Jun 2004 Journal

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Truth and fiction: Holocaust on stage and screen

The playwright, screenwriter and novelist Ronald Harwood discussed the dilemmas of an author when dealing with the representation of events in the Holocaust at a meeting hosted by Jewish Policy Research and the Spiro Ark. Harwood has gained an international reputation for scripting plays and films, including The Dresser, Taking Sides and Mahler's Conversion as well as Cry the Beloved Country and The Pianist, for which he received an Academy Award. His most recent novel, Home, was awarded the Jewish Quarterly Prize for fiction.

South African-born, he was just five years old when, following the outbreak of World War II, his father enlisted in the forces, believing in the justice of the Allied cause and opposing the barbarities being perpetrated on the Jews.

'History is interpreted, reinterpreted and ignored', said Harwood, even 'obfuscated'. Yet it was possible to reveal the 'truth' best, in his view, through fiction - through the perspective of an individual artist. There were innumerable plays and films on the 'industrial slaughter' of the Jews, from Anne Frank to Conspiracy, which reconstructed the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. 'Truth is explained' in fiction, he held, and one character can stand in place of many, as in Schindler's List. The integrity of the artist was the filter through which the work was produced. The writer had to be true to the events he or she had chosen to dramatise.

Ronald Harwood regarded Holocaust subjects as something of a burden or obsession. As a child he recalled watching news footage of the bodies of concentration camp victims being bulldozed into burial pits, images which have remained in his memory, as they have in mine, through our entire lives.

In mid-1990s Manchester he came across George Clare's book Berlin Days 1946-48, which dealt with the extent to which the world-renowned conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, did or did not collaborate with the Nazis. Furtwängler was indeed a member of the National Socialist Party but was witnessed as having aided Jewish orchestral musicians. For Harwood, a play was born.

He adhered to certain 'rules'. These included ruthlessly avoiding manipulation and shunning sentimentality. In The Pianist, on which he worked closely with its director, Roman Polansky, both the book's author, Vladislav Spillman, and his film version were spoken and written in the third person. Spillman wrote 'as if it was about someone else', he said. He and Polanski played many reels of archival footage to exorcise all traces of falsehood or sentimental emotion.

Turning to accusations of Holocaust denial made in court by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt, Irving was found by the judge to be 'demonstrably a liar, falsifier and a rogue'. Regretfully, Harwood's two-hour adaptation of the court drama had not been filmed, but abandoned.

Plays and films were 'informing and educating', he stated, the need for which was greater than ever. Calls for the delegitimisation and destruction of Israel were 'camouflage for antisemitism', threatening all the standards of a decent society. Harwood never imagined he would ever have to defend Israel's right to exist, but his support was unequivocal. While hoping that the need for plays and films on the Holocaust would diminish, he thought this unlikely.
Ronald Channing

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