Wounding Sensibilities: Holocaust Memoirs through the Screen of Adaptation




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This dissertation looks at what is gained and what is lost, especially on an ethical level, when literary memoirs about the Holocaust are adapted into films. It asserts that the key features of Holocaust memoirs inevitably complicate the process of adaptation by imposing ethical limitations on what filmmakers should cut from or add to their source material. Yet, for a variety of reasons, primarily commercial and aesthetic, most adapters have sought to soften, thwart, or altogether eliminate essential elements of the memoirs. That is, most film adaptations find ways to avoid transmitting the parts of the books that most graphically and directly speak to the cruelty of the Nazi assault on the ethical imperative and what was thereby annihilated. By making changes to avoid the wounding of audience sensibilities, adapters effectively minimize and deny the evil of the Nazis’ systematic torture and mass murder of Jews, and sometimes even blame the victims for their own suffering and that of others. Such a displacement of the survivors’ expressed points of view gives Nazism a convenient cover—and a voice—in our time and amounts to no less than Holocaust denial. Drawing on the scholarship of Elie Wiesel, Alvin Rosenfeld, Lawrence Langer, David Patterson, adaptation theorists, and others, this dissertation examines three source memoirs and their respective film adaptations side-by-side. The case studies include Agnieszka Holland’s 1991 theatrical release, Europa Europa, based on a memoir by Solomon Perel; Francesco Rosi’s 1997 theatrical release, The Truce, based on a memoir by Primo Levi; and Joseph Sargent’s 2003 cable network telefilm, Out of the Ashes, based on a memoir by Gisella Perl. Some of these adaptations display disturbing patterns regarding an ongoing, subversive promotion of the Nazi vision at the expense of survivor testimony. However, they also demonstrate that audiovisual media have a potential, though seldom fulfilled, to translate aspects of the Holocaust memoir into a cinematic or televisual language that respects the ethical parameters of the subject. At a time when few survivors are still alive to reveal their wounds, this dissertation contends that it still matters how their stories are told.



Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945), Adaptation (Literary, artistic, etc.), Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)--Personal narratives, Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945), in literature, Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945), in motion pictures



©2019 Jeffrey Eric Wolfson. All Rights Reserved.