The New York Times review of Schindler’s List made one of those pronouncements that only have weight when written in the Times: “Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again.”
If you are an artist and your art changes our perception of Nazis such that it is changed forever, you’re kind of a big deal. With Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s recipe for NAZI WTF SOUP contained a generous dollop of shock. That’s not atypical. Shock was always part of the recipe, and rightfully so. It was Nazism, and it was fucking shocking. But what if we could make it even shockinger, or the shockingest story ever? Surely that would be better somehow?
Enter Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (I haven’t read it), a sprawling shock-fest about a fictional Nazi officer’s fond recollections of his job as a murderous psycho. It’s been described as Kafkaesque in its bureaucratic detail. One guy on amazon.com used the word “phantasmagoria” in his review, and pretty much everyone agrees that it’s crazy obscene. This is not just any shock. It’s artistic, intelligent shock. Nazi shock. That’s what the recipe called for, right? So I’m the only person who didn’t read it, right?
But as the PW article points out, there’s a different Nazi-era novel out that’s actually selling, despite being published by artsy-fartsy Melville House. Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada, is moving like latkes, and I’m happy to report that I actually read this one.
Here, there is no shock that makes you beg for the suffering to end. There is no concentration camp. There are no ovens or Zyklon B. The novel tells the story of a married Berlin couple who risk their lives to oppose the Fuhrer after their son dies on the battlefront. Here, we don’t see Nazism as a SHOCKING TERRIFYING OBSCENE EPIC moment in human history. Instead it is a local event carried out by ordinary folks.
American audiences are not be accustomed to this level-headed portrayal of Nazism, and without all that shock value Fallada’s storytelling reveals nuances we’ve never encountered before. Littell wanted to see how much you could take before you throw up, but Fallada’s milder story is creepier because you’re actually capable of digesting it.
That’s right, I worked this ill-conceived soup metaphor for all it’s worth.
Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 1947, Spielberg released Schindler’s List in 1993, and Littell’s The Kindly Ones was released this year. If you’re familiar with either of the latter works, you’re not going to be shocked by anything Fallada wrote. But thousands of people are still buying it because they’re discovering an authentic vision of Nazi-era suffering unlike any they’ve considered before.
Littell pulled a douchebag move by trying to cash in with a newer, more shocking version of Nazism for our shock-numbed palates. I’m glad Fallada wrote this all-natural, no bullshit novel those many years ago, and I’m even more delighted that its American release was so perfectly timed to reveal Littell’s cheap formula for what it is.