Hollywood takes a machinegun to history





Typical: you wait half a century for a Hollywood film to tackle the myths and taboos of the Second World War, and then three come along at once.

The Reader (with Kate Winslet), Defiance (with Daniel Craig) and Valkyrie (with Tom Cruise) have each, in different ways, sought to break from the one-dimensional interpretations of the past. Hollywood has traditionally depicted the horrors of the war as a Manichean struggle between good and evil: SS camp guards as inhuman monsters, Jews as defenceless victims herded to their deaths.

Winslet plays an SS camp guard with humanity; Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, the Jewish partisan who waged guerrilla war against the Germans in Poland; and Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944.

The Reader is fiction, but the other two films claim to be depictions of real events, and will be judged as simple truth by the 12 to 15-year-olds who make up the majority of today's film audiences. Both are great entertainment; but both are flawed history, for the reality of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, and German resistance to Hitler, is far more complex, morally demanding and fascinating than film will allow.

In challenging one myth, Hollywood demands that we accept another. Cruise plays a piratical Stauffenberg, a good German conscience in a snappy Third Reich uniform and an eye-patch, setting out on a crusade to slay the Nazi dragon. The real Stauffenberg was no saint, and the plot to kill Hitler was not some simple redemptive act by a group of heroes.

Stauffenberg was an old-fashioned aristocratic nationalist. He never joined the Nazi party, but he was delighted when Hitler overran Poland and in raptures as the Nazi army rolled into Western Europe. His conscience was little troubled by the enslavement of Poles to feed the ravenous Nazi war machine: “The population here are an unbelievable rabble; a great many Jews and a lot of mixed race. A people that is only comfortable under the lash,” he wrote in a letter to his wife. Oddly enough, Cruise does not say these lines in the film.

Some of Stauffenberg's fellow plotters against Hitler had previously played active roles in support of the Holocaust. Some were bent on protecting German conquests in the east by securing a favourable peace with the Anglo-American alliance. Stauffenberg was increasingly appalled by the atrocities of the Nazi regime but, like so many at the time, his motives were mixed, his heroism far from clear-cut.

The July plotters were ambitious, as well as brave. These were not soft-hearted democrats, but hard-nosed militarists intent on mounting a coup to oust a leader who was losing the war.

Defiance performs a similarly simplifying role for the equally knotty subject of Jewish resistance. For decades the Jews murdered during the Holocaust have been portrayed as passive victims, a myth that subtly insinuated that Jews were somehow complicit in their own destruction. Films like Schindler's List and The Piano compounded the idea that Jews were terrorised and helpless.

To right that wrong we now have Craig, armed with sub-machinegun and granite jaw, fighting back against Nazi oppression in the forests. Once again the truth is more complicated, and more interesting...

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