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.

Helix (TV, 2014, Syfy Channel)

I spent this afternoon catching up on episodes 1–3 of the new Syfy Network thriller called Helix — set in an Arctic research facility owned by one of those “umbrella” corporations always home to an escaped killer virus of dubious origins. Normally, I live for such things and love to snuggle under the covers with my puppies and contemplate the unlikely erasure of our entire existence due to pandemics of our own making. Not so much this weekend.

First, mentioned in the plot a few times was the H1N1 flu virus (aka, “swine flu”), a virus that has killed about 15 people in my area of the country over the past few weeks. In fact, I have been so preoccupied with the flu threat that I myself actually walked down to the Walgreens last Friday and got myself a flu vaccination for the very first time in my life.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Hot Zone
by Richard Preston

What makes this year different? This year it is taking the lives of perfectly health people in the 20-40 age range along with the standard children and elderly pool of victims. That frightens the hell out of me.

Secondly, I recently read a fascinating book, The Hot Zone, by renowned viral expert Richard Preston. In it he details the discovery of such real-world “hot” agents such as Marberg Virus and Ebola Virus, and he goes into great detail to show how all of us are often just a plane trip away from having them invade our communities — wiping us all out forever!

How can a Syfy Channel movie about a fictional research lab in the Arctic possibly compare to the story of a REAL outbreak of Ebola Zaire that occurred at the warehouses of a Washington, D.C. area monkey import business just a few years ago. As they say, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction — in this case, truth is more real, more terrifying, and much closer to home. The Syfy program is reasonably well made (if you forgive a horribly executed CGI rat-on-rat fight in Episode 2), but it just can’t top what’s already happening in the real world.

FINAL VERDICT: Skip the creepy television show in favor of the totally horrifying reality story already available in print.

Dallas Buyers Club (Movie, 2013)

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

I recently took in a showing of The Dallas Buyers Club, a movie centering around the attempts of main character Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) to fill the void for those dealing with AIDS in the early 80’s without any hopeful medical treatments available. A real-life character, Woodroof started one of many so-called “buyers clubs” — patient collectives that were structured to make end-runs around FDA policy and DEA regulations and get time-critical therapies to those desperate to try anything rather than risk certain death.

Before getting into the issues I have with this movie, I have to give props where they are due. McConaughey does that unbelievable, effortless-looking thing where an actor makes one forget he’s watching an incredibly famous person “act” at all. He lost a painful amount of weight to portray the character with stunning realness, but he doesn’t rely on the shock value of his skeletal frame to cheat us of an award-worthy performance.

With that out of the way, I have to say that I was very disappointed with a bit if historical inaccuracy in the story. I likely would not have picked up on it had I not recently digested the 700+ pages of Randy Shilts’ definitive account of the early years of the epidemic in And the Band Played On. But I did recently read the book, and I’m glad that I did so that I can remind other moviegoers about some key points incorrect in Dallas Buyers Club.

’85 Hudson Article

The film opens with Woodroof running a gambling racket at the local rodeo. We discern the date from the newspaper article beneath the money on the table — July 25th 1985, “Rock Hudson in Paris Hospital with AIDS”. Not too much farther into the film, Woodroof winds up in the hospital himself after collapsing. Later, in a clinic exam room, two doctors inform him that he has “tested positive for HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS”. They give him 30 days to live.

Again, had I not just recently slugged through Shilts’ novel, I wouldn’t have remembered that in 1985, the only test available for HIV was the one approved by the FDA for use by blood banks and the manufacturers of blood products (e.g., clotting factor for hemophiliacs). It wasn’t available to the public, and it wasn’t used for routine hospital blood screens. In fact, it was illegal to give an individual the results of such a test and illegal to test without written consent. The former rule was supposedly meant to prevent homosexuals from using the public blood supply as a screening test (because it was not available anywhere else) — make it illegal to give them the results, and they have no reason to donate blood and continue infecting the blood supply. The latter was supposedly to prevent the test from being used by “big brother” as a de facto test of sexuality, given that initial research indicated that as much as 90% of the gay population was infected. For whatever the true reason, the test was not given to the average collapsed man on the street.

Also problematic for this scene is the issue that back in 1985, Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute was still arguing with Robert Gallo of the University of Maryland that Pasteur’s LAV (lymphadenopathy associated virus) was the cause of AIDS as opposed to Gallo’s HTLV-III (human T-lymphotropic virus type III). Though they were later determined to be the same virus and collectively named “HIV”, this term was not widely used until at least a year after the time set for the movie’s diagnosis scene.

Leto (left) and McConaughey

So, in a nutshell, it was highly unlikely that two doctors would have entered Woodroof’s room and informed him that they had performed illegal blood tests on him and found that he tested positive for a virus from the future. I don’t think it happened that way. Am I just overly persnickety when I watch movies? Probably. But as I noted in my blog entry on Shilts’ book, it is difficult to comprehend the horror of living in those times as a member of one of the “at risk” groups (i.e., homosexuals) and scientists not only unable to treat the illness, but also unable to test for it or have definitively discovered the cause. That is straight up the plot of a horror movie, and the gay community lived it. It is important to me for people not to forget this. The community suffered from a collective PTSD-worthy situation — living virtually the life of the walking dead. I wanted the movie to make this more clear.

That brings me to my problem with the character Rayon (played awkwardly by Jared Leto). Rayon is a transgender female who is remarkably unable to provide any noticeable point of view from the GLBT community. Though this is a story based on true events, Rayon is not one of them. Some have wondered if the character was added as a concession to the GLBT community of some sort — throw in a trans woman so that they don’t think they have co-opted the subject matter. I can assure the producers of the film, there is no way that you can ever co-opt AIDS from the GLBT community. Whether we want it or not, AIDS history is intertwined with ours.

FINAL VERDICT: See the movie. It’s a great movie with an incredible performance by McConaughey. Just do me a favor and share some of these facts with your friends on the ride home so that I feel like my persnickety efforts have not been in vain.