Sex and the Shoah, Through Survivor and Sons

Film

By Ralph Seliger

Published July 22, 2009, issue of July 31, 2009.
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‘Death in Love” is both gross and engrossing. The 44-year-old New York-born director of “Remember the Titans,” Boaz Yakin, wrote, produced and directed this Holocaust-related film in a deliberately provocative way.

This is the second time that the former yeshiva student has attempted a Jewish subject. “A Price Above Rubies” brought mixed reviews from critics in 1998, but also a measure of favor for his star, Renée Zellweger, who portrayed a young Hasidic wife and mother seeking love in nontraditional ways.

This time, Yakin’s attempting to tell not a story of personal discovery, but a tragic tale of generations, and he’s likely in for a rougher reception — not only because this is an unabashedly sexual Shoah film, but also because it is one with ambitious pretensions. According to the press material, “Death in Love” shows something of the quality of a Greek tragedy. “The movie is about cycles and repetition,” Yakin said, “about suffering that is passed down from one generation to the next.”

Whatever the judgments on the film, however, praise will be again forthcoming for his cast. His lead is international star Jacqueline Bisset, here ably playing a New Yorker (circa 1993) who, as a French-Jewish teenager, had a love affair with a Nazi doctor conducting “experiments” on concentration camp inmates.

Josh Lucas portrays her older son with some panache. (Curiously, all the characters are nameless, perhaps signifying their generational interchangeability or their powerlessness as individuals.) Just turned 40, he works a nicely upholstered con game as a talent agent for a fake modeling agency that takes money from women by giving them the illusion of having a shot at an elegant career.

His affair with his female boss is unsatisfying and graphically sadomasochistic; he wants something more, but is stuck on a lover who will give him nothing other than rough sex-play. Maddeningly for him, she will not even consummate. “You’ve been with too many women,” she tells him, and “we can do other things.”

He then drifts into a friendship and business scheme with a charming younger colleague, more gifted than he as a con artist, with shattering results.

His brother, the Bisset character’s younger son, is a 35-year-old musical genius disabled by obsessive compulsive disorder and some form of social phobia. Still living with his volatile mother and inconsequential father (never shown in full view by the camera), he barely can leave the apartment. This ravaged soul is played by Lukas Haas (who began his career as the Amish boy in “Witness,” the 1985 drama starring Harrison Ford).

This second generation is painted as fatally scarred by the mother’s war experience. As a teenager in Nazi-occupied France, she is abandoned by her parents when they are offered a hiding place for only two. In the concentration camp, this girl — an attractive young woman — alters her fate by suddenly radiating a smile at the Nazi doctor. When asked why she’s smiling, she answers disarmingly that he’s “the most beautiful man” she has ever seen. The camera shifts to the doctor, revealing that he is, indeed, a handsome young man.

The ensuing relationship with her captor/lover, warped as it is, leaves her unable to form a loving marital bond with her husband in New York after the war, or any other satisfying romantic attachment. Indeed it not only shapes her life, but also effects the brothers’ lives 50 years later, stifling the capacity of the younger to live a normal everyday existence, and supposedly blocking off happiness for the older.

Jumping between periods is technically astute, but fails to convince us that the mother’s pathological example of love is visited upon following generations. As a mother, she psychologically abuses her children, but Yakin lazily allows the older son’s immorality to descend from the mother without personal agency on his part. There was nothing inevitable about his path.

The angst of Lucas’s character is exacerbated by his brother’s illness and his mother’s instability. He feels these things. But it’s evident that his immediate crisis is about turning 40 and feeling unaccomplished and inadequate as he begins to contemplate the rest of his life with the knowledge that from here on in, biologically speaking, it’s downhill.

A family victimized by the Holocaust may place special burdens on the children — high expectations for success, or overanxious concern for material security. (I know, because I’ve been there.) This may combine with other stresses of life to produce pathology. It also may spur a drive to succeed that facilitates high achievement.

But when children of survivors are not crippled by a psychiatric malady yet are unfulfilled or unsuccessful in their work, they can feel guilt or self-hatred. They may see themselves as letting down their families. These psychological problems are straightforwardly shown in “Death in Love.”

Early in the film, in a juxtaposition that is both stunning and sickening, concentration camp scenes of human vivisections are aestheticized by an authoritative-sounding voice-over. The disembodied words turn out to be the older son’s pontifications as he carries on sexually decades later. Cries of pain are literally hard to distinguish from sounds of pleasure.

The philosophical musings of the elder son sound impressive in Lucas’s compelling voice (the actor is a narrator in a number of documentary films), but his character’s sentiments amount to self-indulgent blather about aging flesh and his morose view of himself at 40.

In the end, the movie, like Lucas’s character, perceives itself as more important than it is. But Yakin, at least, has the laudable intention of attempting (however ineptly) to trace the genealogy of trauma and make it public. Haas’s character may be depicted legitimately as driven to mental illness; the older son cannot, and should not, escape responsibility.

The Nazi cuts with a scalpel; the con man cuts with words. The latter’s verbal incisions wound none more deeply than his embittered self.

Ralph Seliger is the editor of Israel Horizons, a publication of Meretz USA. He blogs at www.MeretzUSA.blogspot.com.


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