The Italian film "Life Is Beautiful," a tragicomic fable set partly in a concentration camp, has revived the decades-old debate on the latitude allowed the creative artist in depicting the ultimate horror of the Holocaust.
Particularly in the Jewish community, which holds the Nazi murder of the 6 million deeply in its collective memory, any perceived trivialization of the Holocaust in literature or film quickly inflames profound sensitivities and never-healed scars.
In the film, which opened last Friday, the great comic actor Roberto Benigni--the movie's co-writer, director and star--plays a fully assimilated and exuberant Italian Jew who is deported with his 5-year-old son to a Nazi death camp. To shield the boy from the horror around him, Benigni pretends, with considerable humor, that life in the camp is part of an elaborate game with intricate rules, whose "winner" will get a fabulous prize.
The premise is daring and ripe with potential pitfalls. So it's a tribute to Benigni's sensitivity and comic genius that, with few exceptions, L.A. area Jewish leaders, scholars and Holocaust survivors have warmly applauded the film.
"Like many inmates in concentration camps and ghettos, Benigni uses humor as a weapon of the oppressed, and he does so masterfully," observes Dr. Michael Berenbaum, president and CEO of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Professor David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, observes that "in a world in which the absurd and unimaginable was the norm, the movie's absurdist approach captures its own truth about the Shoah."
Such a positive reception, in itself, marks a generational change from what the public, and Jews especially, will accept as a "proper" or "respectful" representation of the Holocaust.
In the immediate postwar decades, when many films and even the pioneer NBC television miniseries "Holocaust" were widely derided as "Holokitsch," standards were considerably more rigid. Yiddish poet Aaron Tsaytlin put it most starkly when he demanded nothing less than absolute silence.
"Were Jeremiah to sit by the ashes of Israel today," Tsaytlin wrote, "he would not cry out in lamentation. The Almighty Himself would be powerless to open his well of tears. He would maintain a deep silence. For even an outcry is now a lie, even tears are mere literature, even prayers are false."
The renowned Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander thought that even the most sensitive artist faced an almost insoluble dilemma in trying to give shape and meaning to a totally irrational event.
"A true work of art requires symbolization, but what if there is no conceivable symbol that is greater than the reality?" Friedlander asked. "How can you write great fiction when the truth is infinitely stronger than the imagination?"
Author Elie Wiesel declared that only his fellow Holocaust survivors were entitled to speak and write about the Holocaust, while some scholars felt that only the most disciplined, documented research was appropriate to the subject.
Berenbaum grants that such restrictive standards may have been valid for the first Holocaust generation, which had experienced Hitler's "Final Solution" firsthand. "But we are now in the second, third and fourth generation after the Holocaust, and different approaches can be appropriate.
"What we must ask now of any artistic creation, is it worthy, do we learn something, is it ultimately respectful?"
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a survivor, agrees that "each generation has to view the Holocaust in a new and creative way."
UCLA's Myers, like many viewers, was deeply moved by the tender relationship between the film's father and son. With small children of his own at home, Myers says he left the theater "enraptured and paralyzed."
Marcia Josephy, president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, describes the film as "a serious comedy that pays tribute to art as resistance and to the indomitable human spirit."
Although "Life Is Beautiful" did not strike Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as a great film, he praises its "insight into the mind-set of Nazism and fascism," foremost in the relationship between Benigni's character and a once-friendly German doctor whom he meets again in the concentration camp.
Especially telling has been the reaction of Holocaust survivors and their children. Dr. Samuel Goetz, a concentration camp inmate at age 14, says that while the movie was intended as a fable as seen through the boy's eyes, it included considerable realism.
"When you see the expressions of the SS men, like animals ready to pounce on their prey, that was very reminiscent of my own experience," Goetz recalls.
Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League was hidden as a child in Poland during the war by a Catholic family. When he was first invited last year to preview the film in Italy, he refused to attend "a comedy about the Holocaust."