At the initial release of “Schindler’s List,” I had the chance to see the Holocaust epic at a theater in Berlin. I am of German descent, yet it is still hard for me to explain how it feels to join a German capacity crowd watching Jews being gassed at Auschwitz.
The audience’s shock wasn’t based on contention: The facts on screen were all known from high school. The main sentiment was distress — a sense of shame for the evils you didn’t commit, yet which, somehow, seem traceable to your person.
Unable to avert my eyes, I felt vulnerable, almost attacked in my self-integrity, though of course there was nothing to defend. (Point out that a hat isn’t period-accurate, you come off as a Holocaust denier.) The whole thing was a raw and disturbing experience. Sheepishly, I sat there and took it, as though out of a weird sense of duty.
Asked to comment just after the premiere, the German president at the time, Richard von Weizsaecker, responded: “I can’t say anything now. I don’t want to say anything now.”
Perhaps audiences in the U.S. have a similarly distressing time watching Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” which features scenes of barbaric torture sponsored by the U.S. government. Still, there is a difference: “Schindler’s List” is an American film depicting German atrocities.
An outside perspective can add meaning, as history shouldn’t be owned by one country. But much like Japan, the other big villain of World War II, the Germans have had to accept that the most painful part of their history has become common artistic property — in fact, often worse than that: a brand trivialized and exploited, “a great story,” as director Quentin Tarantino admitted.
Coincidentally, this gives Hollywood the power to shame, which is fearsome indeed. Studio executives get to decide which history and which sins are remembered. The usual suspects are trotted out over and over, their factual vileness repelling a worldwide audience, just in time for Christmas and the Academy Awards.
To name just a few WWII examples, Germans recently sat through “The Pianist” and “Inglourious Basterds,” while the Japanese couldn’t have felt great seeing “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Empire of the Sun,” or even last year’s “The Railway Man,” which had Colin Firth endure torture in a Japanese labor camp. Both countries, having lost the wars they started, have taken their shamings demurely. Still, I do wonder: Can movies be “microaggressions,” especially in a culture as keenly attuned to shame as Japan?
Angelina Jolie’s new movie “Unbroken” is the story of Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic runner who during WWII — you guessed it — endured torture in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Based on a 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand, the movie focuses on Zamperini’s spiritual strength as he overcomes almost surreal adversity.
Without a Japanese release date yet, “Unbroken” has already ticked off some people. Supposedly, a group of 8,000 Japanese, upset by rumors that the movie contains abuse — perhaps even cannibalism — of U.S. troops by their Japanese captors, has signed an online petition demanding to ban or boycott “Unbroken.”
“There was absolutely no cannibalism,” Mutsuhiro Takeuchi, a Shinto priest who leads the Japan Culture Intelligence Association, a research organization, told The Associated Press. “Even Japanese don’t know their own history, so misunderstandings arise.”
Such predictable outcries aside, Japanese right-wingers won’t stifle “Unbroken” the way North Korea did “The Interview.” The movie should of course be shown here, but it would be silly to view it as helpful in the fight against war-crime denial.
Jolie compels with the craft she assembles — the sumptuous sets and cinematography showcase Hollywood state-of-the-art — yet the story she tells feels strangely old-fashioned.
Here is what I learned or relearned from “Unbroken”: 1) Louis Zamperini was Superman. And Jesus. A kind of Super-Jesus; 2) Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, a Japanese guard at Zamperini’s camp, was a nasty sadist. But while he abused the hell out of Zamperini, he was also sort of in love with him; 3) To be Superman and Jesus, you have to suffer inordinate abuse, both from God and the nasty sadists. And then go back to the nasty sadists and forgive them; 4) I am not Louis Zamperini.
Jolie has expressed hope that her story may heal relations and build bridges between Japan and America. This does sound a bit disingenuous: Above all, “Unbroken” hopes to build bridges between Jolie and an Oscar statue. In an uneasy mix of commerce, ambition and art, she checked all the boxes for Academy requirements, one of which says, “Supremely evil nemesis, ideally from World War II, to highlight the triumph of the human — i.e. American — spirit.”
In the end, whatever quibbling it may engender, “Unbroken” fails to inspire because it feels so perfectly safe, right down to the evil WWII Japanese.
Jolie adds an erotic touch to the prisoner-captor dynamic by casting the feminine-looking Takamasa Ishihara — a singer-songwriter known here by the stage name Miyavi — as the guard who torments Zamperini in an endless ordeal. According to Mick LaSalle, the movie critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, it is precisely in the 45 minutes of beatings and healing and more beatings that “Unbroken” gets silly and weird:
“She has Ishihara play these scenes as though he’s secretly in love with Zamperini. And then she adds a note of the (unintentionally) absurd, when she has the actors, through their performances, suggest some kind of unspoken communication, almost a communion, between the tortured and the torturer.”
So if the Japanese opt to skip “Unbroken,” let’s not blame wholesale refusal to face the past. Denial is happening in Japan, no doubt, and it’s ugly. But there are also just regular people who don’t pay for a movie to get shamed. Or folks who don’t share Jolie’s artistic interest in sadomasochism and have tired of torture porn.
Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and writer from San Francisco. Your comments and story ideas: email@example.com