Fine Line Putting the Holocaust in Blockbuster Films

Young Magneto struggles as he’s taken into Auschwitz (X-Men: First Class, 2011)

The Holocaust happened, and it is important that we not let the deniers get away with their attempts to rewrite history. That is morally obvious. What’s a little more shaded in gray is what role film and television should play in keeping the truth alive for current and future generations. This is something that I personally struggle with quite often.

Wonder Woman (TV Series, ABC 1975–1977)
Season 1 of the show follows the classic comic story line where Steve Trevor, a WWII pilot, crashes on the Bermuda Triangle home of the Amazons, Paradise Island. He is discovered by Diana, Princess of the Amazons, who insists on nursing him back to health. After Steve has recovered, it is decided that a single Amazon should deliver him back to “man’s world” so that he will not pollute the Amazons’ paradise with his natural misogyny.

Wonder Woman is held by the Nazis

Wonder Woman is held by the Nazis

Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, decrees that a grand tournament will select the Amazon to accompany Steve on his journey back to man’s world. Though she is forbidden by the queen to compete, Diana wins the tournament in disguise. Unable to break her word, the Queen allows Diana to deliver Steve back to America.

During her brief visit to the United States, Diana realizes that the Amazons cannot stand by idly while the evil Nazis threaten to take over all of civilization. After much argument with her mother, it is agreed that she will stay and monitor the situation. Adopting the disguise of a Naval Yeoman assigned to the War Department as a secretary, Diana is able to keep tabs on the war — foiling many Nazi plots that might otherwise have won them the war. Because of her amazing Amazonian powers, she’s named Wonder Woman by the press.

As a little gay boy growing up in the 70’s, I had a mad crush on Wonder Woman — or more accurately, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman in the TV series that made her a household name (see inset). A quote that will live in my head forever is, when a Nazi officer first hears of WW foiling their evil-plot-of-the-week, “who iz deez Vonder Voman” (spoken in typical German; that is, replace all W’s with V’s and say it in English). After she became known as the great protector of The United States, Wonder Woman had to face weekly attempts on her life — from a dancing bear trained to hug her to death to “The Baroness Von Gunther” (a tough–ass Nazi officer). Though I loved the followup series on CBS that was set in the 70’s, there was a certain thrill about the evil Nazis that always made Season 1 on ABC just a little bit more exciting to me.

In the new millennium, I started playing a MMORPG (massively multi-player online role-playing game) called City of Heroes that allowed players to create their own superhero and play against in-game villains powered by artificial intelligence. One of the gangs of villains was created to mimic the Nazis in the style of their uniforms and overall tone. After the first few months of the game launch, this set of villains was removed and replaced by a more nondescript gang. My inquiries to the manufacturer of the game about this loss of plot component was my first introduction to the idea that Nazis (and by relation The Holocaust) might not be suitable subject matter for childhood game play. Little gay boys in Tennessee probably shouldn’t grow up imitating their favorite Nazi as he asks, “who iz deez Vonder Voman” — not to mention participating in playground role play where he has to choose to either be Vonder Voman or The Baroness Von Gunther. Pretending to be Cat Woman against Batman is one thing; pretending to be an agent of the most evil, mass murdering coalition of psychopaths from our real world history is just DIFFERENT.

That was my first clue. It opened my eyes. At the time I thought that this one game maker had made a big faux pas, and that it was an isolated thing. Now, many years later, I cannot believe what an outrageous faux pas the gaming company made. In fact, I cannot believe the continual offerings by Hollywood studios.  Offerings that target our young people with the idea that, though Nazis are evil, it’s still fun to play “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys” with them. IT IS NOT.

Many school classes read The Diary of Ann Frank as part of their social studies curriculum. Reading is entertainment, yes — but in this case it is also combined (hopefully) with meaningful discussion about The Holocaust. History is interesting. Horrible parts of our history entertain the mind with interest, but they do not celebrate the horror. Hollywood celebrates horror. Studios compete with one another to come up with the most grisly and frightening movies possible to thrill young audiences. I’ve never had a member of my family dismembered and eaten by a man with a chainsaw, and I’m certain that if I had, I’d have an aversion to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as entertainment 1. The Holocaust is a little bit different. No, it’s a lot different. It is the single ugliest part of human history. It was real.

So, what do we do? Our kids are going to want to see the next big X-Men movie (or other Nazi-filled film), inappropriate content or not. Well, maybe you can do something about it save forbidding your child to see it. Note that this particular film had the MPAA rating PG-13, and this means “parents strongly cautioned”. But how could you have known it had Nazi “snuff” scenes? Well, perhaps PG-13 should mean to you, “watch this before my child sees it, or watch it with my child”. I think that any child who saw that scene should have a serious history discussion with his parent. That is, assuming the child is 13 or older. If he’s younger? You should likely schedule an appointment with a good therapist.

Just as NCSoft (the maker of my Nazi video game) was made to realize how inappropriate was its inclusion of Nazi material as entertainment, I believe that it is about time that our movie studios are made aware that we, the viewing public, do not want them to produce films that use Nazi imagery as a form of entertainment. I was very disturbed by the opening flash-back scenes of 20th Century–Fox’s 2011 film X-Men: First Class. I can clearly recall sitting in the theatre and nearly panicking as I tried to think of what to do.

Within the first 10 minutes of a film created largely in part to entertain children, the audience is shown a little boy interned at Auschwitz where his mother is shot in the head to elicit his cooperation with his captors. Described here in this blog entry, absent the “cool” image of young Magneto of the X-Men, does anything at all sound less than sick here?

If you really start paying attention, you’ll be surprised at how many “mainstream” movies incorporate, if not specifically Nazi-related, some sort of glorified violence. I know, sometimes it’s fun. I was a huge fan of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. I’m a guy, and I played with toy guns. But if we have to draw the line, I say we do it at The Holocaust. When you’re thinking of taking your child to see the next Captain America movie (or anything else set in WWII times), why not do a quick Google and see if you’re going to a movie that is about Nazis and fun. Those are two things that we should just stop putting together (as if they ever belonged together).

And yes, I am talking about movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and its many sequels which include the Nazis as the enemy. Though that series came from Stephen Spielberg, who I would call the great Jew of directing, I’m not pre-sold on his level of taste. I don’t know that Schindler’s List should have ever been made as a drama instead of a documentary. That’s a much more difficult discussion, but at least it isn’t a situation where the Nazis are sneaking into the film as cheap set dressing. At least it takes things seriously. I’ll save the argument about Nazi-comedies such as The Producers and Iron Sky for another time. For now, please just be aware of the seriousness of what you’re watching in the latest blockbuster.

SIDE NOTE: During the long isolationist period before the US entered WWII, many American companies did booming business with Germany. For example, it is well–documented that Nazi soldiers were hearty drinkers of Coca-Cola, which continued selling to Germany even after we declared war. More interesting is that the precursors of today’s big Hollywood studios helped produce many Nazi propaganda films, including the ancestor of 20th Century Fox (maker of the X-Men movie discussed here). I don’t know why, but that connection intrigues me — as if current film were somehow serving the cause in some way.

 

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  1. Some might point out that this is exactly the same situation given that Chainsaw is based on a true story, the life of serial killer Ed Gein. This actually is a myth. The movie resembles in no way the actual story of Ed Gein, and I believe the connection is continually made for the extra fright provided by a “based on actual events” caption at the start of a movie.

Sotomayor: Another Minority Advocate Missing the Point

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, was the guest today on my absolute favorite radio program, FreshAir from WHYY. On today’s show, host Terry Gross interviewed Sotomayor on a variety of subjects — ranging from her personal background to her beliefs on affirmative action. As interesting as the interview 1 was, it hit on a pet peeve of mine regarding how to categorize and/or identify the disadvantaged in our country.

Raised in the Bronx during the 1950’s–1960’s, Sotomayor had a modest upbringing as the daughter of a nurse and a tool-and-die worker. She describes going to college at Princeton University as a real eye-opener for her limited point of view from poverty. It was clear from her interview that she considers herself to have come from a radically disadvantaged childhood, and I have to take some issue with that.

I should first say that I’m not writing this post to start some sick “who had it worse growing up” contest with Justice Sotomayor. Instead, I’m writing this post to start the conversation, again, about who qualifies as disadvantaged in our country. Sotomayor went to public school in the Bronx. I went to school in Cheatham County, TN. Here are some facts about the elementary school that I attended for K-6:

Black or White: Does it matter here?

  • We often had no air conditioning in a part of the country that can easily reach 100+ degrees. Best case, school would be cancelled and we would forego education altogether. Worst case, we suffered through it in classrooms as hot as ovens.
  • We had failing roofs. When it rained, the custodian distributed buckets and pans to the classrooms to catch the dripping water — and we moved our desks as best we could to keep dry.
  • We lacked sanitary bathroom facilities. The smell of urine was so strong that students covered their faces with their hands when they passed the bathrooms in the hall.
  • We either had no textbooks for class, the textbooks were long out of date, the textbooks were worn to pieces, there were not enough to go around, or some combination of each of these issues.
  • We had no paper for things like tests. Teachers wrote the questions on the blackboard, and we copied them to paper we had to provide from home.
  • We were served “state approved” lunch menus where cheaper alternatives were substituted in place of more expensive, healthier ingredients. For example, potato chips were substituted for lettuce on the salad bar.
  • We had too few teachers to segregate children by grade level; one class might stretch a teacher across 2–3 grade levels.
  • We had too few classrooms to accommodate the students. Some children studied in make-shift classrooms in rented trailers.
  • We had no safety shelters even though students were studying in mobile trailers in tornado zones.
  • We had no music education program.
  • We had no art education program.
  • We had no physical education program.

I mention all of these issues here ad nauseam to emphasize that disadvantage is not just related to racial minority status — this is an example of one of many poor, predominately white rural schools in The South. In the bigger picture, disadvantage simply correlates with poverty. It’s a mistake to focus too much on the race of the students when evaluating how to help people improve their lot in life.

When asked about affirmative action, Justice Sotomayor indicated that, “affirmative action doesn’t just level the playing field, it actually introduces minorities to playing fields they never knew existed”. I could not agree more; however, I believe that applying affirmative action to our citizens solely on the basis of race significantly dilutes its effect.

Applying affirmative action policies equally to both African-American students in poverty and to African-American students of the middle class excludes entire segments of the population who are living in poverty and who are in equal need of enfranchisement. Just as when Justice Sotomayor first visited Princeton University and discovered a new, previously incomprehensible playing field, so too would white students who have been long accustomed to dodging leaky roofs and avoiding the open sewage in their halls of education.

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  1. If you would like to hear a rebroadcast of the show, click to stream it from the NPR website.