I was beginning to think that it was only me who finds recent developments in cinematography not enhancing but distracting from the film. I was so pleased with Jean Barr's
review of the film 1917
. Of course, it depends on what you're looking for from a film – I discovered long ago that many people younger than me won't even watch a film if they know it's in black and white.
But Jean Barr was not just making a point about the distracting cinematography. She also was disappointed that 1917
had no moral message about the horrors of war. The 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front
was eloquent about the futilities and dishonesties of the slaughter of 1914-18. Few people could watch that film and emerge untouched by its pathos and the helplessness of its unwilling actors. But Jean Barr said that the film 1917
didn't try to say anything about war – it was using war as a tool, a background, to show off cinematographic cleverness. Horror as entertainment.
There is a whole industry now built around 'Holocaust Tourism'. People in their hundreds of thousands visit the preserved remnants of Nazi death camps in central Europe. They look at the railway lines, huts and the ruins of the crematoria – and they are told what happened there. Few of them think that they could have been the victims or the perpetrators of those crimes. But the evidence from what happened in Europe during the Second World War and many other genocidal conflicts, and the more formal research by such investigators as Stanley Milgram after the war, suggests that we are far more vulnerable than we think we are. It was people like us who were in the death camps, as prisoners and as guards.
A famous film about the holocaust is Schindler's List
. Steven Spielberg, having discovered the story, was desperate to have it made as a film, but it seems clear that he was aware of the potential moral difficulties of using horror as entertainment. He refused to take any money for his work, shot it in black and white, and used then relatively unknown actors. Profits from the film were used for Holocaust education.
I went to see the film but I left half-way through. In spite of his efforts, once again there is little in the film to help one understand how such things could happen. Once again there are no characters whose skin we can get inside – the action of the film is something happening quite separately from the lives we lead and the people we are. Horror as entertainment. And for all his scruples about the subject matter, Steven Spielberg was prepared to stand in the limelight and accept the Oscars enabled by that horror.
A current film dealing with some of the same subject matter is Jojo Rabbit
. Set in the last months of the war in Europe in 1945, it tells the story through the eyes and the imagination of a 10-year-old boy. He is a boy we can identify with. He's a very nice thoughtful boy, hasn't got many friends and wants to fit in. He is a fanatical Nazi, obsessed with swastikas, and has an imaginary friend who is a caricature of Adolf Hitler. Original footage of film of Nazi rallies shows the enormous social pressures to conform. Unbeknown to him, his parents work in the ant-Nazi resistance and there is a young Jewish girl hidden in the attic of their house.
The film traces his renaissance as the Third Reich crumbles around him and his family. There is tragedy, and there is humour at the expense of Jojo and of the bizarre norms of behaviour in the Nazi state. A cynical invalided soldier provides tuition in the arts of war and provides a surreal human perspective that we can all understand and appreciate. The girl in the attic is both frightened and brave.
The film has powerful performances by a range of characters who are only too human. The film touches us where we need to be to be touched – because it enables us to understand, in a very clever way, without preaching, how horror can come about.