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Escape from Auschwitz
Life is Beautiful turned the Holocaust into a sentimental fable.
Alan A. Stone
Italians were in love with Roberto Benigni long before he made his Holocaust film, Life is Beautiful. Now he is their national hero. The Italian media speak of him as a genius, and mention him in the same breath as his idol, Charlie Chaplin. He has walked away with so many awards he needs a Leporello to sing the list of his triumphs: eight David di Donatello awards (Italy's Oscars); the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes; the Best Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem International Film Festival; and three Oscars, including best actor and best foreign film. Even the Pope, for whom Benigni personally screened the film, has it on his top five.
The success of Life is Beautiful, particularly in Jerusalem and Rome, marks an important moment in the history of the Holocaust. But is it the moment when hope emerges from the ashes? Or have we reached the point when the Holocaust can be used as a cinematic device-like the Titanic?
Thirty years ago any movie about Hitler's concentration camps would have risked being a sacrilege to Jews while no one else would have paid to see it. People go to movies to be entertained and to forget the real world. They are willing to ride an emotional roller coaster, but they want to be thrilled, not depressed, by the experience-and there is nothing "feel-good" about mass genocide. Although escapism can take many forms, it is the sine qua non of popular success in movie-making. This year it gave us the star-crossed wit of Shakespeare in Love, the crafted virtual reality of Saving Private Ryan, and also Life is Beautiful-Charlie Chaplin goes to Auschwitz. Benigni's film breaks a half-century taboo and takes audiences from the reality of death camps to bittersweet escapism. The fact that most Jews can laugh as well as cry and do not experience this movie as a sacrilege, and that Pope John Paul II apparently finds it an affirmation of his personal faith, is something of a cinematic milestone.
Benigni borrows from Chaplin, but also from the Marx Brothers, and from a tradition of clowns that extends back to the Commedia del Arte. Benigni's comic persona has proved as irresistible to Americans as to Italians. His personality in real life is much like his comic persona. He describes himself as an ugly little child who won people over by being a clown and who hasn't stopped. He recently appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" and was able to make even that fatuous occasion into an hilarious romp.
Benigni is not Jewish and, fearing that he would give offense to Holocaust survivors, he consulted all through production with the Center for Documentation of Contemporary Judaism in Milan. Along with two Italian Auschwitz survivors, the Center appears on the screen credits and its spokesperson, Marcello Pezzetti, is enthusiastic about the film. But he does not claim that the film is a realistic depiction of the death camps, and concedes that the marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew as portrayed in the film would have been forbidden at that time by Mussolini's fascist race laws.
The New York Times thought Benigni's film raised enough questions to warrant an op-ed piece by Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Like the Pope, Foxman gave the film his blessing and urged people to go and enjoy themselves. Americans certainly seem to be doing just that; the film has already broken the box office record for foreign language films.
But Life is Beautiful has more than a few detractors. One critic dubbed it the "unbearable lightness of Benigni," and J. Hoberman called it a "Tour de Farce." Hoberman's criticisms recall Claude Lanzmann's response to Schindler's List. Comparing it to his own documentary, Shoah, Lanzmann damned Spielberg for his escapist sentimentalization of the Holocaust. Despite all of Begnini's charm, the detractors are right to worry that his comic spell in Life is Beautiful achieves its effect by distorting painful realities and inducing a kind of self-deception in people who ought to know better.
The spell began to recede for me half-way through the film. There on the screen was the menacing locomotive that Spielberg used to such powerful effect in Schindler's List. For those who know the history of the final solution, Spielberg had chosen a perfect image for Auschwitz. The Nazis located the death camp two and a half hours from Cracow and close to the intersection of train lines that cut across Europe. At Auschwitz, a visitor can still see what is left of the personal effects of the Jews from all over Europe who were brought by trains to their mass destruction in its gas chambers.
Spielberg's film seemed inspired by what I saw when I visited the site, and I sensed the truth of Auschwitz even in its sentimentality. By placing Spielberg's locomotive in his own make-believe Auschwitz, Benigni crossed a border beyond which my aesthetic sensibility could not reach. Instead of being touched by the comic pathos I became increasingly aware of how contrived it all was. Most troubling is that Benigni uses the Holocaust as a cinematic device to provide the bitter background for his own sweet charm. He has been quite candid about this, explaining to interviewers that he wanted to put his comic persona into an extreme situation, and that for him the story of Life is Beautiful is meant to be a simple fable. So there will be no mistake, the audience hears a voice over at the beginning of the film that states this is a simple fable.
But the Holocaust was not a fable and making Life is Beautiful one leads to troubling kinds of self-deception. Hoberman, who raised this issue in Sight and Sound, quarrels with the moral of the story: a child comes through Auschwitz unscathed because his father has deceived him into believing it is all a game. What parent would not do the same for his child if he could? Imagine that Auschwitz is only a bad dream and that you could hold your child in your arms and make up a story with a happy ending to comfort him. Imagine your comforted child going back to sleep with a smile on his face. If there are God-like moments for parents they are of this kind, when you can comfort a frightened child. But sometimes their fears are real and your stories are not.
Now imagine that you and your child are actually in Auschwitz, and you die performing the same consoling miracle: you will understand the sentimental, even religious, power of this film. But Auschwitz was not a bad dream; there are no religious consolations, and no happy endings. Stiff-necked conviction suggests that there is something amiss in the comments of those who, like the Pope and Mr. Foxman, have given Life is Beautiful their imprimatur.
AFTER his screening with Benigni the Pope was quoted to the effect that, for him, the film demonstrated that there were "saints even in places like Auschwitz." His spontaneous human response captures the experience of most audiences, who feel deeply moved, even exalted by the film. But his reaction to Benigni's character, Guido Orefice, seem to stretch beyond their limits the historical doctrines of the faith over which he presides. The church has identified two candidates for sainthood who died at Auschwitz: a Catholic priest and a Catholic nun who was a converted Jew. An unconverted and unbaptized Jew poses major doctrinal hurdles. Although there are respected Catholic theologians who concede that salvation may be possible outside the church, Jews, like Guido Orefice, cannot be promised that their souls will go to Heaven. And no matter how wide the ecumenical gates have opened the Vatican has not yet reserved a place next to God for a Jewish saint. The Pope has found saints where many of us lost God.
For Foxman, the Holocaust is a "sacred subject," but he is concerned that the world is forgetting and "we must look for new ways to remind the world about what happened." Unfortunately all the Holocaust museums, all the documentaries, and all the monuments can do no more than honor and preserve dead memories. Foxman recognizes that the mass media are the crucial vehicle for reaching new generations. He appreciates that Schindler's List brought human sympathy for the Jewish victims to life in the minds of those new generations. But Foxman deceives himself and his readers when he argues that Benigni should be acceptable to Jews because, like Spielberg, he knows the history of the Holocaust and portrays it "honestly." Benigni plays fast and loose with the truth all through his make-believe concentration camp scenes-Guido comes and goes about the camp as he pleases, makes fools of the German guards, manages to talk to his wife over the loud speaker, and saves his son's life.
People who do not know Holocaust history-and that is most of today's movie-goers-leave the theater with all kinds of misinformation: "It's a true story." "It was an Italian concentration camp where the rules were not so strict." "Wasn't it wonderful when the American tanks liberated Auschwitz." They love the film, but it is even less true to life than Titanic, and Foxman must be fooling himself to praise it for its honest portrayal of the "sacred subject." The virtue of Life is Beautiful is that the lovable Guido Orefice awakens the world's sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust at a time when that sympathy has been sorely tested. But in accomplishing this Benigni has transformed the Holocaust from an historical reality into a heart-warming Italian fable that will help Italy forget its own fascist brutalities.
I do not think Benigni was expecting to help the world remember, nor was he aiming at sainthood, but he did have artistic ambitions. His goal in making Life is Beautiful was to be taken more seriously as an artist. That is why he put his comic persona into an "extreme situation." This is the theatrical ambition of every comic actor who dreams of going beyond comedy to tragedy. It was achieved most brilliantly by Benigni's idol, the sublime Charlie Chaplin. Benigni shared his idea about an extreme situation with writer Vincenzo Cerami and together (some give most of the credit to Cerami) they devised this fable.
Benigni is a balding, weak-chinned, rubber-faced clown, a physical comedian with enormous appeal on the screen. But he is more a talking Harpo Marx than a Chaplin. Chaplin had an epicene beauty and his iconic character was the "thing in itself," comedy and pathos in the same figure. Benigni, like Harpo, is a funny-looking madcap fool with a hidden refinement. Benigni of course does not play the harp, but underneath the slapstick accident-prone clown lie the refined sensibilities of an intelligent man. This is Benigni's two-sided comic persona; his gentle foolery is the rare art form of a wise man who plays the clown and brings joy to life at no one else's expense. It is the sweet innocence of his humor that makes this funny-looking man so beguiling.
In Life is Beautiful, Benigni is a paisan from the Tuscany countryside who
comes rolling down the mountains into the town of Arrezo to seek his fortune. True to his comic persona, he is a circus act careening around the hilly town on a bicycle. He keeps bumping into the lovely elementary school teacher, Dora (Nicholetta Braschi, his wife in real life). It takes only one collision for him to decide that this upper class woman will be his wife. The odds are totally against him. So begins a fairy tale love story. Guido finds work as a waiter in a hotel dining room under the patronage of his uncle, the Maitre d'. The year is 1939 and Dora is engaged to marry the local fascist stuffed shirt, but she has the discernment to realize that her Prince Charming is the little froggy-looking waiter who makes her laugh and calls her principesa (princess). On the night of her engagement party, she crawls under the table to escape with Guido on the white horse he has ridden into the hotel dining room. It is a Marx Brothers scene; indeed the first half of the movie belongs to that genre.
But Guido's white horse is not entirely white. It has been painted by fascist hoodlums with anti-Semitic slogans aimed at his uncle, the Maitre d', who it turns out is Jewish. Benigni had given us no reason to think that Guido or his uncle were Jews, and never in this film does Guido express or declare his Jewish identity. The audience has time to identify with him, and to see him as the lovable Italian everyman that is Roberto Benigni's comic persona.
The film is almost half over-and both audience and heroine are in love with the hero-before events reveal to us that the underdog clown, Guido Orefice, is a Jew. It appears at the beginning that his love-at-first-laugh romance with the school teacher must simply overcome the obstacle of her family's haute-bourgeois contempt for a paisan. But this seeming class antipathy turns out to be anti-Semitism. Audiences seem not to object to this psychological seduction; indeed I suspect it is part of the enchantment that allows them to feel they have fulfilled the difficult Biblical injunction to love thy (Jewish) neighbor as thyself.
This witting or unwitting trompe l'oeil of the mind is crucial to this fable. The Pope told Benigni that he is "very Italian," and he does not try to act any differently in the film. In fact Benigni is not an actor; he does exactly what he said in all the interviews: he puts his comic persona into an extreme situation. Ironically that may be why he is the most lovable Jewish character in twentieth century film.
I have played my own Life is Beautiful game with people who have seen the film, asking them, "When did you actually realize that Guido was Jewish?" Interestingly enough, even those who go to the film knowing that Benigni is supposed to be Jewish do not have it sink in until after the horse scene. Of course there may be clues for Italians that Americans do not get. Orefice means "goldsmith" in Italian, and that may be as unmistakably Jewish as Goldstein is in America. But whatever external clues he gives, Benigni clearly makes no attempt to alter his comic persona to act the part of an identifiable Jew. Perhaps the most bizarre and telling response to the game of "When did you realize that Guido was Jewish?" is the person who said, "You know that's what is so wonderful about this film: it doesn't matter whether he is Jewish or not." This then is a fable about the Holocaust in which Jewishness is irrelevant. There can be no better demonstration that Benigni has made history into myth.
In a remarkable scene before the audience fully appreciates that he is a Jew, Guido pursues Dora to her elementary school where he is mistaken for the visiting expert from Rome there to give the assembled children a lecture on racial superiority. He improvises on the spot a routine of absurd nonsense. The funny looking clown shows the children his perfect Italian earlobe: an admirable specimen that proves the superiority of the race. The scene is a slapstick version of a harrowing episode in Europa, Europa, where a young Jewish boy posing as an Aryan escapes detection by a racial expert. But most of the audience is laughing for the wrong reasons. We still think this funny looking man is a self-effacing Italian who mocks the possibility that Italians are the master race. Would we have laughed so hard knowing that Guido was offering up a Jewish earlobe?
BENIGNI'S non-Jewish Jew is like Spielberg's Schindler, a device to engage the audience. Non-Jews need someone to identify with to get them involved in a Holocaust film, and Jews need someone who distances them. Schindler mediated for both, allowing them to find a way into the movie through his character; Benigni does the same. Benigni's device also works in another, more realistic, way. It recreates for the audience an experience that many assimilated European Jews must have had during the rise of fascism: they were forced to come to terms with a new social reality and racist laws that thrust a Jewish identity on them.
As the audience begins to realize that Guido is a Jew, the seeming slapstick social comedy reveals its "tragic context." Here one can see the influence of Chaplin on Benigni. He even chose to have the same number tattooed on his forearm that Chaplin bore in The Great Dictator. And there is obviously a great deal of Chaplin's The Tramp in the father-son relationship (Giorgino Cantarini is marvelous as the son, Giosue-Joshua in Italian). Guido uses wit and humor to make life beautiful for his son. It is a high wire act of comic absurdity with a safety net of sentimentality. There is a touching moment when Giosue asks Guido why there is a sign in the candy store window that says no Jews or dogs allowed. He tells his son about a crazy law that allows shop owners to keep out whomever they wish: there is a hardware store that keeps out Spaniards and they will put a sign up on their store saying "No Visigoths or spiders allowed."
The explanations become ever more fantastic as the father and son are rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Guido tells his son they are playing a very complicated game with lots of rules and if they win they will get a real tank-the boy loves tanks. One of the important moments in the film occurs when the Jews arrive at this make-believe Auschwitz. The guard asks if anyone can translate German. Guido leaps forward. As the guard tells the prisoners the grim realities in German, Guido expands on the rules of his invented game in Italian for his son. The other Italian Jews disappear from the camera, they are not part of this fable. Even when they have all gone to the gas chambers the child will still believe his father's game.
When the boy tells his father that other children have told him this "camp" is making people into soap and buttons, the father pulls off a button and says to his son, "Does this look like a person?" The rhetorical question is for the audience to ponder as well as the child.
The love of this ingenious father creates for his son an escape from the horror all around him. It gives the audience the sense that the human imagination can by itself make life beautiful, that a child who was helped to pretend the Holocaust did not happen can actually escape, that we God-like parents can put to rest the real fears of our children. The voice over that began the film identifies itself at the end; it is the voice of the grown up Giosue thanking his father for saving his life. No parents or prayers were able to save the children at Auschwitz. But apparently this movie has found an audience that wants to believe in fables. n
Originally published in the April/May 1999 issue of Boston Review