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Ethical Limitations and Boundaries of Artistic Representation of the Holocaust in “Maus”

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Spielberg uses ‘the girl in the red coat’ as a symbol of innocence. She appears walking through the carnage when the Nazis clear one ghetto. As she walks through the violence, her face is unfazed. She is like an angel of death. In the otherwise black and white movie, with her red coat being the only colour, she becomes a beacon of hope and innocence amid the chaos. If she survives this genocide, then others might have a chance. This hope gets crushed when later in the movie a worker is carrying a wheelbarrow full of dead bodies, and they show the girl in her red coat being thrown into the mass grave. Her death now symbolises the annihilation of innocence and hope.

The movie is in black and white. To create a more sinister tone, Spielberg uses the blood of murdered Jews gushing out onto the snow. It appears black. In another scene, it appears to be gently snowing, yet it is the ashes from the concentration camp’s crematorium. The belief that this ash was snow shows that losing innocence was not all at once. It was very gradual, like snow falling. But it was too slow to see that loss until it was too late.

Another aspect of Schindler’s List which Lanzmann criticises is whom the film speaks for. Lanzmann’s documentary, Shoah speaks for the dead. It is factual and straight-talking and tells the story of millions. Lanzmann said that he ‘wanted to construct a form that acknowledged the generality of the people’. The interviewed survivors in his documentary simply do not use the word ‘I’. There is no personal tale nor a singular story about survival but about facts. Schindler’s List is a story about the minority: survivors. It tells a single story and the ‘extermination is a setting’. Although the Holocaust is a fundamental feature, the subject of the film is the story of the saviour Schindler, his struggles and his achievement. To what Lanzmann adds ‘But how can he tell what the holocaust was if he is telling the story of a German who saved 1300 Jews, while the overwhelming majority of the Jews were not saved?’.

I could disagree with Lanzmann because Schindler’s List and the personal story of Oskar Schindler is an emotional and intimate account, which makes the film more memorable and sad, but it’s somewhat happy ending also gives hope.

Lanzmann thought the personal story should not be about hope or survival because the ‘overwhelming majority of the Jews were not saved’ and during the Holocaust, many did not have hope. The possibility of salvation was inconceivable in Treblinka or Auschwitz. Despite some horrific scenes displayed during Schindler’s List, the overall message of the film is that good can always resurface, even when the events of the Holocaust were because of despicable evil. By the end of the movie, it’s argued, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”.

In Art Spiegelman’s Maus I and II, panels of the graphic novels show mice as Jews and cats as Nazis, yet focusing on a real survivor, his father, Vladek Spiegelman. In these graphic novels, similarly to Spielberg, Spiegelman is offering the relief of hope to survive.

‘Maus’ walks the audience through a very emotional story of a survivor’s life during the mass murders and the present-day consequences that the event placed on his relationship with the author who is his son, and his wife. The audience is reminded of how traumatic the massacre was. The story’s message to the viewer, “they sent us to Mauschwitz” is reinforced by a series of panels: cats holding mice at gunpoint, a dead mouse being dragged to the incinerator room, and a close-up of the father-mouse weeping in despair. There is no mention of the identity of the mice or the cats other than implications through inference with the term “Mauschwitz” and the Polish accent of the father mouse within the dialogue. Decoding the anthropomorphising of Maus is easy: the Jews are articulated as mice. It is an uncomfortable parallel with their real-life articulation by Hitler. Portraying the Jews as vermin brings in unavoidable connotations of eradication, extinction and the genocide. When reading Maus, the reader often forgets that the story is not about mice, but people. Spiegelman often self-reflexively draws attention to this process, sometimes portraying the mice in the story wearing masks, other times not. In the last pages of the novel, we are shown a portrait of the ‘real’ Vladek in his uniform, a photo which is of a human. Spiegelman says that throughout Maus: ‘You can’t help when you’re reading to erase those animals. You go back, saying: no, no that’s a person, and that’s a person there, and they’re in the same room together, and why do you use them as somehow a different species? And, they can’t be and aren’t and there’s this residual problem you’re always left with.’

The artist’s approach of Maus I, II differs from that of his other versions comics’ drawing style. He uses detailed crosshatching and grey tones are applied around the limited areas of black in the first version, and crafting a more “Disneyfied’ look to the character designs. There is a strong contrast in Maus I and II, where embellishments such as cross-hatching are still present, but less detailed. The line-work in the graphic novels is thicker and appears less polished so that the smudged look acts as a metaphor for the hopelessness, horror and futility of the Holocaust.

The novel finds very effective ways to insert forms of humour in the inner story and the outer story of Maus. Although the Holocaust has a heart-wrenching effect on the novel, the effective use of this satire allows it to become less severe and a more tolerable read. In novels with delicate topics, such as the Holocaust, a slight glimpse of comical aspect helps detach the audience from the tragic events, so that it does not have to process all the tragedy at one time. Just as situations get overwhelming, Spiegelman is sure to insert humour, to lighten up the mood.

In chapter five, Vladek explains how his family was found in a bunker he made inside of a ghetto:

‘One night we went to sneak for food… ‘

‘Look! A stranger!’ …

In the morning we gave a little food to him and left him to go to his family… The Gestapo came that Afternoon’ (113).

After this event, Vladek’s cousin, Haskel, arranged for the informant to be killed:

‘Hey! This is the rat that turned my family over to the Gestapo’…

‘It happened I was on the work detail, so I buried him’ (117).

In conclusion, I would like to return to a question that I presented earlier in this essay: given the artistic dilemmas on moral limitation surrounding the Holocaust representation in literature and film, should such representations continue to be produced?

The bond of trust that exists between the author or director and the audience with Holocaust narratives is extremely strong and is also extremely fragile.

Those who were not there to witness the Nazi era’s atrocities rely upon the artists to provide as accurate a representation as they best can, which is why Schindler’s List and Maus I and II are so problematic.

This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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Ethical Limitations and Boundaries of Artistic Representation of the Holocaust in “Maus”. (2022, Jun 06). Retrieved from

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