An Ancestor’s Atrocities Challenge a Friendship in “Holy Holocaust”

Can we reckon with our histories while refusing to be defined by them? Is it possible to move on from the past without erasing it? These questions orbit one another, like a binary star, in “Holy Holocaust,” an animated short by Noa Berman-Herzberg and Osi Wald. The film depicts the close friendship between Noa, a white Jewish woman from Israel, and Jenny, a Black German woman, who spark an intense and enduring connection after meeting in an art class in Paris. Their easy rapport becomes rocky when Jenny discovers that she is the biological granddaughter of the notorious Nazi Amon Göth (the concentration-camp commandant portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List”). Reeling in the wake of this revelation, Jenny begins to avoid Noa, and, though she eventually shares the truth, the rift between the two only widens as Jenny publishes a successful memoir exploring her new understanding of her identity. “Holy Holocaust” looks back over the arc of the characters’ relationship, asking whether blood really means more than the bond of chosen sisterhood. Jenny feels that the unearthed secret of her lineage has changed everything, and Noa doesn’t disagree—but, she argues, it’s because Jenny has let it.

“Holy Holocaust” is not really a Holocaust film; rather, it challenges common tropes of Holocaust narratives. Solemn imperatives to “bear witness” and “never forget” may serve to dispel silence around what can seem an ineffable, even unfathomable atrocity, but have also produced certain expectations about the kinds of stories we tell and the ways we tell them. Berman-Herzberg and Wald address the Shoah not head on but obliquely: when, during the editorial process for Jenny’s book, Noa broaches the subject with her mother, she remarks, in voice-over, “For the first time, she told me the horrifying story of my family,” and elaborates, simply, “I wish she didn’t.” Yet, however much Noa tries to reject the heavy burden of her inheritance, its legacy looms everywhere, undeniable, at once spoken—in Noa’s sarcastic sense of humor (“Arbeit macht frei, no?” she jokes, in her first conversation with Jenny, referencing their draconian French drawing teacher)—and unspoken, inflecting the film’s vibrantly dreamlike, almost psychedelic imagery.

Berman-Herzberg, who wrote the screenplay, told me that she and Wald, the art and animation director, wanted to convey a sense that the characters live in a world that “knows more” than they do. Wald, whose background lies in experimental and dance-based work, explained that the filmmakers started with a relatively straightforward naturalistic vision before arriving at the more kinetic, colorful style that liberated their storytelling, allowing an element of playfulness and irreverence along with access to the subconscious. Their highly collaborative process, which Wald described as “textual-visual Ping-Pong,” was driven by intimate exchange: Berman-Herzberg recounted her memories to Wald, who asked emotionally clarifying questions and then translated what she heard into sketches, which the pair together developed into scenes. Content and form took shape in tandem, helping the movie resist any impulse to become “too verbal,” in Berman-Herzberg’s words, letting the power of intuition, suggestion, and metaphor guide.

Ultimately, instead of settling debates, “Holy Holocaust” proceeds from a spirit of inquiry about the forces that bind us together, and that draw us apart. Love, like history, can seem to be a matter of fate or chance, but we are more than the sum of our circumstances, and, indeed, of our choices: whether we celebrate, mourn, or atone for the generations that preceded us, we can neither alter the past nor control the future. We can only inhabit the present, in all its mystery, and reach out across the chasms that divide us. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find someone else reaching back.

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