If the Holocaust can inspire a great work of art, then it can also incubate the ambition to achieve such greatness, and thus open itself up, like everything else, to exploitation, pretense and vulgarity. Worse, the aura that still surrounds this topic — the sense that it must be treated with a special measure of tact and awe — can be appropriated by clumsy, sentimental and meretricious films or books, which protect themselves from criticism by a cloak of seriousness and piety. Thus the immodest indecency of a movie like Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful” was, during its initial period of triumph, deflected onto those with the temerity to criticize it. Those who resisted its manipulative juxtaposition of sweet, childlike innocence with barbarity were accused of lacking the gravity and sensitivity that Mr. Benigni’s travesty required.
And a similar defense is invoked, explicitly or implicitly, so routinely that it calls forth cynicism. Why do opportunistic, clever young novelists — I won’t name any names — gravitate toward magic-realist depictions of the decidedly unmagical reality of the Shoah? For the same reason that actors shave their heads and starve themselves, or preen and leer in jackboots and epaulets. For the same reason that filmmakers commission concrete barracks and instruct their cinematographers and lab technicians to filter out bright, saturated colors. To win prizes of course.