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Nazi cautionary dramas wade into political, factual disputes

LOS ANGELES  — Hollywood mustered its creative forces in the 1940s when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany sought to conquer the world, with Humphrey Bogart standing up to the fascist regime in “Casablanca” and director Ernst Lubitsch mocking it and its dictator in “To Be or Not to Be.”

More than 70 years later, an increase in hate crimes, emboldened white supremacists and political upheaval have prompted TV and film makers to revisit Nazism. The works are varied and their receptions mixed, but they share a goal: to use fiction to learn from 20th-century totalitarianism and its horrors, including the Holocaust that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews.

In Amazon’s “Hunters,” an unlikely group of 1970s New Yorkers target German Nazis who have brought their genocidal quest to America. HBO’s “The Plot Against America” is based on Philip Roth’s novel that posits a repressive 1930s U.S. government led by Charles Lindbergh, the real-life aviation hero and anti-Semitic isolationist. The Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit” is in Lubitsch’s satirical mode, deepened by tragedy.

Preceding them was “The Man in the High Castle,” the 2015-19 Amazon series based on Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel of the same name about a fallen America ruled by WWII victors Germany and Japan.

The war has had other screen comebacks. During the political and social turmoil of the mid- to late-1960s, cynical and irreverent films including “King Rat” and “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” were released alongside traditional battle epics such as the star-laden “Battle of the Bulge.”

“We seem to have waves of interest in both the Holocaust and World War II, not always at the same time,” said Sharon Willis, a film scholar and professor at the University of Rochester in New York. “I feel that, collectively, we return to these terrains when we have some kind of of problem to work out that we think is related to them.”

David Simon, executive producer of “The Plot Against America,” unabashedly labels the six-episode series debuting March 16 “a political piece.” The cast includes Winona Ryder and John Turturro, and early reviews were admiring.

“It’s a critique of xenophobia and demagoguery and the use of ‘the other,’ the fear of ‘the other’ to drive political power and to create a political dynamic,” Simon said, a pattern that he said predates President Donald Trump. “The demonization of the immigrant cohort has been going on for as long as the republic.”

Ironically, he’d originally passed on bringing Roth’s novel to the screen because it appeared irrelevant.

“The first time somebody approached me about the adaptation was in 2013, right after (President Barack) Obama’s second inauguration. And I thought to myself that it seemed like an artifact” in an increasingly inclusive society, Simon said. The subsequent election and its results forced him to reconsider that view, he said, citing restrictive immigration policies as an area of profound concern.

The late Roth’s book proved “allegorical to what we’re dealing with now, and the vulnerable cohorts now are not necessarily Jewish Americans, although anti-Semitism has increased,” Simon said. “The real vulnerable (groups) are people with black and brown skin, immigrants and Muslims.”

As for why he’s asking viewers to seek clarity in the rear-view mirror, Simon said that history provides a sturdy, well-vetted foundation on which to build a meaningful allegory. “If we can’t apply it to the future, then all that history is pretty useless,” he said.

David Weil, creator of “Hunters” starring Al Pacino and Logan Lerman, shares Simon’s belief in the power of such storytelling.

“I think sometimes the best way for us to grapple with the truths of our reality and our present is to see it through a different prism and a different lens,” said Weil. “So I used the lens of 1977 America to speak about the kind of racism and xenophobia and anti-Semitism that we’re continuing to face today, to allow people to really try and take a step back.”

Weil’s direct inspiration was his grandmother, Sara Weil, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, which were among the concentration camps where the German-ordered mass killings of Jews and millions of others were carried out. The stories of hardship that he heard from her as a child eventually fueled Weil’s desire to honor her experience and, through his work, become a Holocaust avenger and a “superhero, in some way.”

There have been Oscar-worthy films about the Holocaust, Weil said, but he wanted to dramatize the tragedy and its aftermath in an unconventional way. He described his approach as “bold and pulpy and fresh,” one that invites a new audience to enter the story through the perspective of characters such as Lerman’s young hunter, Jonah.

“In doing so, they’ll begin to learn about the truth of the Holocaust and the plight of Jewish people and the plight of all ‘others,’” Weil said.

Creative license may be allowed for tone or even the wholesale creation of a band of Nazi hunters, but tampering with the facts of a hallowed event crosses the line for some. A scene in which inmates of the Auschwitz camp in Poland act out a fatal chess game never occurred, according to the site’s museum and memorial, which in a recent statement called such inventions “dangerous foolishness and caricature.”

Weil responded that the drama was not a documentary and he’d carefully avoided borrowing a specific moment from an actual person’s life. That failed to satisfy Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles that’s named for the death camp survivor and real-life Nazi hunter.

While dramas can help educate people about Nazism, Hier said, such projects must be labeled a fictional account of a real event or risk giving fodder to Holocaust deniers.

Pete Simi, co-author of “American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate” and a professor at Chapman University in Southern California, sees potential in Hollywood’s focus on Nazi Germany. One reason: it can help expose the followers who are “rebranding” themselves in a bid to make white supremacy palatable.

“The more we understand what the Nazis represented, the more we are able to analyze the contemporary versions of Nazis” and avoid being deceived by their efforts to subvert “what they actually represent,” Simi said.

Simon said he’d like to see “The Plot Against America” makes waves of its own.

“In a perfect world, this project gets off the entertainment pages and is argued on the editorial pages or op-ed pages,” he said. “That’s the reason to do it, is to have the argument now, because civil liberties are being affronted now. American institutions and American norms are under duress right now.”

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