Memory  /  TV Review

The Problem With TV's New Holocaust Obsession

From 'The Tattooist of Auschwitz' to 'We Were the Lucky Ones,' a new wave of Holocaust dramas feel surprisingly shallow.

The Tattooist is solidly made historical fiction, built on benign intentions and open-hearted performances. It’s also the latest—and, in that quotidian concentration-camp hell dominates the plot, the most generic—example of a dubious TV trend: the Holocaust drama. While the genre dates back decades, and isn’t limited to the small screen, the past year has seen an explosion of such shows about Nazis and their prey, from We Were the Lucky Ones to The New Look to Transatlantic; A Small Light to All the Light We Cannot See.

Each of these series has its own angle. What unites most of them, however, is unwittingly exploitative imagery that long ago lost its power to shock and an adherence to tropes of individual suffering and perseverance, heroism and villainy, that abstract the Holocaust from any but the most anodyne political context: Nazis evil, Jews brave. This is a tumultuous moment for Jewish identity. Antisemitism and fascist ideology are surging—and that trend is driving Hollywood’s demand for Holocaust scripts—as Jews weigh the morality of Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza. Yet the stories TV keeps telling about the most painful years in modern Jewish history too often cling to sentiment and cliché. What we need from these narratives—political insight, introspection—remains elusive.

In high school, I took two classes that happened to screen French New Wave filmmaker Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog just weeks apart. Released in 1956, the half-hour film exposed an international audience to photographic evidence of the multifarious horrors of the camps. The first viewing was as enlightening as it was harrowing. But the second felt obscene. I was staring at those same distressing images—slow pans across gas chambers disguised as showers, mounds of emaciated corpses—without learning anything new. I had to excuse myself after a few minutes.

Susan Sontag recounted a similar experience in her 1977 book On Photography. The cultural critic wrote that when she first encountered photos from the camps, at 12, "something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feeling started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.” But as the photos proliferated, she grew inured—evidence of a familiarity with atrocity that was alarming in itself: “At the time of the first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. After 30 years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”