With all the controversy surrounding Holocaust dramas, it is no wonder that a Holocaust comedy whose second half is set in a concentration camp, Roberto Benigni's (b. 1952) La Vita è bella ( Life is Beautiful , 1997), evoked bitter criticism. The film has been likened to the satire in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), although the context through which Chaplin's deflation of Hitler earned its acclaim differs. A scene early in the film in which the hero, Guido (Benigni), comically disrupts a fascist classroom in particular merits the comparison. Like Schindler's List , Life is Beautiful tries to wrench from the Holocaust context an uplifting narrative of survival and redemption, here specifically by focusing on the extended conceit of a father shielding his son from the horrors of their exportation from Ferrara and internment in a concentration camp by spinning innocent fantasy explanations for horrible events. The film works best as a fantasy because such a shielding would never have been possible, and the truth of the Shoah is that even young children in the camps knew the pain of their existence all too well. To follow this film, one must grant it its moment-to-moment ironies, as each new atrocious aspect becomes a comic fantasy. Whether or not one finds such irony compelling, a fascinating image appears at the end of the film, after the liberation: father and son rejoin the wife on a hill, symbolically reclaiming the land.

In an Italian cultural context, the film can be seen as celebrating Italian Jewish survivors. For Italy, like France, offers a different setting for Holocaust films, one with questions specific to national cultural history. American audiences embraced, but sometimes misunderstood aspects of an earlier Italian film about the Holocaust, Vittorio De Sica's (1901–1974) Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini ( The Garden of the Finzi Continis , 1970), adapted for the screen by Giorgio Bassani from his important novel, set in his hometown, Ferrara, Italy. The film focuses on an upper-class family in Ferrara, who under the rise of Italian fascism retreat to their enclosed villa, yet where they entertain a few close friends with tennis and social gatherings. Many wondered about the depiction of Jews as upper-class blonds, ignoring the specificity that the film and the novel before it address Jewish assimilation in Northern Italy. The film traces the arrest and deportation of the family along with other Jews. The garden of the title represents the passivity of this family of means, living too long in denial.

Roman Polanski's (b. 1933) The Pianist (2002), adapted by Ronald Harwood from Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography, masterfully witnesses the Holocaust from hiding. It tells the story of an accomplished musician who becomes subject to the Nazi anti-Jewish laws. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) and his family are forced to move to the Jewishghet to of Warsaw, and when his family is deported to a death camp, Szpilman is sent to a German forced labor compound. He witnesses the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943,

Adrien Brody in Roman Polanksi's Le Pianiste ( The Pianist , 2002).
followed by the revolt throughout the city begun in August 1944. In an encounter between Szpilman and a Nazi officer among the ruins of one of his hideouts shortly before the Nazi defeat in Poland, the officer begs him to play once more—and lets him live—a sign of the officer's own alienation.

The return of music at the end of The Pianist is an example of a trend in some recent Holocaust films to emphasize the return to decency after the depraved onslaught of barbarity. These recent endings contrast with those especially of earlier East European Holocaust films, such as Andrzej Wajda's (b. 1926) Kanal (1957), about Warsaw's resistance. This shift cannot just be assumed to come from the passage of time alone, for the pressure of commercial distribution to a contemporary world market weighed on Polanski in ways that were not a factor for his compatriot Wajda. It is striking that Polanski, himself a Holocaust survivor as a child, returned to Poland to tell this story, finally, at this late stage in his career, thus releasing his survivor pain.


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——. "The Trauma of History: Flashbacks upon Flashbacks." Screen 42, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 205–210.

Maureen Turim

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