‘Eva.Sto­ries’ and Holo­caust film trends

So­cial me­dia venues like In­sta­gram can be highly pron­lem­atic plat­forms for mean­ing­ful Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By RICH BROWN­STEIN

When lec­tur­ing to ed­u­ca­tors at Yad Vashem, I al­ways ask: “What is your stu­dents’ ‘goto’ Holo­caust film?” For years, the an­swer has been ei­ther Steven Spiel­berg’s Schindler’s List (1993) or Quentin Tarantino’s In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds (2009). Yet, re­cently, teach­ers from North Amer­i­can Jewish day schools sur­prised me with In­sta­gram’s Eva. Sto­ries (2019), ad­ver­tised as “What if a girl in the Holo­caust had In­sta­gram?”

Eva Hey­man was a 13-year-old Hun­gar­ian Jewish girl who was killed at Auschwitz. Her di­ary was first pub­lished in Hun­gar­ian in 1947, and in English as The Di­ary of Eva Hey­man in 1974. Eva Hey­man was pre­co­cious, ver­bal­ized her in­ter­est in boys, could not con­nect with her mother, parted her hair on the side, never stopped ex­press­ing her­self – and her di­ary ceased be­fore Eva ar­rived at Auschwitz/Birke­nau. Yes, Eva Hey­man’s story is very sim­i­lar to Anne Frank’s, be­com­ing “Anne Frank 2.0” as some have quipped. Re­gard­less, un­rav­el­ing Eva.Sto­ries pro­vides an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity to un­der­stand what has worked and what has failed in 75 years of Holo­caust por­tray­als, as well as the cur­rent tra­jec­tory.

Af­ter my anal­y­sis of more than 500 films, minis­eries and made-for-tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions with Holo­caust themes, one trend is clear: Since 1945, Holo­caust films have be­come in­creas­ingly au­then­tic and re­al­is­tic. Most Holo­caust film­mak­ers have re­jected out­landish premises that pan­der to au­di­ences. The clus­ter of splashy out­liers – Life is Beau­ti­ful (1997), The Devil’s Arith­metic (TV 1999), The Boy in the Striped Pa­ja­mas (2008) and In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds (2009) – are no­table sim­ply be­cause they are so pe­cu­liar, not be­cause they have been im­i­tated.

En­ter Eva.Sto­ries, the first of a new Holo­caust cin­ema species: the In­sta­gram Holo­caust film. Ac­cord­ing to The Guardian, Eva.Sto­ries was “pro­duced with a multi-mil­lion dol­lar bud­get, 400 staff and ac­tors, and elab­o­rate sets in­clud­ing tanks and trains [sic] car­riages.” Eva.Sto­ries also had a sub­stan­tial ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get – enough for bill­boards in Is­rael, pub­li­cists, mar­ket­ing and celebrity en­dorse­ments, in­clud­ing from Gal Gadot, Bar Re­faeli, Sarah Sil­ver­man, the In­sta­gram ac­count of the White House, and Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu who tweeted that Eva.Sto­ries “ex­poses the im­mense tragedy of our peo­ple through the story of one girl.” Eva. Sto­ries also has 1.6 mil­lion fol­low­ers, ac­cord­ing to its In­sta­gram home­page.

The ac­tual num­ber of Eva.Sto­ries in­di­vid­ual view­ers is a trick­ier ques­tion. Most ar­ti­cles writ­ten about the project state that Eva.Sto­ries has re­ceived 120 mil­lion views, or ap­prox­i­mately 100 times the to­tal world pop­u­la­tion of Jewish ado­les­cents, although only a few hun­dred thou­sand in­di­vid­u­als ac­tu­ally viewed the en­tire se­ries.

Eva.Sto­ries was a big pro­duc­tion that went out of its way to dumb down qual­ity to ap­pear to be made by a child. Eva.Sto­ries is like a teenagers’ school play, in­fe­rior to most fi­nal film projects pro­duced by Is­raeli 12th graders in film elec­tives. The ac­tors in Eva.Sto­ries are in­gen­uine, al­most plas­tic. Bri­tish ac­tress Mia Quiney, who played the Hun­gar­ian Eva Hey­man, led a pa­rade of un­rec­og­niz­able and ex­ag­ger­ated ac­cents. The di­a­logue it­self is par­tic­u­larly stilted, both wildly in­au­then­tic and his­tor­i­cally dif­fi­cult. The wardrobe is os­ten­ta­tious. And the In­sta­gram ti­tles and ef­fects are fool­ish, even if that was the point. Only a hand­ful of Holo­caust pro­duc­tions have been more af­fected, less be­liev­able, and as poorly de­vel­oped as Eva.Sto­ries, re­gard­less of its true source.

ARTIS­TIC LI­CENSE ends at the spot where be­lief can no longer be sus­pended, which in­cludes “What if a girl in the Holo­caust had In­sta­gram?” The over­whelm­ing re­ac­tion to the In­sta­gram con­trivance is: If Eva.Sto­ries helps teach the Holo­caust by “mod­ern­ing things up,” then wel­come aboard, as if it is per­fectly nat­u­ral to tell a true Holo­caust story with an anachro­nis­tic premise propped up by silly graph­ics, emo­jis, hash­tags and a ro­tated as­pect ra­tio.

Eva.Sto­ries en­thu­si­asts, who her­ald it as the van­guard of Holo­caust sto­ry­telling, in­sist that the anachro­nism is ir­rel­e­vant to the story’s ef­fec­tive­ness. They sug­gest that the In­sta­gram non se­quitur is quickly ig­nored by young view­ers, ac­cepted as nor­mal con­tem­po­rary sto­ry­telling. But the In­sta­gram plat­form makes ig­nor­ing its frame­work im­pos­si­ble. In­sta­gram is not a “fourth wall,” but part of the story, with its on­screen tools that in­clude ways of send­ing love to Eva. So, as long as Eva has wan­dered into the land of prop mad­ness by post­ing to In­sta­gram in 1944, what is there to lose by Eva also map­ping out Auschwitz with Waze, or­der­ing arms and drones with Ama­zon Prime, and dis­tribut­ing iPads to the guards who loop In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds?

The pro­duc­ers of Eva.Sto­ries would, of course, ar­gue that such idiocy need­lessly changes the un­der­ly­ing story and ru­ins Eva’s his­tor­i­cal in­tegrity, as if that had not al­ready been ac­com­plished by the In­sta­gram over­lay. Sup­port­ers also ac­knowl­edge that the In­sta­gram an­gle would have been dis­dain­ful if por­tray­ing Anne Frank, Han­nah Se­nesh or Elie Wiesel, be­cause we all know that they did not have In­sta­gram. This bizarre ar­gu­ment im­plies that in­au­then­ti­cally por­tray­ing Eva Hey­man is fair game be­cause of her ob­scu­rity.

Had In­sta­gram sim­ply been used to post the story episod­i­cally – with­out in­sist­ing that it was recorded by Eva on her phone and then up­loaded in 1944, par­tially on a trans­port to Auschwitz – the story could have more faith­fully trans­mit­ted the essence of Eva’s di­ary. Tweak­ing the tag to “Mes­sages from the Holo­caust” would have avoided need­lessly adding the plat­form’s frame­work into the story.

FOR VIEW­ERS with­out a Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tional foun­da­tion who sim­ply stum­ble across the Eva.Sto­ries In­sta­gram post­ings, it will be no more mean­ing­ful than any other vis­ual me­dia tragedy. With­out know­ing from whom Anne Frank or Eva Hey­man were hid­ing, their di­aries con­vey very lim­ited his­tory. If the goal of Eva.Sto­ries was merely to seed the con­cept of the Holo­caust in chil­dren’s heads, it may be a suc­cess, but with­out con­text or fol­low-up, the les­son only lasts un­til the next shiny ob­ject jumps to the top of a child’s mem­ory stack. And, of course, for those who be­lieve that Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion is so fun­da­men­tal that it must be gov­ern­ment man­dated – as re­quired in 11 Amer­i­can states, rep­re­sent­ing al­most half of the US pop­u­la­tion – the first Holo­caust les­son should prob­a­bly not be an un­su­per­vised, pas­sive in­tro­duc­tion via a four-inch screen, es­pe­cially with­out ex­pla­na­tions.

“If in­no­va­tion were a third-rail for Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion,” wrote New Jersey Jewish News ed­i­tor Gabe Kahn about Eva.Sto­ries, “we’d never have films like Kirsten Dunst’s The Devil’s Arith­metic, the play Anne Frank & Me, or Art Spiegel­man’s hugely in­flu­en­tial graphic novel Maus.” Mr. Kahn was both cor­rect and mis­taken. He cor­rectly noted that many Holo­caust con­tent cre­ators did not shy away from in­no­va­tion. But Mr. Kahn’s ex­am­ples are 20 years old or more. The hey­day of graphic Holo­caust nov­els ended al­most 30 years ago with Maus. Those other at­tempts to rep­re­sent the Holo­caust, and dozens of ad­di­tional for­ays, are now ob­so­lete be­cause they were ul­ti­mately re­garded as nov­el­ties by a mar­ket that re­jected these pro­to­types as aber­ra­tions.

Fur­ther, in non-far­ci­cal Holo­caust films, the lethal “third rail” has, in fact, been in­au­then­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions like Eva.Sto­ries. Lessons were learned from see­ing projects crit­i­cally dis­missed. Both For­get Me Not: The Anne Frank Story (TV 1996) and The Devil’s Arith­metic (TV 1999) used time-travel to try to teach about the Holo­caust. Both films are uni­ver­sally de­rided for los­ing their way by need­lessly send­ing young adult char­ac­ters from the 1990s back to the Holo­caust, akin to Marty McFly. And nei­ther film has had a last­ing im­pact other than as cau­tion­ary tales about mix­ing film gen­res to reach ado­les­cents in Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion.

All of these and many other “new ways” have been aban­doned. In­deed, Eva.Sto­ries’ dirty-hands ap­proach to Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion is bank­rupt and has long ago been re­jected. For ex­am­ple, with the ex­cep­tion of the de­plorable The Boy in the Striped Pa­ja­mas (2008), no fic­tional death camp fea­ture has been re­leased in the 20-plus years since Life is Beau­ti­ful (1997). In­deed, of the roughly 130 Holo­caust films made since 1997, none are come­dies in a camp, and no death camp films (other than Pa­ja­mas) have been based on purely fic­tional sto­ries since Life is Beau­ti­ful. No­to­ri­ety, award and money still do not ul­ti­mately val­i­date ar­tis­ti­cally dis­cred­ited or ob­so­lete ap­proaches. His­tor­i­cally, the best Holo­caust films do not rely on gim­mickry to tell their sto­ries.

CAN NEW ways of teach­ing the Holo­caust emerge, even through so­cial me­dia? Per­haps. Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion and me­dia are con­stantly evolv­ing. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Holo­caust films were so gra­tu­itously vi­o­lent that, ac­cord­ing to Com­men­tary mag­a­zine, “Jewish heads ex­plode in Schindler’s List at an av­er­age rate of one every 12 min­utes.” Few would ar­gue that Schindler’s List would have been less ef­fec­tive with­out most of the vi­o­lence. And the great Amer­i­can Holo­caust minis­eries has also gone the way of di­nosaurs since War and Re­mem­brance, more than 30 years ago.

Even more starkly, although ap­prox­i­mately 75 Holo­caust fea­ture films have been made since 2004, no solely Amer­i­can-pro­duced made-for-tele­vi­sion Holo­caust films have been made since 2003, de­spite 30 Amer­i­can made-for-tele­vi­sion Holo­caust films hav­ing been pro­duced from 1974 through 2003.

Why? Imag­ine why view­ers trended away from watch­ing made-for-tele­vi­sion Holo­caust films that were reg­u­larly in­ter­rupted to sell Volk­swa­gens, Bayer or soap. Is there even a good prod­uct to sell af­ter show­ing a gas cham­ber? Not re­ally. The crass frame­work of com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion of­ten dis­tracted from the sto­ry­telling and tim­ing, mak­ing it far more dif­fi­cult to plunge one’s self into the plot.

In­sta­gram, with its hun­dreds of dis­tinct seg­ments buried in 30 post­ings in Eva.Sto­ries and its tools fram­ing the video, is like net­work tele­vi­sion on steroids. By de­sign, In­sta­gram in­ter­rupts the full story and tries to dis­tract with its over­laid tools. Far more in­sid­i­ous than tele­vi­sion, In­sta­gram’s goal is en­tic­ing view­ers into click­ing here and there, like sub­jects in a Skin­ner box.

Be­cause of Eva.Sto­ries, a few more Holo­caust pro­duc­tions will be made for so­cial me­dia. They will likely re­frain from plac­ing 2020 tech­nol­ogy into 1944 lives, back­ing away from the “look­ing glass.” Their plots will set­tle into more nor­ma­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions. And soon enough, as the buzz around Eva.Sto­ries van­ishes, so­cial me­dia-in­fused Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion will be a mem­ory, like Holo­caust graphic nov­els, minis­eries, ex­treme vi­o­lence, un­re­al­is­tic run­ning-times, death camp come­dies and af­ter­noon spe­cials.

Mean­while, many good or great films are avail­able for those wish­ing to sup­ple­ment their chil­dren’s Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion. For ex­am­ple, the most com­plete death camp film about a young girl who dies dur­ing the Holo­caust is Anne Frank: The Whole Story (TV 2001), star­ring Ben Kings­ley and Han­nah Tay­lor Gor­don, with­out a hint of con­trivance.

In 2013, when vis­it­ing the Anne Frank Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam, Justin Bieber wrote in the guest book, “Anne was a great girl. Hope­fully she would have been a belieber.” Eva.Sto­ries is an ex­ten­sion of that nar­cis­sis­tic be­lief, es­sen­tially putting a smart­phone in Anne Frank’s hands, call­ing her Eva and then grasp­ing for­ward for Justin Bieber’s at­ten­tion. Even when viewed on a cell­phone, the core lessons of the Holo­caust taught through more worth­while films will be re­mem­bered far longer than the flash of Eva.Sto­ries. And soon enough, for bet­ter or worse, In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds will again be the place­holder.

As long as Eva has wan­dered into the land of prop mad­ness by post­ing to In­sta­gram in 1944, what is there to lose by Eva also map­ping out Auschwitz with Waze?

(Pho­tos: Screen­shots)

PHO­TOS FROM the imag­ined In­sta­gram ac­count be­long­ing to Eva Hey­man, a 13-year-old Hun­gar­ian Jewish girl who was killed at Auschwitz.


THE WRITER teaches at Yad Vashem.

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