Reel Streaming: The Maus That Roared
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 70
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
There’s no surer way to create buzz—and sales—for a book than to ban it. That was proven yet again by the Board of Education of McMinn County, Tenn., which removed the book Maus by Art Spiegelman from its eighth-grade English language arts curriculum in early January.
The board voted 10-0 to remove the 30-year-old graphic novel, citing its "rough, objectionable language,” its “depiction of violence and suicide” and the fact that it contains a drawing of a nude woman. The board helpfully added that the book could be replaced with another book without content they deemed objectionable.
“I may be wrong, but this guy that created the artwork used to do the graphics for Playboy. You can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school,” board member Tony Allman is recorded as saying in the minutes of the January 10 meeting. “If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”
The graphic novel in question is shocking—just not in the way that the school board found. Maus, written and illustrated in 1991 by Jewish comic artist Spiegelman, was based on the terrifying WWII-era experiences of his parents in Poland, who were eventually sent to Auschwitz. In this unforgettable book, the Jewish people are depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats. It is the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, chosen by a thankfully more-discerning jury for a “Special Award in Letters” prize.
Clearly, the school board felt that a significant gulf should be placed between the reality of what happened in the Holocaust and how it should be depicted to 14-year-olds, who are undoubtedly familiar with graphic novels and comic books. I’ve got to wonder if any of these board members have seen a Marvel Comics Universe movie--one of the most popular of which, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, one of the highest-grossing films of all time, found an alien baddie wiping out half of the known life in the universe with the snap of his fingers. Apparently, the board cannot deal with a more “graphic” metaphorical depiction of evil and violence when it’s played out by hand-drawn cats and mice.
Fortuitously, the press coverage of the Maus dustup alerted me to a recent pair of animated films concerning and set during those same horrific years. Although my knowledge of homegrown, high-profile animated features is respectable, I was unfamiliar with the imports Charlotte and Where is Anne Frank, until I saw them mentioned in a number of recent stories
The 2021 French/Canadian feature Charlotte, directed by veteran storyboard artists Éric Warin and Tahir Rona, tells the true story of Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish painter who comes of age in Berlin on the eve of WWII. It features the voices of Keira Knightley, Marion Cotillard and Brenda Blethyn and is slated to open in U.S. theaters on April 22.
Where is Anne Frank, a 2021 feature by Israel’s Ari Folman, is an historical drama that follows the dreamlike journey of Kitty, the imaginary friend to whom Anne Frank dedicated her famous diary, and how it relates to mistreatment of refugees in today’s Europe. Folman is best known on these shores for the 2008 animated documentary feature Waltz with Bashir, which concerned the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Both films premiered last September at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. While there has been no shortage of Holocaust-themed films made over the last half-century—both documentaries and narratives—and new ones regularly filling the pipeline, I can’t think of any other animated features about the Holocaust. So it’s worth noting that not one but two new ones debuted this past year at one of the world’s leading fests and marketplaces.
Meanwhile, it was announced in late 2019 that Michel Hazanavicius, the French-Jewish director of the 2011 Academy Award winner The Artist, is teaming up with StudioCanal for an animated feature film set during the Holocaust. The filmmaker will adapt Jean-Claude Grumberg’s 2019 novel La Plus Precieuse Des Marchandises (The Most Precious Merchandise), which concerns two families, one Jewish and one Catholic, and the terror they endured in in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Currently in production, it’s slated for theatrical release in late 2022 or 2023.
As the co-creator and co-curator with Irv Slifkin of FilmShul (www.filmshul.com), a selection of interactive online presentations about cinema and popular culture as reflected by the Jewish-American experience, naturally I have my own thoughts about Holocaust-themed films.
FilmShul grew out of the Covid lockdown and our wish to create an entertaining and informative online series that people could tune into during those tougher earlier days of the pandemic. Most of the courses, powered by Zoom, revolve around lighter subjects—Mel Brooks, the Catskills, the mystique of Brooklyn, the nickelodeon era and such—though we would get a little more serious with such presentations as The Hollywood Blacklist and WWII and Hollywood’s Jewish Question.
We specifically avoided the Holocaust as we felt that as a FilmShul presentation, it wouldn’t serve our purposes as a more pleasant diversion from everyone’s stress and fatigue of the moment. But with all the positive, proactive ruckus we’re seeing over Maus and the arrival of a pair of respectable animated films about the Holocaust, we’re reconsidering the development of a course on that topic.
It feels like we’ve arrived at a place where comic books and cartoon movies can communicate the facts and feelings on a subject that should be remembered and understood by all. And there are people—good people—who want to hear those stories, just as there are those who want to tell them in a fashion that serves them best. And that’s good enough for us.
Meanwhile, it looks like the McMinn Country Board of Education’s action is putting Maus into more hands than it’s seen in years.
The Complete Maus, which includes both individual Maus I and Maus II volumes, became an Amazon bestseller within a week. As of Sunday, February 6, it holds the No. 1 spot in the online retailer’s fiction-satire and comics-graphic novels categories, as well as the No. 3 spot overall for books. The individual editions have also risen to bestseller status on the Amazon charts.
Other results of the backlash include a number of Tennessee comic shops and bookstores announcing they would give away the book free to any interested student and hold discussions on its themes. In North Carolina, a professor at Davidson College is offering McMinn County eighth graders and high school students a free online course on Maus, a four-week-long seminar that will begin next week.
We hear that the line of authors waiting to have their books banned in Tennessee is growing by the minute.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.