Controversy and the silver screen

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” depicts anti-Semitism in a satirical way.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

It isn’t just live performances such as “The Death of Klinghoffer” that can raise questions of propriety and appropriateness. The silver screen isn’t immune to such debates.

Of course, not every work that raises difficult issues is controversial. Films such as 1998’s “American History X” and “Steel Toes” (2006) have both woven tales about the awakening and reformation of repentant, intelligent neo-Nazi skinheads jailed for brutal, racially motivated murders. Discovering the errors of their past, each tries to repair the damage they’ve done to their lives and come to terms with their actions. In a scene during the former, the protagonist, played by Edward Norton, goes off on an explicit rant against his mother’s Jewish boyfriend (Elliott Gould) while “Steel Toes” is replete with tense moments depicting the interplay between a Jewish lawyer (David Strathairn) and his smart but violent and confused client (Andrew Walker).

Also appearing to positive reviews was “The Counterfeiters.” Named the best foreign language film of 2007 at the Academy Awards, it delves into troubling issues of life, death, morality and resistance to evil as it details the experiences of a group of Jewish prisoners receiving preferential treatment from German guards as they work to reproduce Allied money.

Some films take on Middle East issues – and can find themselves embroiled in controversy for doing so. “Munich,” a 2005 Steven Spielberg release, may be the best recent example. Allegedly based on true events, the movie concerned the efforts of a team of Israeli assassins who are charged with tracking down and killing those responsible for planning the Palestinian-sponsored murders of several Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympics. By turns artistic, conversational and starkly violent, the film shows the moral ambiguity felt by members of the assassination squad as they carry out their grisly work. “Munich” ends with Avner (Eric Bana), the once eager, now utterly disillusioned main character, refusing to return to Israel, saying “There is no peace at the end of this.” The final scene subtly centers the Twin Towers as the background for the shot.

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Critically acclaimed by many, some felt the message of the film was too focused on moral equivalency between the terrorists and those pursuing them. Though he calls the film innovative and intelligent, columnist David Brooks concludes that the film’s Arab antagonists are “marginal” and “opaque.”

“Because he will not admit the existence of evil as it really exists, Spielberg gets reality wrong,” Brooks wrote. “Understandably, he doesn’t want to portray Palestinian terrorists as cartoon bad guys, but he simply doesn’t portray them.”

Some sources were even less charitable.

“All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective,” wrote literary critic Leon Wieseltier in the Jewish World Review.

Others felt differently however. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert ranked the movie in his 10 best for the year and said “Munich” displayed a “deep love for Israel.” Writer David Bedein of the Israel Resource News Agency published an open apology to Spielberg for having criticized the film before seeing it.

“‘Munich’ could easily be used by Israeli intelligence to train a future generation of crack Israeli troops,” he wrote, “to recognize that Israeli soldiers must know and recognize the nature of Israel’s adversaries, so that they will have the mental and moral capacity to fight the next battle in the continuing war for Israeli independence, which is not yet over.”

Even comedies haven’t always escaped controversy. Mel Brooks’ darkly satirical “The Producers,” came in for sharp words by some critics at the time of its 1968 release for its somewhat risqué humor, its portrayal of the two leading Jewish characters as corrupt and greedy and its light treatment of Hitler barely two decades after the horrors he visited upon occupied Europe. According to the New York Times, the movie’s working title was originally “Springtime for Hitler” after the fictional musical it depicted. Later, the moniker was softened to remove the German dictator’s name.

Despite initially mixed reviews, “The Producers” went on to become a classic, later finding new life as a Broadway hit and 2005 film remake. It also wasn’t Brooks’ last foray into Nazi-related humor. His “To Be or Not To Be,” set in occupied Poland, came out in 1983. Interestingly, Brooks used that film to raise the issue of the Third Reich’s treatment of homosexuals. One character cracks wise about having to wear a pink triangle, prompting Times reviewer Vincent Canby to wryly note Brooks’ “urge to carry bad taste so far that it might possibly become redeeming.”

Notably, making a joke of fascism was quite common and acceptable during the war years themselves. Brooks’ “To Be or Not To Be” was actually a redux of a 1942 Jack Benny humor flick of the same name. That work came out just two years after the most famous Hitler-esque comedy of them all, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”

Hatred of Jews has also been a comedic topic in and of itself. In 2006, the mockumentary “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” prompted worries over Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s farcical portrayal of an outlandishly anti-Semitic main character. The issue gained enough visibility to prompt a mild statement by the Anti-Defamation League. Largely uncritical of the film, the ADL acknowledged that the intent of its creators was clearly to “unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism.”

Still, it sounded a mild cautionary note.

“We are concerned, however,” read the statement, “that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”

Ironically, the ADL took a somewhat less equivocal tone of reproach towards Cohen’s treatment of the nation of Kazakhstan, which was deeply upset by its portrayal in the raunchy spoof.

Released in 1998, the touching comedy “Life Is Beautiful” was met with rave reviews by American critics but not everyone was pleased with the subject matter, which concerned a Jewish father who fools his young son into believing their stay in a German concentration camp is just a game. Time magazine’s critic Richard Schickel said that as memories of the Holocaust fade and the voices of its deniers grow stronger, minimizing the enormity of the Shoah was the last thing popular entertainment needed to be doing.

“In this climate, turning even a small corner of this century’s central horror into feel-good popular entertainment is abhorrent,” he wrote. “Sentimentality is a kind of fascism too, robbing us of judgment and moral acuity, and it needs to be resisted.”

But in a 2010 commentary published in the Jewish Light, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman took a different view. Initially, he was dubious that humor could tackle the subject of the Shoah but the movie, which starred its own director Roberto Benigni, changed his mind.

“Humor and the Holocaust – an oxymoron in terms!” wrote Foxman, himself a survivor. “Yet Benigni made it work.”

Other films were not so light or touching. The oddly spelled “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) revises history so that a team of Jewish American guerrilla fighters and a Jewish theater owner murder Hitler and his top officers. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the quirky, blood-soaked Quentin Tarantino WWII epic features a member of the American group whose specialty is to bludgeon Nazi soldiers with a baseball bat. The movie climaxes with the top German leadership being burned to death while locked in a building, an atrocity that was actually visited upon Jews in real life during that era.

A Newsweek review noted the turnabout as vaguely disturbing, wondering whether it was rewarding to portray Jews, even fictional ones, as being just as brutal as their Nazi tormentors.

“An alternative, and morally superior, form of ‘revenge’ for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended,” said the review, “that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future.”

Interestingly, the film had to pay attention to German sensibilities as much as Jewish ones. The website promoting it in Germany had to have the swastika removed from the title as it is illegal to display the Nazi insignia in that nation.

Some however felt the movie’s theme of vengeance was not a hollow one. ADL lauded it as an “entertaining and thought-provoking” allegory of good and evil.

“If only it were true!” said a statement by the organization.

Can We Talk? is a new quarterly series from the Jewish Light, the JCC and JCRC, pairing Jewish Light stories, op-eds and editorials and a community discussion event.