Monday, Aug. 11, 2008

Meryl Streep in Holocaust

By David Luhrssen
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The word “holocaust” had no particular meaning for most people until the 1970s, when it was given a capital H and turned into shorthand for the genocide waged against the Jewish people by the Nazi regime. The CBS mini-series “Holocaust” helped popularize the term when it aired in 1978. It’s out now on DVD.

“Holocaust” is of historical interest for its role in educating the American public about events that had been little understood in the popular imagination. It’s also a footnote in movie history for two of its stars, little known aspirants at the time. James Woods, still in possession of a full head of hair, played the artist son of a prominent Jewish doctor who was thrown into a concentration camp. A young and sexy Meryl Streep played his Catholic wife.

The fictionalized story is largely accurate in its portrayal of one Jewish family’s refusal to leave Germany before it was too late. Grandpa fought in World War I and was proud of the Iron Cross pinned on his chest by “my Kaiser.” Dr. and Frau Weiss convinced themselves that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was a political ploy and that—after all—there had been anti-Semitism for two thousand years. Troubles come, troubles go. Only the youngest son saw the future clearly and was prepared to fight.

Although “Holocaust” more or less successfully compresses 10 years of history into a seven-hour drama, the dialogue comes out stilted from the mouths of a sometimes indifferent cast. Filmed in Germany and Austria, “Holocaust” excels at art direction, stage sets and costumes. The period look is impeccable even as the screenplay strains a little too hard to make its point. Woods and Streep are fine but some of their co-stars look as if they needed coaching.

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