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Challenging the classic horror frame in American film
American filmmakers appropriate the “look” of horror in Holocaust films and often use Nazis and Holocaust imagery to explain evil in the world, say authors Caroline Joan (Kay) S. Picart and David A. Frank. In Frames of Evil: The Holocaust as Horror in American Film, Picart and Frank challenge this classic horror frame—the narrative and visual borders used to demarcate monsters and the monstrous. After examining the way in which directors and producers of the most influential American Holocaust movies default to this Gothic frame, they propose that multiple frames are needed to account for evil and genocide.
Using Schindler’s List, The Silence of the Lambs, and Apt Pupil as case studies, the authors provide substantive and critical analyses of these films that transcend the classic horror interpretation. For example, Schindler’s List, say Picart and Frank, has the appearance of a historical docudrama but actually employs the visual rhetoric and narrative devices of the Hollywood horror film. The authors argue that evil has a face: Nazism, which is configured as quintessentially innate, and supernaturally crafty.
Frames of Evil, which is augmented by thirty-six film and publicity stills, also explores the commercial exploitation of suffering in film and offers constructive ways of critically evaluating this exploitation. The authors suggest that audiences will recognize their participation in much larger narrative formulas that place a premium on monstrosity and elide the role of modernity in depriving millions of their lives and dignity, often framing the suffering of others in a manner that allows for merely “documentary” enjoyment.
The linkage between the Holocaust and horror films was somewhat surprising, although the authors make connections that are convincing through the use of frame analysis. Specific photographic frames and the sequence in which they are developed are examined for thematic content in producing some intended effect on viewing audiences. Sharp separations are made between good and evil, perpetrators and victims in showing connections between horror movies and the Nazi Holocaust. For example, the shower scenes in both Psycho and Schindler’s List use female nudity to depict vulnerability. The eroticized female body also taps into ‘‘a pornographic mode’’ and provides ‘‘voyeuristic pleasure’’ for the viewing audience. In the analysis by Picart and Frank, theories of spectatorship are given priority over theories of representation.
The dual themes of sex and violence in cinematic productions symbolize the processes of birth, life, and death. In contrast to the eroticized female body, the evil perpetrators are depicted as masculine monsters. In Schindler’s List, the brutalities of the male victimizers are presented as hypermasculinized German males. As such, the Nazi monsters become the dominant cause of the Holocaust. The movie Silence of the Lambs hints at male brutality as an outgrowth of a monstrous childhood and the trauma of the Vietnam War.
Of the more than five hundred movies dealing with the Holocaust, Schindler’s List was selected for analysis because of its impact on public awareness. References to the many other movies and books dealing with the events surrounding the Holocaust were limited.
Of the horror films, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs were selected for primary emphasis. The movies selected are effectively analyzed for showing connections between cinematic representations in horror movies and depictions of the Holocaust. The authors maintain that the depictions of evil in the movies are having a major influence on the way questions of genocide are being addressed in the twenty-first century.
The Holocaust has become universalized as the master symbol of human atrocities, and in view of its consequences, there is no way that cinematic representations could do adequate justice to the historical veracity of the event itself. The book by Picart and Frank provides a successful referent for addressing the many unresolved issues about the scope of resistors and perpetrators in Germany, as well as about the many other conditions surrounding the systematic policy of genocide in a modern, industrialized country. The depictions in Frames of Evil imply a distinction between ‘‘good Germans’’ and ‘‘bad Germans.’’ This introduces an important distinction in view of David Goldhagen’s book on Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
Film is viewed as being important for the creation of historical awareness and for sustaining the sense of society as moral community. With the passing of time, there will likely be a large volume of additional movies and books addressing such questions about the Holocaust as why did it happen, how did it happen, and what are its implications for the human condition. The evil of the Holocaust is one serious subject that is not avoided by Hollywood. The cultural representations of the Holocaust in film, memorials, and museums provide assurances that the traumatic event will not be forgotten. The book by Picart and Frank provides an important starting point for all subsequent cultural studies of the place of evil in human affairs.
—Arthur G. Neal