‘The Story of the Family Weiss’
Meryl Streep / Marius Goring / Joseph Bottoms / Michael Moriarty / Sam Wanamaker / David Warner / James Woods / Tovah Feldshuh / Fritz Weaver / Written by Gerald Green / Music by Morton Gould / Dir. Marvin J. Chomsky
How exactly do you make the holocaust into popular entertainment? It’s ever been a hard enough task in the cinema, but American Television has always been hampered by it’s reliance on keeping sponsors happy, and balancing the stocks & shares. To a certain extent this is less of an issue today, with the presence of so many small filmmaking companies willing to invest and convince the larger networks to risk the avant guard.. at least for occasional jaunts into the experimental. Back in 1978 the announcement that a 9hr miniseries about the holocaust was to be played out weekly as a piece of evening entertainment was greeted by shocks and advance criticism. As it turned out the series was rather well made, with a respectable cast, and a not especially exploitative tone. There were the typical criticisms which abound with historical wartime dramas, with nit-picking about inaccuracies of uniform designs, the poetic license taken with time scale.. the shuffling of real life figures with the fictitious protagonists of the story.. but, the principal problem that ‘Holocaust’ ran into was with the subject matter itself, which even in a faultless production, would nevertheless be seen as trivializing the horrors of the Nazi Final Solution for increased viewing figures.
‘Holocaust’s director, Marvin J. Chomsky was quite used to controversy, having only the previous year released a similar style of mini-series ‘Roots’, about the horrors and indignities of the American Slave Trade. ‘Roots’ itself caused much discussion and discomfort among the press and it’s audience, but somehow having a largely black cast in lead roles was seen as a progressive and important advance in television, so any problems with the actual piece itself were deemed of less importance. ‘Holocaust’ coming almost immediately off of the back of ‘Roots’ perhaps seemed to the critics as if the production team had just looking around for another tragedy to exploit. Perhaps if Chomsky had made a series of dramas specifically about WWII, then he would have just been seen as having a particular interest or point to make.. but, switching from Slavery to the holocaust aroused suspicions. Any attempt to release accounts of such sensitive subjects are prone to attack on the grounds of exploitation. There was even some criticism around American publications of The Diary of Anne Frank, which were accused of profiteering, in their bid to increase the Gentile audience for the book by tagging on a preface with a wider appeal, to increase sales with all religious persuasions.
Hollywood itself has tried on numerous occasions to treat the subject respectfully, with ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and ‘Shindler’s List’ being perhaps the most notable successes. That’s not to say that the results are always as safe and acceptable in the Hollywood. ‘The Day the Clown cried’, made by comedian / auteur Jerry Lewis in 1972 caused such abject horror and disbelief with it’s preview audience, that the film was immediately canned and has never seen the light of day since. Circus clowns and concentration camps clearly do not mix well. In an article from Spy magazine Harry Shearer, having seen a rough-cut of the film wrote: ‘With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. “Oh, my God!” – that’s all you can say.’
Meryl Streep shines as a key focal point in the whole drama, even if she is not present in every scene, it is to her that we radiate, since she has such a magnetic appeal on film. This is though, what we might call the proto-Meryl, since she only had two minor roles under her belt at the time, we experience the development of the now all too familiar impassioned expressions, and wan internal looks, which are soon to propel her to great heights post ‘Holocaust’, with such films as ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978), ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’ (1981) and of course the remarkable ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (1982). For James Woods too, ‘Holocaust’ was an early role, with comparatively minor film parts up until that time, it took a few years until his screen persona would truly emerge with notable films ‘Videodrome’ (1983), ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984) .. ‘Cop’ (1988). It’s interesting to see the reversal in the Hollywood star system, where rather than stars turning to television after a successful film career has waned, the new Hollywood breed were starting out in Tv, with hopes of a stepping stone to a career in the Movies.. George Clooney, Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis to name but a few.
To play off against the sympathetic performances of Streep & Woods, we have the ever exceptional David Warner, who relishes every nasty nuance of his role as an unflappable Nazi officer. These parts always seem to suit Warner down to the ground, and over the years have helped to establish a particularly British aspect to the traditional Hollywood badguy, that never seems to quite alter or lose popularity in the villain stakes. A far cry from his 60’s New Wave beginnings in films like ‘Morgan: A suitable Case for Treatment’.. mind you, even as Morgan, Warner had a certain maniacal glee about him, so perhaps the screen villainy was bound to emerge. Michael Moriarty gives his best cold indifferent face to proceedings, and Ian Holm adds some acting class, as a creepy Heinrich Himmler.. but it’s not really the acting, nor the plot itself that excels, but rather the shocking truth of the subject matter. Yes, ‘Holocaust’ was released by a popular Tv network, and yes it sought some increased viewing figures through it’s choice of taboo subjects.. but thank heavens it did, since without their pushing of the boundaries and attempts at thought provoking television, we would never have had such modern masterful series as ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Deadwood’, and ‘Boardwalk Empire’. Aside from the boost to the medium itself, surely any discussion of such a terrible and important time in human history is worthwhile, if it ultimately educates and goes the smallest step towards stopping any repetition of such despicable events.
‘HOLOCAUST’ will be released along with ‘WALLENBERG: A Hero’s Story’
in a special double set by Revelation Films to coincide with
International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27th of January 2013