opening nonetheless. So many memorable take-aways. At the center, Michael Moriarity, with those pretty, soulless and vacant eyes, who goes from joining the Nazi party merely as a career move to becoming an enthusiastic part of the monstrous SS murder machine. With this as my introduction to him, I’ve never been able to see him any other way. When he’s the prosecutor on Law and Order, I keep expecting him to order the gas chamber for everybody. And on top of it, the journey he makes. He’s apparently an ordinary guy, at first. He has his qualms about what he’s ordered to do. But he changes. Fritz Weaver plays his family doctor, a Jew, who treats his wife and treated his parents. But in the end, that important traditional, natural bond won’t matter.

Some may have (or may have had) a problem with the central role of Meryl Streep, as James Woods’ gentile wife, so prominent in the story. To me, that’s just smart producing. The entire audience needs to own this story, no matter how the buy-in is achieved. You ought to have empathy for the Jewish characters in any case, but if some don’t, surely empathy for Streep’s predicament ought to be a pathway to that. In Sophie’s Choice (1982) she would play a Polish survivor, almost as a balance to that criticism. At any rate, throughout the show, we closely identify with countless Jewish characters. I don’t know how that does not change you in a positive direction.

Another scene I’ll always remember. A scene where one of Weaver’s sons, I think it was the young one Rudi, played by Bottoms, has to register as a Jew with Nazis at the local police station and is repeatedly asked the question (for the paperwork) “Name of the whore who bore you?” a maddening rhetorical device that couldn’t help but drive most normal guys to an expression of resistance. There’s no answer you can give. “My mother is not a whore!” gets you a violent slapdown. Answering the question with your mother’s name kills your soul.

Spielberg got many of the same criticisms for Schindler’s List, that it was a trivializing entertainment. Fine, but it’s vastly better than nothing. Nothing is a void, and voids get filled, often by much worse things. A couple of years ago I watched The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Marcel Ophuls’ hardcore, four hour long documentary about the French resistance during the Vichy years. But my devotion to the topic started four decades earlier. One’s journey has to start somewhere. Better that a kid encounter and respond to a somewhat bowdlerized anti-Nazi Hollywood TV mini-series or movie, than a Neo-Fascist tweet from someone like — ironically — James Woods.