THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC. (1999) BASED ON THE HOLOCAUST NOVELLA BY JANE YOLEN. DIRECTED BY DONNA DEITCH. EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: DUSTIN HOFFMAN AND MIMI ROGERS. MUSIC BY FRÉDÉRIC TALGORN.
STARRING KIRSTEN DUNST, BRITTANY MURPHY, PAUL FREEMAN, LOUISE FLETCHER, MIMI ROGERS AND DANIEL BROCKLEBANK.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This TV movie received mostly positive reviews. I have mixed feelings about it myself. The subject matter is not to blame. The Holocaust has been fascinating movie producers and the viewing public alike for over seventy years now.
I myself could never tire of watching Holocaust movies made from different perspectives and viewpoints. Like I said, it’s an endless fascinating topic. It’s undoubtedly grim and terribly sad, but it’s enthralling too.
There’s something a little off about this particular film, though. There’s nothing wrong per se with the notion of someone (a Jewish person) going back in time to the Second World War, finding themselves right-slap-bang in the middle of the greatest wave of anti-Semitism the world has ever known. That even sounds like it might be thrilling to watch, doesn’t it?
I’m going to be a bit of a bitch now (be warned!) but I think it’s the two lead actresses who bring down the film. I’ve always hated Kirsten Dunst, so I guess I just don’t find her very believable in the role of Hannah. Hannah is a young Jewish girl living in modern times- well, the late ‘Nineties- who travels back in time during a family Passover to the time of concentration camps and Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cohorts.
This happens solely so that the young and thoughtless Hannah can learn about just how traumatic the experience of being in a concentration camp was for her older relatives and her Aunty Eva in particular. ‘Forties Hannah and her cousin Rivkah, played by Brittany Murphy, are told by the Nazis that they’re going to be ‘resettled in the East.’
They don’t even need to pack anything because they’ll be ‘well looked after’ by the Germans when they get to this mythical destination. As we already know, ‘resettlement in the East’ merely meant transportation to a concentration camp and all that that entailed.
Unsurprisingly, Hannah and Rivkah are duly packed off to a camp that the film-makers modelled on Auschwitz or Oswiecim, one of the most infamous of the concentration camps. It was here that camp commandant Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Hitler’s chum Rudolf Hess, though I imagine that that happens a lot) perfected the method of mass-killing with the aid of a poisonous gas known as Zyklon B.
I must say, the specially constructed camp looks every bit as grim, bleak and mucky as I’ve read that Auschwitz actually was in real life. The Nazi guards and officers are a bit hammy and stereotypical with their ‘Ve haf vays of making you tock…!’ accents but I find them watchable nonetheless. The camp dormitories are realistic too, realistically horrible and miserable, that is.
I have a real problem with Brittany Murphy, though I’ve no wish to speak ill of the… Well, you know. Her acting is wooden and when she pronounces ‘the Nazis’ as ‘the Nozzies’ in her fairly dodgy Polish accent, I was just completely turned off. Her saintly smiles whenever she’s praising Hannah for keeping everyone’s spirits up with her ‘stories’ just made me want to slap her in the kisser with a wet kipper, haha.
These ‘stories’ of Hannah’s, by the way, are along the lines of: ‘I’ve come from the future, a wonderful place where we eat a marvellous food called pizza, which is basically a thin breaded base covered in tomato sauce and melted cheese…!’
That pizza story annoyed me no end. I just found it to be completely out of place, inappropriate to the subject matter and even downright silly. Telling the starving, terrified inmates of Auschwitz that you’ve come from the so-called future and want to regale them with tales of the great grub you can get there, well, it just seems wrong and silly, even if you are just trying to keep up their morale. It totally grated (Grated? Cheese? See what I did there?) on my expectations of what story-telling elements a good Holocaust movie should contain.
There are some effective and unbearably sad scenes in the film too, however. Namely, the fate of the would-be escapees, Hannah’s final scenes in the camp and what happens when the camp commandant discovers that one of the dormitories has a new little occupant. So the film’s not all bad.
The title, incidentally, refers to the obligations incumbent upon the camp commandant to ‘keep the pace with the numbers.’ That is to say, the numbers of people he was supposed to kill in any given period. It doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it…?
Anyway, don’t let my lack of fondness for the two lead actresses put you off. The film is mostly still watchable, but it can be a little silly at times. Silliness and levity have no place in a Holocaust film. Or am I just a humourless git? Who knows…? That could be it exactly, haha.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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