It wasn’t Schindler’s List that made the Holocaust safe for show business. But it was Steven Spielberg’s successful rethinking of mass extermination in terms of mass culture that created space for genre movies like Roberto Benigni’s concentration-camp comedy Life Is Beautiful and Bryan Singer’s Nazi monster flick Apt Pupil. What situation could be more extreme? What vampire scarier?
Life Is Beautiful, Benigni’s most ambitious movie to date and an enormous popular success in Italy, announces itself as a “simple fable”–although if fable is defined as a tale told to convey a moral truth, it’s neither. The film opens in Mussolini’s Italy on the eve of World War II and for its first half is a cheerfully antifascist slapstick romp, heavily indebted to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Mildly scurrilous and monumentally speed-jabbering, the quick-witted Benigni arrives in a Tuscan village and mounts a campaign to win a pretty schoolteacher (Nicoletta Braschi). The assault is waged against the audience as well. In one calisthenic set piece, the voluble star passes himself off as a school inspector to impress Braschi and finds himself having to improvise an explanation of Italy’s newly mandated race laws–using a mixture of double-talk, bombast, and exhibitionism.
Irrepressible, imaginative, and naturally anti-authoritarian, Benigni consequently rescues Braschi from a night at the opera and an unwilling engagement to a pompous fascist official. Only then is it revealed that his character is a Jew. Of course, Benigni is a purely abstract Jew except in so far as he resembles Chaplin (or, at times, Woody Allen). He is the lovably déclassé little guy, dexterous enough to tip his hat with his cane and manipulative enough to talk his way out of anything. It’s a 20th-century trope: the Nazis sincerely hated Chaplin, who may not have been a Jew but was certainly a symbol of everything “Jewish.”
In the movie’s second half, Benigni leaps into the void. In a single shot, the action jumps ahead six years to become a version of The Day the Clown Cried, the legendary, never-released Jerry Lewis opus in which America’s greatest comedian-philanthropist plays a clown in Auschwitz given the job of amusing children on their way to the gas chamber. Such gruesome psychodrama is (mercifully) beyond Benigni’s grasp. Still, now married to Braschi, his character is snatched by the Gestapo on the afternoon of their son’s fifth-birthday party and deported, along with the boy (Giorgio Cantarini), to a Nazi concentration camp.
Life Is Beautiful improves on reality in many small ways. It is never noted that Italian race laws forbade intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles or that, when Benigni is deported, Italy had been at war for five years and was under German occupation. Benigni’s character seems unaware that most other Italian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz during the winter of 194344. Still, in some respects, the hero’s experience parallels that of the best known of these deportees, Primo Levi, an assimilated Italian who survived a year in Auschwitz and later described the experience with devastating lucidity.
Levi is not exactly a feel good writer, although (as Lawrence Langer notes in his new collection, Preempting the Holocaust) American publishers have consistently tried to give his books an affirmative spin both by altering their titles (changing If This Is a Man into Survival in Auschwitz and The Truce to The Reawakening) and employing grotesquely upbeat jacket copy: “Primo Levi’s
luminous writings offer a wondrous celebration of life. His universally acclaimed books remain a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit.” So too Life Is Beautiful.
Benigni may whine and complain while doing slave labor, but he helps his boy survive by explaining their incarceration as a sort of madcap outward-bound contest in which, so the child is led to believe, they engage in all manner of nutty behavior to rack up points for a grand prize. Responding to circumstance, Benigni’s character invents this as he goes along and, for once, his hysteria almost feels genuine. Despite the jokes about showers and crematoria, the Toronto Film Festival audience with whom I saw the movie was clearly amused–except perhaps when the game’s other “players” began to disappear.
It’s stunningly inappropriate and yet, by turning the death camp into an improvised children’s game, Benigni articulates a partial truth. Auschwitz was, in the deepest, most awful sense, an absurd place–a monstrous realm of institutionalized irrationality. Soon after his arrival, the parched Levi broke an icicle off a windowsill to quench his thirst only to have it snatched by a guard. Levi was shocked enough to asked why, to which the guard replied, “There is no ‘why’ here.” Reason had no meaning in Auschwitz although there was a particular logic–which had to be grasped if one were to have any chance of staying alive–and it is this logic that Benigni takes as the basis for comedy.
But that can only be seen in retrospect. If the movie is a fable, its moral must be that lying makes life bearable. Life Is Beautiful shows not just an attempt to save a child but also an attempt to protect his innocence–and hence that of the spectator who may or may not know (or want to know) how the extremity of the death camps compelled parents and children to unbearable acts of sacrifice. Mel Brooks’s bad-taste “Springtime for Hitler” implicated its audience but, like Schindler’s List, Benigni’s movie is above all reassuring–indeed, that is its greatest absurdity. Benigni, like Schindler, is the good father and little Giorgio Cantarini is his chosen son.
Life Is Beautiful is funny (kinda) and even tasteful (sorta). But in its fantasy of divine grace, it is also nonsense.
Apt Pupil is an altogether less uplifting story. Because Bryan Singer’s follow-up to The Usual Suspects is a sort of naturalized Nightmare on Elm Street, it is free to acknowledge–or at least hint–that its frissons, such as they may be, are the cold breeze off an Everest of corpses.
Singer’s source is a Stephen King novella from the same collection that yielded The Shawshank Redemption. Published in 1982, it’s pre-Schindler. Nevertheless, its cautionary account of an enterprising high school lad named Todd, who discovers a real Nazi war criminal living incognito in his idyllic American suburb and is consequently corrupted through his fascination with this absolute evil, is a Faust story with a neat-o Spielbergian resonance. (If Life Is Beautiful is the antiSophie’s Choice, this is the anti-E.T.)
In the original, the somewhat younger hero is disappointed when his SS man fails to sound like Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes. So it is with the movie. Singer tries in vain to find equivalents to wartime atrocities–as when the reawakened Nazi (Ian McKellen) stuffs a pussycat in his oven or young Todd (Brad Renfro) slams his basketball on a wounded bird. This exotic Euro horror is as alien as Count Dracula. One might have made Apt Pupil an allegory of postwar realpolitik–or at least the rehabilitation of rocket scientist Werner von Braun–but Singer has something more Hitchcockian in mind and, after the Nazi becomes Todd’s superego, the guilt starts flowing freely. To complicate things, Singer imbues their relationship with an undercurrent of homosexual attraction while Renfro’s cloddish character, who seems to be reinventing the s/m dress-up of The Night Porter, slyly encourages audience sympathy for McKellen’s foxy grampa.
Disagreeable and exploitative as it is, Apt Pupil insists on something that Life Is Beautiful tries to hide in plain sight: the individual acts of courage found in the testimony of Holocaust survivors can never compensate for the knowledge gleaned of human depravity. There is no light at the end of that tunnel or even an end. It leads to a place with neither redemption nor closure.