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The Oliver Stone danger

The filmmaker's 'contextualizing' of Hitler and Stalin as not-such-terrible-guys could disable our future resolve against mega-evil.

July 30, 2010|By Abraham Cooper

First, full disclosure: I am the Left Coast representative of the Jewish conspiratorial lobby that Oliver Stone was fretting over in his recent interview with London's Sunday Times. You know, the Jews, whose "domination of the media" prevent Hitler and Stalin from being portrayed "in context."

It seems the once and future wunderkind was also frustrated that no one understands that it was the Russians who were damaged more than the Jews during World War II. I think he had the score of 25 million or 30 million to 6 million. As a storm of protest from Jewish groups, but not Stone's peers, rolled across the Internet and media, Stone apologized, declaring that the Holocaust was an "atrocity," much to the relief of his publicist, if not outraged Holocaust survivors.

Beyond providing entertainment reporters with money quotes, are Stone's verbal assault or the anti-Semitic rants of Mel Gibson that big of a deal?

Here's why I think they are: Whether we like it or not, films present the most powerful platforms for teaching history — true-and-false lessons not easily unlearned.

Like millions of other fans, I reveled in the escapism Gibson provided in the "Lethal Weapon" movies; was deeply moved by his cry of "freedom" in "Braveheart" and his portrayal of a Revolutionary War father in "The Patriot." That's why I still shudder at the effect of his cinematic demonization of Jews in "The Passion of Christ" and his anti-Semitic outburst during an arrest for drunk driving.

Gibson's other anger-management issues have (for now) nudged him off the "A" list, but Stone continues to be a big player behind the camera and around the world — a self-appointed interpreter and gatekeeper of history. His Sunday Times controversy comes on the heels of his announced participation in a 10-part docudrama for Showtime, "Secret History of America." Stone will be "contextualizing" people who have "been vilified pretty thoroughly by history." His choices: Stalin, Hitler and Mao, along with American demagogue Joseph McCarthy.

Why all the angst over such a production? For one thing, Stone's extreme makeover of the 20th century's greatest butchers in a U.S. production could resonate in all the wrong places overseas. It parallels troubling real-life makeovers of tyrants and the trivialization of the Holocaust:

• In Germany, "revisionist" historians apologetically argue that Nazi death camps were merely replicas of Stalin's gulags.

• In Russia, Vladimir Putin dusted off the cult of Stalin as the last great czar.

• In Eastern Europe, where Hitler's Final Solution was actually implemented, Lithuania — which continues denying its own shameful chapter of bloody collaboration with Nazi mass murder — is leading a campaign to have the world eliminate International Holocaust Memorial Day and meld it into a joint memorial with victims of communism.

• In India, Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is a runaway bestseller, successfully marketed to business students looking for a template for a highly organized and disciplined mind. The image of this "strong leader" from Europe and his Nazi regalia are regularly featured in marketing campaigns and restaurant decor in Asia.

• In the Arab and Muslim world, Third Reich trendiness takes on an ideological edge with Arabic, Turkish, Urdu and Farsi translations of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and "Mein Kampf" adorning airport bookstores and pro-terrorist websites. Iran is the leading state sponsor of Holocaust denial.

Ultimately, Stone's "contextualizing" of Hitler and Stalin as not-such-terrible-guys with whom we could empathize not only casts an ugly revisionist shadow on the past, it could also disable our future resolve against mega-evil.

In 1934, the year after Hitler seized power, a lanky 22-year-old went to see actor Leslie Howard star in "The Scarlet Pimpernel," dramatizing a hero who risks his life to save innocents from the French Revolution's terror. Half a century later, that young man's half sister told me it was that Hollywood film that helped to inspire Raoul Wallenberg to volunteer to go to Budapest in 1944 to confront the Nazi beast. He helped save 100,000 Hungarian Jews from deportation to Auschwitz. But there was no Hollywood ending for the Holocaust's greatest Christian hero. The Soviets arrested him and dumped him into the black hole of the gulag, from which he never emerged.

From World War II's "Why We Fight" films to civil rights to women's rights, Hollywood has not only entertained but inspired, helping to shape the social and moral fabric of our nation. But Americans have been taught to confront evil, not "contextualize" it. What teachable moments about Hitler, Stalin and Mao can we expect from Oliver Stone, a man who moves too easily around the likes of Iran's genocide-wannabee Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

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