In the mid-'80s, following a lecture by Irving Howe on the possibility of a valid art of the Holocaust, I enraged the famously testy lion of lefty lit-crit by venturing from the floor that the Holocaust television mini-series, coarse though it was, served a useful educative function for people who knew next to nothing about Nazism. My defense of TV history was shaped by having gone to high school in England, a mere 15 years after World War II ended, with students who had barely heard of Hitler. Or if they had, their level of sophistication could best be summed up by a ditty we were in the gleeful habit of belting out in the school yard: Hitler has only got one ball/Rommel has two but very small/Himmler is very similar/But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.
Though not necessarily a fiction – Hitler was rumored to have had an undescended testicle, a condition that has served at least one gung-ho psycho-biographer of the dictator in explaining the rise of the Third Reich – the song hardly qualified as instructive satire. And if Hitler's shortfall, so to speak, was all the information a young person had about the Holocaust, even the reductive platitudes of a network mini-series would be an improvement.
Needless to say, this line of argument won me no points with Howe, who turned a delicate shade of mauve, yelled at me for mentioning Primo Levi and the TV series in the same breath, and moved disdainfully on. I turned an indelicate shade of beet root and banished the encounter from my embarrassed head. The repressed returns: My encounter with Howe haunts me afresh as I try to sort out my feelings about Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, a cheery little number about a father and son trying to outmaneuver a concentration camp by refusing to agree to its terms. Is it okay to make comedy out of the worst this bloody century has done? In principle. Benigni's hero, Charlie Chaplin, grasped that in its most sophisticated forms comedy can get away with the most radical subversion under cover of a belly laugh: thus The Great Dictator. But the aptly named Benigni, whose films to date have been trifles designed to showcase his prowess as a physical comedian, is a good-natured entertainer whose gifts don't stretch to social critique.
The first hour of Life Is Beautiful radiates the same goofy insouciance as Johnny Stecchino, in which the director-star played a dimwitted school-bus driver mistaken for a mobster. Here, too, Benigni plays a likable innocent who gets what he wants by persisting in seeing the world in his own Chaplinesque, Gracie Allen-ish way, no matter how hard others more powerful press upon him to conform to theirs. Guido is an assimilated Jew who arrives in a small Tuscan town in 1939, and by a mixture of luck, charm and blithe indifference to all opposition, steals a pretty gentile schoolteacher, Dora (played by Benigni's doe-eyed wife, Nicoletta Braschi), from under the nose of her fiance, a boorish Fascist functionary. Having wooed and won, Guido settles into a contented life with Dora and the young son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), they quickly produce while ignoring the gathering persecution around him.
Oddly enough, it's in this fairy-tale preamble to the movie's main event that Benigni gets off his strongest satire, including a bit of business with a “Jewish horse” (so designated by the local Fascisti) that's as pointed as it is funny. It's when Guido and son get shipped off to a concentration camp, followed voluntarily by Dora, that Life Is Beautiful takes a disastrous turn for the heart-warming. Striving to sustain the conceit that life can be made beautiful simply by redefining the terms laid down by evil men with power, Benigni has Guido shield his son by pretending that they are both part of an elaborate and wonderful game in which points are won for behavior that keeps the little boy safe from the fate suffered by the camp's other children.
If these scenes were played to the absurdist hilt, the movie might at least sustain the modest satirical bite it establishes in the first half. Only now Benigni means to play upon our heart strings, without also disturbing us with the harrowing details of camp life: The concentration camp looks more like a summer camp; the boy remains miraculously healthy and cute; Guido stays in touch with his wife, who's sequestered with the other women, by using a Victrola to broadcast the music he once used to court her.
Benigni, in short, has gone Hollywood in just the way Howe deplored. For the director has given us not just a pop Holocaust, but a prettified, euphemized and hopelessly palatable Holocaust that would convince any observer as naive as the students at my high school that Auschwitz was a slightly unsavory boot camp whose minor discomforts could be hurdled with a little ingenuity and a sunny outlook. Miramax is buying into this preposterous notion by pumping up the movie as “life-affirming,” even though it had at least half the critics who saw the film at Cannes this year (where it won the Grand Jury Prize, with the enraptured director actually kneeling to kiss jury foreman Martin Scorsese's toes) puffing in indignation. Audiences appear to be taking the movie to their hearts, and not just in Italy, where Benigni is the pre-eminent national hero since the premature death of his colleague and rival, The Postman's Massimo Troisi. Life Is Beautiful went on from Cannes to win the Audience Prize at this year's Toronto Film Festival, and it may turn out to be Benigni's first hit this side of the Atlantic. What worries me is not that audiences will find Life Is Beautiful funny, but that they will find it inspiring or worse, accurate.
Benigni is not Jewish, but his father served gruesome time in a Nazi labor camp, and Life Is Beautiful is at least paved with the good intentions of a tribute to a generation that made huge and often unacknowledged sacrifices for their children. Would that I could say the same for Apt Pupil, a singularly heartless piece of ill will that serves up a garden-variety horror movie under the guise of penetrating the soul of National Socialism.
Based on a novella by Stephen King, hardly the man to crack a problem that continues to defeat far more burnished minds than his, the movie is directed by Bryan Singer with the same frigid competence he brought to The Usual Suspects, of which the best that can be said is that it was a clever puzzle. Apt Pupil stars Brad Renfro as Todd Bowden, a sullen American schoolboy obsessed with the Holocaust, who, in the first of a slew of wildly contrived plot twists, spots elderly Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen, mercifully restrained from Teutonic hamming) on a local bus and threatens the old man into regaling him with the full details of how he gassed the Jews. Pretty soon an elaborate power game of mutual extortion gets under way as the two bond in evildoing, and Dussander, whose psychological complexities include a fondness for The Jeffersons, proves himself a cooler head than his clueless apprentice. There's some clumsy symbolic posturing with showers and Gestapo uniforms, and some awful screenwriting by Brandon Boyce (“Oh my boy, don't you see we are fucking each other?”). And if that doesn't persuade you that absolute power corrupts absolutely, Singer works in a spot of homosexual blackmail with poor David Schwimmer, looking very Groucho in a boot-black mustache, as Todd's school counselor. For good metaphorical measure, the old geezer tries to stuff a visiting cat into his gas oven.
Such overkill is far from the most egregious of the movie's sins. By casually leveling the moral field between a sadistic apparatchik of the machinery of genocide and a screwed-up boy who gets off on gory stories, Apt Pupil implies that the potential for fascism lurks everywhere. Had he lived to see it, Irving Howe would have blown a gasket.