In the first of a series of posts on the representation of the Holocaust in art and literature, Alan Polak discusses the purpose of such attempts at engaging with the Holocaust in fiction, film and poetry.
Representations of the Holocaust in art, which includes film, fiction, and even video games, continue to divide opinion over whether such representation is appropriate, or useful as a means of comprehending the crimes of the Nazis. Popular films such as Schindler’s List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas have come under fire for a lack of historical accuracy. The fear is that this can lead to a blurring of the facts and a consequential falsification of the historical record as viewers take “fictional story” as “historical fact”. Some opponents of this Holocaust “art” go so far as to label this Holocaust denial and to be sure there are many examples of what I would call bad Holocaust art where the intention is to shock. Uwe Boll’s recent film ‘Auschwitz’ for example shows in graphic detail the murder process at Auschwitz. Some would argue that this may actually serve to jolt viewers out of complacency, to see the murders at Auschwitz as the barbaric acts they were and that Boll’s film forces the viewer to engage with the reality of the Holocaust rather than a sanitized version of events. Opposition to this film has been fierce however and I would argue that Boll’s film prompts an emotional response, mainly one of revulsion, rather than allowing or prompting a viewer to engage with the ‘why’ of the Holocaust. We know a great deal about the murder process at places like Treblinka and Auschwitz. I would argue that we do not need to see it. Whatever Mr. Boll’s intent is with this film I would argue that Holocaust arts’ purpose should be to provoke thought and reflection to be useful as a means of understanding the Nazi genocide. It should, to avoid charges of inappropriateness, engage the viewer and encourage discussion and reflection.
The writer James Meek argues that a video game, unlike film, prompts this active response in the viewer. That you must play a video game would seem to make a response all but unavoidable. Film, he argues, “doesn’t ask you to make choices, push buttons”. Cinema accommodates a passive viewer. For a computer game to be more than just ‘entertainment’ the player must, in Meek’s terms, become a part of the story as he or she makes decisions and pushes buttons.
Sonderkommando Revolt, originally due for release in January 2011, but now cancelled after numerous complaints following the furore that it generated, used the Holocaust as a backdrop. ‘Based loosely’ on the Auschwitz Sonderkommando uprising on October 7th 1944, the game cast players in the role of a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners who the Nazis forced to operate the crematoriums in various death camps. The player collects a series of weapons while rampaging through Auschwitz blasting Nazis and guard dogs. Mr. Genis, the game’s designer, was quoted in The Daily Mirror as saying it is ‘plain blast-the-Nazis fun’.
Computer games about the events of the Second World War are abundant. Most are variants on Genis’ ‘Nazi blasting’ – the hugely popular Call of Duty series was, until recently, solely focused on World War Two. But with Sonderkommando Revolt the lack of historical accuracy calls into question the purpose and value of such a game. Mr. Genis has argued that his game was ‘made very realistic’ and this leads to the question of whether the player, as in most computer games, will be able to “win” against the SS? The Auschwitz uprising ended in the death of 451 Sonderkommando. No one escaped; no one survived. There would seem to be little to learn from a game in which the historical record can simply be falsified in the name of entertainment.
What is missing here in both of these examples is any serious engagement on the part of the creator, and in Sonderkommando’s case the player, on what exactly it is they are “playing” and what the Holocaust means to successive generations. Genis’ game ‘doesn't have any agenda, hidden or visible - on any historic, political or religious issue - beyond what some people might decide to attach to it.’ However given that Genis’ next two games were to be Warsaw Uprising and Mission: Treblinka, both of which saw rebellions by Jewish prisoners, Sonderkommando Revolt would appear to be just the first in a line of games with the Jewish Holocaust prisoner as avenger, a kind of Schwarzenegger character in a fantasy setting that is anything but. The game mythologises the Holocaust, turning it into a parody of a Hollywood action movie rather than a serious attempt at engaging with a complex matter.
Art can successfully engage with the events of the Holocaust but to do so, and to avoid charges of cashing in’ on the suffering of millions or Holocaust denial, it must engage the reader or viewer or player in those events.
Alan Polak is a member of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz team. He holds an MA in Literatures of Modernity from Royal Holloway, University of London. His dissertation was on fictional representations of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He is currently researching the perversion/inversion of Liebensraum into a form of 'dying space' under the Third Reich.