To Speak the Unspeakable: The Message of Elie Wiesel

Oct 29, 1997 at 12:00 am

A plane lands on a remote runway, deep in the Carpathian Mountains. It taxis up to a waiting shuttle bus, and a small man, trim and weather-beaten, alights. A pair of oversize sunglasses are clamped to his head, a blazer sits on his shoulders. Is he a film producer come to scout locations?

No, the man on the tarmac is Elie Wiesel, star survivor of the Holocaust and Nobel Prize-winning curator of its memory. He has come to visit his hometown, still replete with horse-drawn carts and toothless hags, now part of Romania. It was from here that he and his family, along with the entire thriving Jewish community, were sent to ride the rails of doom, right into Adolf's ovens.

Wiesel's visit to this drab piece of oblivion offers the film's strongest moment. After a few unexciting encounters with local villagers, obviously uneasy with revisiting a past that implicates them, Wiesel is reunited with an old man who had fled into the forest when the Hungarian nationalists arrived to clear out all the Jews. He and Mr. Wiesel begin speaking in Yiddish, their eyes wet with recognition. It is as if they have broken a secret code and we realize that they are speaking a language nearly lost through the forced extinction of 6 million of its speakers.

As it moves from the village to the concentration camp, the film's lumbering pace wears down one's patience long before Wiesel's poignant moments of witness can wear down one's soul. Part of the problem lies with the lamentable production values. Shaky handheld video and unimaginative use of archival footage do not make for riveting cinema, in spite of the topic. And sometimes less is more. Alain Resnais, in his Holocaust ciné-essay Night and Fog (1955), used silence and allusions to absence with devastating effect.

In addition to the bogus aesthetics, the always unwelcome William Hurt lays waste to our goodwill as he intones excerpts from Wiesel's lyrical, albeit florid, memoir with a morose hamfistedness that often counteracts the power of the words. Here is evil made banal.

Wiesel certainly has the stoic look down. He stares forlornly out the windows of buses and airplanes. He walks with funereal purpose. The modern psyche being what it is -- an oversaturated, overstimulated snake-pit of attention deficits -- it takes a lot of work and a lot of will to keep a particular genocide in the limelight.

One wonders, though, if Wiesel has ever indulged in joyful excess to celebrate his momentary triumph over the darkest forces of what Camus called the absurd?

Wiesel presents himself as a living martyr for his fellow victims, but surely he must know that the holocaust to which he has dedicated his life is but one of thousands unleashed and yet to be unleashed upon humanity.

Sadly, to truly speak the unspeakable is to ask when and where the next one will happen.

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