Bartov, Omer. "Defining Enemies, Making Victims: Germans, Jews, and the Holocaust." The American Historical Review 103.3 (1998): pp. 771-816.
In an order to better understand the reasoning behind genocide, Bartov examines German self-perceptions and attitudes towards Jews in the Third Reich and Federal Republic as well as Jewish self-perceptions. Bartov is especially concerned with explaining why these self-identities have been essential in defining a national identity, but also why they have led to “obfuscation, repression, and violence, rather than understanding and reconciliation” (772). This article argues that Germans after WWI were looking for someone to mark as enemies and blame for their misfortunes, and they found that in the Jews. The Jews were a prime target for the government to blame because the government could use them to deflect people’s anger and frustration away from the political and military machine without damaging the national pride. In addition, Bartov argues that the Jews ultimately became known as the decisive victims in the Holocaust, perpetuating this identity to this day.
Several points that Bartov discusses are useful in proving my thesis. Bartov addresses several myths surrounding Jews in Germany that made them vulnerable to German hatred. Part of the problem was the feeling among Germans that they did not know much about Jews, which gave them an alien quality that made Germans suspicious and fearful of the unknown. This fear of the unknown forms the foundation for the representations of Jews in Nazi film propaganda. German audiences are almost paralyzed by this fear, and Veit Harlan plays upon this fear by characterizing Jews as demonic, making his representation of Jews all the more effective with German audiences. Additionally, Jewish assimilation into the German culture only increased their fears because Germans believed that they could no longer use stereotypes to identify Jews as easily. The article argues that part of the reason behind Germany’s success in facilitating anti-Semitic propaganda stemmed from its ability to present Jews as a “real, albeit elusive, enemy lurking behind all other evils that plagued Germany.” (783)
Holdings: Coverage varies: mostly 1990s to present.
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In Maurizio Viano’s academic piece on Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, he first outlines the film’s controversial reception. He notes that harsher reviewers such as Gerald Peary objected by using moral intimidation. Moreover, their objections stem from a high-brow cultural objection that attempts to scoff at blockbuster hits.
Viano celebrates Benigni’s use of comedy as a means of “reframing topical issues through the subversive lens of laughter.” Instead Viano believes that the critics are too concerned with rejecting the slapstick nature of the comedy which they believe defaces the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, Benigni’s comedy, stemming from earlier works, makes the film more accessible.
Viano further discusses the film’s use of allegory. He divides the film into two sections, the first being Guido’s courtship of Dora and the second being the concentration camp scenes, both bound together by the overriding “rules” of fairytale and realism suggesting that we “regard even the worst of nightmares as parts of a dream.” Moreover, Viano points to film’s usage of the idea of German philosopher Schopenhauer, who had a great influence on the Nazi regime. He suggests that threads of his “will-to-live” theories put an ironic twist on the film.
Viano concludes by making an argument for Benigni’s Life is Beautiful clarifying that the film’s “serious” comedy does not laugh at the Holocaust but “against its deadening weight.”
In this commentary on the Holocaust, Imre Kertesz , a survivor himself, discusses the way in which his own intellectual claim to the memory of the Holocaust is fading into a new and less austere expression of the memory, one by the next generation.
Kertesz has doubts about how the Holocaust will be remembered, fearful of its institutionalization or its commoditization. He recognizes a Holocaust canon, including films such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s list, which have eliminated the authenticity of the event seeking to drive the notion of the Holocaust outside of the realm of human experience.
Despite these initial assertions, Kertesz goes on to praise Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, a film he deems true to the humanistic aspects of the Holocaust despite its use of comedy. He praises the use of fantasy as a means of accessing emotion and tragedy. Moreover, he attests to the accuracy of the scenery and the inherent realism in the film’s depiction of the camps.Kertesz denounces the film’s critics attesting that Benigni has the “courage” to lay claim to the Holocaust’s “sad inheritance.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat analyzes the “slippage” between reality and fiction in Benigni’s Life is Beautiful in which fantasy rules. She points out the various elements of surrealism in the picture that undercut the film’s realism such as the scenes from the concentration camps and the narrative technique which favor a fable story line. However, Ben-Ghiat spends most of her energy revealing the history behind World War II Italy, a history which includes fascism and anti-Semitism, and an Italy that Benigni never denies in Life is Beautiful. She focuses on the Italian POWs and the culture of victimization in order to provide insight into the film.
Ben-Ghiat looks to Life is Beautiful as an example of the Italian embellishment of private memories from World War II. She claims that Italians told stories of the War in a lighthearted often humorous manner, morphing haunting tales of trauma into a more accessible version. With this in mind, the film draws attention to the inaccuracy of memory and history. She believes that future generations understood the war memories as fables much like Benigni’s film which is told from the perspective of Giouse, a narrator who evokes a sense of childhood innocence. Yet, Ben-Ghiat also draws attention to what she believes is Giouse’s bittersweet tone, a condemnation of the political regime responsible for his father’s demise.
Moreover, Ben-Ghiat views the film as an accurate picture of the fascism and racism that defined Italy’s WWII era, a history that is often repressed or denied by Italians. She comments on the ambiguity of Jewish identity in the film as Guido’s Judaism is never bluntly stated and his wife Dora is a non-Jew. In this way, she believes the film speaks to the Italian fascist regime’s religion-free victimhood, as the nation, not just the Jews suffered at the hands of the regime.
Is Life Beautiful? Can the Shoah Be Funny? Some Thoughts on Recent and Older Films
Sander Gilman toils with the confusing emotional relationship between horror and humor, investigating the links between the two in regard to the Holocaust. He sets up a distinction between the reality of the Holocaust, which demands seriousness, and the representation of the Holocaust, siting scholars such as Terrence Des Pres, who believes that humor can be used as a coping mechanism. Gilman looks at various films about the Holocaust and the works of various Jewish comedians in order to propagate that approaching the Holocaust by way of humor is rarely attempted, as laughter is not the socially constructed reaction. Films that have been successful in political mockery of World War II Fascism such as Charlie Chaplin’s, The Great Dictator, date back to pre-Holocaust production, before such use of comedy was deemed taboo or by a conspicuous Jewish director.
Gilman turns to Life as Beautiful a successful integration of comedy and the Holocaust because of its human not Jewish appeal and uses Jakob the Liar by Jurek Becker as a means of highlighting its success. Gilman suggests that the film is “quasi-autobiographical” as it implicates Benigni’s father’s experiences, an Italian non-Jewish soldier. Gilman speculates that the success of the integration is due to the film’s non-Jewish world that separates the Holocaust from the past and the future. Moreover, the laughter is encouraged because it confirms the success of Guido’s actions to save his son, the more we laugh the better job Guido is doing in protecting his son and if our expectations are fulfilled we feel good about laughing.
Despite several differences and parallels, Benigni’s film unlike Becker’s, was made in the 1990’s and by a self-conscious non-Jew. His emphasis on the human tragedy of the Holocaust regardless of religion is something Gilman believes makes his integration of humor and holocaust feasible.
The Serious Humor of La vita e bella
Millicent Marcus defends Benigni’s use of humor in Life is Beautiful this piece. He believes that the limiting Holocaust art to historical record only permits documentary accounts as representations in which case the humanistic and moral nature of its history is lost. He believes that Life is Beautiful is presented as a fantastical yet biographical account of the Holocaust in which Giouse is conscious of the fantastical nature yet acknowledges its message to future generations.
Marcus points to the film’s spoof of fascism and Guido’s unique fantasy-infused humor as its “antidote.” He points to the first half of the film’s elegant 1930’s mese-en-scene particularly in the ball scene as an indication of the film’s social commentary. He highlights Guido’s courtship of Dora and his mistranslation of the German soldier in the concentration camp as two examples of his ability to use his whimsicality as authority.
Moreover, Marcus assess the reality controversy by calling attention to the Guido’s split audience with the inner being Giouse, and the outer being the viewers. Marcus believes that Giouse’s perspective establishes “childhood innocence” as the standard by which the film is judged. Even more so, the viewers’ bond in their knowledge of Guido’s fantasy, again recognizing the rift between fantasy and reality.
Finally, Marcus assess Benigni’s own “game-work” humor in which he must use improvisation to alter Giouse’s perception of the concentration camp. Marcus applauds Benigni’s capacity to flawlessly shift from his typical slap-stick comedy of the first half of the film to a more constricted yet still humorous version in the second half.
Marcus closes with his praise of the final moments of the film when he believes the mixture of hilarity and grief culminate. The tank symbolizes the coming together of World War II history and Guido’s fantastic game. In sum, the film effectively fuses humor and the Holocaust into a “ground-breaking” film.
In his interview with Carlo Celli, Marcello Pezetti, the director of the audio-visual department of the Contemporary Hebrew Documentation Center of Milan and a well-known historian specializing on Auschwitz, talks openly about his role as Benigni’s advisor for the controversial film, Life is Beautiful and his own thoughts on the film’s representation of the Holocaust.
Pezetti defends the film’s use of humor. He says that the characters in the film were based on Roman Jews, a sect of Italians that reacted to the Holocaust with humor and irony. Pezetti used this group in his own documentary on Italian survivors of Auschwitz, Memoria, and defends their right to be represented. Unlike the Askenazi Jews, Pezetti believes that the Roman Jews were full of life because they had little tragedy. Moreover, he speaks to Benigni’s character, in order it seems to deflect accusations of his insensitivity, expressing how impressed he was with his sense of humanity. It is Begnini’s genuine nature and his Italian pride that Pezetti again asserts when deflecting Celli’s question about whether the film was made for an American market.
Pezetti also comments on the film’s attempts to portray reality as he talks about his instructions in creating the film’s costumes. He claims that while Benigni wanted the wardrobe to be realistic he also wanted the spectators to be able to discern its inherent fictive nature. He consulted with a Holocaust survivor and renowned costume designer to create the costumes although in the end he claims that Benigni “was very careful to keep his own counsel and decide according to his own sensibility.” Pezetti further discusses Benigni’s literary influences, the Talmud, Yiddish literature, and the children’s book The Child of Buchenwald in order to give the film a sense of realism.
Pezetti addresses the themes of racism and fascism that Benigni touches upon in the film by praising Benigni’s careful use of humor, a feat he believes to be difficult. Moreover, he points out Benigni’s use of soundtrack to critique the fascist stronghold of the WWII period claiming that Benigni nationalism didn’t prevent his criticism.
In sum, Pezetti claims that what Benigni did was “to show that one could laugh in the Shoah but not about the Shoah.”
Art, Morality, and the Holocaust: The Aesthetic Riddle of Benigni's Life is Beautiful
Casey Haskins article, “Art, Morality, and the Holocaust: The Aesthetic Riddle of Benigni’s Life is Beautiful” analyzes the film’s impact on the philosophy of aesthetics as its controversial depiction of the Holocaust both in its humorous narrative style and its unrealistic representation of the concentration camp was the cause of much uproar. Haskin points to the controversy as proof that the film, whether praised or rejected, raises significant questions about the postmodern perception of the philosophy of aesthetic and urges its critics to revisit more traditional themes.
Haskin first highlights the film’s genre, what he deems “tragicomedy”, as a point of contention for critics. First, the film’s narrative style is that of a fictional fable, told in the adult voice of Giouse, Guido’s young and only son in the film. Critics believe that this approach to the narrative is irresponsible as the severity of the Holocaust warrants the moral reality that can only be elicited from sociohistorical fact. One critic Haskin highlights is David Denby of the New Yorker who criticizes the film’s misrepresentation of the Holocaust claiming Benigni wanted “authority not actuality” of the Holocaust and that the story is really “Holocaust-denial.” Haskin claims aesthetic as representations date back to Western Philosophers such as Plato whose cave allegory likened human experience to that of prisoners compelled to watch moving images on a wall and similarly, the film’s depiction of concentration camps isn’t supposed to be literal. Moreover, Haskin charges that there is no real criterion for measuring the realism of any depiction of the Holocaust.
Haskin further analyzes the film’s self-reflexive humor as an aesthetic that can represent the morality and give insight into the characters’ psychology. He categorizes two types of humor in the film: Italian social and political satire and Holocaust humor analyzing them according to various theories of humor.
Finally, Haskin shifts to an analysis of the self-reflexivity of art as an indifference to political and social rule or a negation of dominant rule. He points to the opposing philosophies of Adorno and Nietzsche on the purpose of art, “please or instruct”, “playful or profound” in order to suggest that while the critics of the film may lack a cohesive stance on the film and art in general, they do ignite a debate about the self-reflexivity of the film as art. In sum, when analyzed according to these models, Life is beautiful “has reference to the specific wishes fears and historical beliefs of a particular cultural moment.”
The well respected movie critic Roger Ebert gives Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful a positive and supportive review, despite its controversial depiction of the Holocaust and its supplemental comedy based and fable-like narrative. Ebert celebrates the humanistic aspects of the film, viewing the film’s intentions in a much more lighthearted fashion than some of the film’s critics.
Ebert provides insight into the controversy surrounding the film’s use of humor and the Holocaust by way of information from his first-hand conversation with Benigni at the Toronto Film Festival in which Benigni revealed to Ebert that he offended right wing Italians and left wing critics at Cannes. Ebert, however, approaches the film as the fictional fable it claims to be rather than a misrepresentation of the Holocaust, praising the film’s “sidestepping of politics in favor of simple human ingenuity.” He suggests that the film is “not about Nazis and Fascists but about the human spirit.”
In regards to comedy, Ebert rejects the notion that the film makes the Holocaust into comedy, instead suggesting that the film uses comedy as a symbol for paternal devotion. He believes that the elaborate game constructed by Guido, and his undying humor are his only weapons with which to protect his son.
Ebert applauds the very optimism that other critics such as Gerald Peary and David Denby of the New Yorker demean. He believes that the film speaks about hope, future, and the “human conviction.”
In this interview by Erika Milvy of Salon Entertainment, Roberto Benigni addresses several of the controversies surrounding his award winning film, Life is Beautiful. Milvy explains that while the film received several bad reviews, it still swept the Italian version of the Oscars and was invited by the Jerusalem Film Festival to screen a film that “further[ed] the universal understanding of Jewish History.” Benigni insists that the film was never intended to “be offensive with the memory of the Holocaust.” Instead his goal was “to same something poetic” and “to make a beautiful movie.”
On the film’s creative process, Benigni says he feared the film’s bad reception, but kept returning to the idea of “a happy man in a concentration camp.” He admits that his father was the inspiration for the film as he was a soldier in the Italian army during World War II who was captured and put in a German work camp. He remembers his father describing his past “in a very funny way”, like a “fable” in order to protect him. Moreover, the film’s slapstick comedy is an homage to Benigni’s comic predecessor, Charlie Chaplin, his “Michelangelo.”
On the issue of the film’s representation of the Holocaust, Benigni says he consulted with Milan’s Italian Jewish Committee. Still, he insists that the film never intended to be realistic, rather the film only hints at the horrors of the concentration camp, because “we know.” Overall, Benigni speaks of this film as his masterpiece, “a gift from heaven.”
Gerald Peary of the Arizona provides an example of one of Benigni’s harsher critics calling his review of the film, “an angry Jewish column.” Indeed, Peary’s highly sarcastic analysis of the film is more visceral and passion-infused than it is a fair and effective critique, but it provides a telling example of the immense opposition that erupted in reaction to the film.
For example, the first of his list of disapproving commentary on the film is based on his personal and general dislike of Roberto Benigni as a comedian. He believes he is merely an insecure and vain ham, unworthy of his National acclaim in Italy. Next, he belittles Benigni’s motivations for the film by, in true Journalistic fashion, skewing his words. He suggests that Benigni’s “solipsistic reasoning” for the portion of the film that depicts the Holocaust was in order to put his character in an extreme situation, a claim that sheds a harsh and unsympathetic light on Benigni as the film’s creator. He then proceeds to describe the plot of the film but with a tone that is doubtful of the film’s realism and critical of its illogical unfolding.
Peary’s main argument, however, is that the film casts an optimistic, feel-good light on the Holocaust. He acknowledges that the film was never intended to be a documentary, but yet still candy-coats the harsh reality of the Holocaust by focusing only on the survivors and ignoring the horrors of death all together. Moreover, Peary’s final few sentiments twist his critique into a personal Jewish objection as he scoffs at the Jewish fans of the film. In sum, his review furiously rejects every aspect of the film, providing a concrete example of why the film created such a controversy upon its release.