As the twentieth century barrels to an end, we continue to revisit the Holocaust. Perhaps it’s to again ask the questions to which there are few answers, or perhaps it’s to comfort ourselves with the notion that despite how troubled our world has become, we have at least taken a giant leap forward from our absolute depths. Haven’t we?
This week, the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington presents “A Holocaust Prism: Different Perspectives,” the first in a line of documentary miniseries the center has planned. The screenings are supplemented by speakers who bring both scholarship and life experience to the issues raised by the films themselves. Among the pictures being screened is The Port of Last Resort: the Jews of Shanghai, an acclaimed documentary based in part on Long Island resident Evelyn Pike Rubin’s memoir, Ghetto Shanghai. Through archival footage, letters and interviews, the film tells the seldom-heard story of the exodus of some 18,000 Jews to this open Asian port. Rubin herself will speak at the 4 p.m. screening Sunday, Oct. 24. Also playing is Suzanne Osten’s Speak Up! It’s So Dark, a fictional tale of the tense and profound relationship between a Swedish Neo-Nazi skinhead and an elderly Jewish man who comes to his aid after a bloody fight in a train station. The film explores the absurd but entrenched barriers that remain between us and peace.
But perhaps the most disturbing film being shown is Peter Cohen’s 1989 documentary The Architecture Of Doom, which approaches the Nazi era with an austerity and discipline that most other filmmakers are unable to maintain. The resulting picture manages to show how a grandiose and perverted aesthetic sensibility was in many ways more at the root of the Reich than any traditional political motivations.
We learn in greater detail than ever that Adolf Hitler was, at his core, a failed artist and would-be architect. Despite their strange intensity, Hitler’s moody watercolors, full of towering facades and desolate plazas, failed to gain him entrance to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Art. After this rejection, Hitler turned toward a boundless art of the imagination, where he sketched out plans for massive museums in dreamed-up Germanic capitals. All the while, he was being whipped into a frenzy by the glorious destruction played out before him in the operas of his hero Wagner. He became increasingly obsessed with the aesthetic ideals of antiquity, whose purity and grandeur he held up against the “decay” of post-World War I Germany.
Hitler was not the first aspiring dictator to turn to the classicism of ancient Greece and Rome for imagery and ideas. Napoleon and the whole French Revolution had the backdrop of neo-classicism. The strength and order of classical art were used to critique aristocratic decadence, of which the flowery and sensual Rococo paintings of the time were seen as a symptom. Hitler thought that the “degenerate” avant-garde work being championed by Jews wasn’t a mere symptom of the cultural decay of some Aryan ideal. For Hitler, it was a systemic cause, spiritual bacteria whose eradication was the first step towards the resurrection of Germania.
The Architecture of Doom has amazing footage of two simultaneous exhibits set up by Hitler. The New German Art showcases an oppressive collection of grotesquely idealized sculptures and landscapes, full of muscular nudes and blonde workers frolicking in the grass. Across the street, as it were, we have the “degenerate” exhibit, curated and hung with such savvy as to portray expressionism, cubism and all the other styles of the then-modern avant-garde as strangely alien and frightening. Given the choice between oppression and alienation, it seems the public prefers the former.
It’s hard not to see the connection between this film and the current controversy at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Hitler used art and culture to wage his war against “the others” by classifying people on the margin as a threat to ideological sanctity. The logical next step was to consider a violent response as merely a form of self-defense. Hearing Mayor Giuliani talk about the “depraved” exhibit at the BAM and his desire for family-oriented art, one can’t help but shudder. Art is never the thing that threatens us. It is, as always, power and intolerance that team up. The Architecture Of Doom shows us that the control of ideals is at the very root of fascism’s appeal. And it tells us why protecting the avant-garde might just be our best defense.
Holocaust Prism: Different Perspectives
October 22-27 at Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington. For more information, call 516-423-7611.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 26, 1999