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The Sublime as the Ridiculous

(by Eric Blair)

Novelist Norman Mailer, who is not one of my favourite authors, once complained in an essay of the nihilistic impact of television commercials.

I mention this because like many North Americans in April, 1978, I, too, watched some of the 9 1/2 hours of the NBC Television "Holocaust" mini-series. The film was broadcast over four nights, but, as I recall, I had quit trying to watch it about half way through its second installment. The reason that I quit were the maudlin, instrusive commercials that kept spoiling my concentration. It was exasperating and, after a while, it just didn't seem to be worth the effort. "Enough of this epic soap-opera!" I thought.

I was a twenty-something university student then preparing for my final exams. I remember telling a class-mate: "It's just as well they made watching this so frustrating, otherwise I wouldn't be doing what I really should be doing--studying for my finals." I was, however, sufficiently curious about the ending to tune in on the fourth night, just as the movie was into its last half-hour. With a Marlboro in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other, I curled up on the sofa and focused on one of the closing scenes.

I was anything but a critical viewer, but the fact I hadn't become engrossed in the story probably gave me a certain detachment. What I saw was the typical Auschwitz setting, with several Jewish inmates garbed in their traditional striped pyjamas and mushroom caps. My attention fastened on the lead actor in the scene: a corpulent middle-aged fair-haired man playing the role of a Jew doomed to extinction in the magical gas chambers.

With a kind of muted bravado, he was delivering a last-minute speech, before standing up and, with an almost jaunty air, walking courageously to his death. It was meant to be a last poignant moment, but it failed utterly.

For starters, the actor was more actor than character; he wasn't sufficiently identified with his character to dispel the sense of artifice that surrounded him and emanated from him. His face was too smooth and bland and far, far too well-nourished-looking for what I supposed a real Auschwitz inmate might have looked like. Soon after that moment there was yet another batch of television commercials plopped into the middle of the narrative, for floor-wax and chewing-gum and what-not, and I switched off the TV set and returned to my desk to resume my studies.

It was a decade later before I saw my next Holocaust flick on TV: the sequel to "the Winds of War" titled "War and Remembrance" broadcast in November, 1988, on ABC Television. I was an agnostic by then who no longer believed in many of the primary stories of the Holocaust and doubted most of the others, and I was no big fan of TV as a medium, but I was a fan of the actor Steven Berkoff and curious to see how he would interpret the role of Adolf Hitler. I had seen Berkoff invest his extraordinary talent as a mime in bringing to life the short stories of Franz Kafka on the London stage in 1972 and was sure he would do something novel and different with the role.


A Newsweek reviewer summed up it well when he wrote [Nov. 14, 1988, p. 92]: "Steven Berkoff's bug-eyed, apoplectic Hitler, however, suggests no one so much as Charlie Chaplin doing his Hitler. Check that: every once in a while Berkoff looks disturbingly like a mustached Bob Newhart." Here again the actor seemed far more an actor than a character. What was especially distracting was the ton and a half of makeup that Berkoff was compelled to wear for his part: it was so obvious, like an ill-fitting wig on a blowsy, strutting drag-queen.

I had to laugh. Here they spent tons of money to make their huge, unwieldy epic on the Second World War, and they couldn't get the villain right. This was like including a cantankerous Elmer Fudd as one of the secondary characters in Steven Spielberg's hit movie Schindler's List. It threw everything out of whack for a while. Which was just as well, for it caused me to switch off the television and resume reading my book: Churchill's War by David Irving.

July 1996