Screen Savor: Holocaust horrors

Sat. October 15, 2016 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

Every year it seems that there are at least one or two new movies about the Holocaust and World War II. In 2015, we had Helen Mirren in Woman In Gold as well as the Hungarian film Son of Saul which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Denial (Bleecker Street) is 2016's Holocaust movie. Based on a true story, Denial stars Rachel Weisz as American writer/educator/historian Deborah Lipstadt who finds herself (and her publisher, Penguin) challenged by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a Hitler expert and Holocaust denier from England.

The movie functions on two levels simultaneously. First, it's an example of how, even now after all these years, the subject of the Holocaust still has the potential for controversy. Of course, this makes Denial especially timely with bloviating bigot Donald Trump running for President and amassing a huge following among the hate-mongering Alt-Right community.

Denial is also an examination of the differences between the ways that American and British legal systems operate. Observing the process of Lipstadt's British legal team, including Anthony Julius (out actor Andrew Scott) and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), as well as the various others, operate leading up to the trial and in court, is fascinating.

Denial isn't a great film in the annals of Holocaust cinema, but it does have its moments (the scenes at Auschwitz, for example). Additionally, Weisz deserves credit for trying on a Queens accent to play Lipstadt.

Set in Poland at the end of 1945, The Innocents (Music Box Films), from versatile filmmaker Anne Fontaine, has echoes of Oscar-winner Ida and Oscar-nominee Philomena. Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a young French doctor working with the Red Cross, agrees to help a desperate Polish nun and accompanies her to the convent. Once inside, she discovers an appalling situation.

An "indescribable nightmare" occurred when, a few months earlier, Soviet soldiers broke into the convent and raped several nuns. At least seven of them are pregnant. Mathilde performs a C-section on one of them whose baby was in the breech position.

The Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza, who was incredible in Ida), fears that the convent will be shut down if their secret is discovered, and asks Mathilde not to tell anyone. She also agrees to allow help for the pregnant nuns, but only if it's Mathilde.

Back at the Red Cross hospital, Mathilde becomes friendly with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), the head doctor, who is Jewish and lost his parents at Bergen-Belsen. Mathilde tries to find a balance between the work she is doing for the Red Cross and her clandestine mission at the convent. Neither is without its difficulties. While treating the nuns, Mathilde discovers that their vow of chastity gets in the way of her being able to examine them.

To make matters worse, Mathilde is almost raped by Soviet soldiers on her way back to the hospital. She returns to the convent to regain her composure and is comforted by the Reverend Mother's assistant Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), with whom she has struck up a friendship. While she is there, the Russians break into the convent, again. Fortunately, Mathilde has the "presence of mind" to make up a story about a Typhus outbreak at the convent, and the soldiers leave like the cowards they are. After this occurs, the change nuns their attitude about Mathilde, treating her in a more respectful manner.

As bad (and deeply depressing) as things are, viewers should be prepared for them to get worse. In addition to the revelation that the Reverend Mother was also one of the rape victims and is suffering from advanced syphilis, Mathilde gets in trouble with the superior officer back at the Red Cross. But nothing can prepare her for the revelation of what the Reverend Mother does with the babies after the nuns give birth.

The Innocents is, in a word, devastating. An example of more of the seemingly endless horrors resulting from the Holocaust, it is nevertheless well worth seeing, for the performances of de Laâge, Buzek and Kulesza alone. DVD bonus features include an interview with director Fontaine, a "making of" featurette and more.