Maus – Art Spiegelman

Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman’s family’s experience of the Holocaust through depicting the memories of his father, Vladek. Famously the characters involved are drawn as animals, with their species depending on their nationality or religion. The Nazis become cats while the Jewish people involved are mice terrorised by this cats as dogs, pigs and other animals stand on the sidelines. Although I had heard many great things about the graphic novel I found it difficult to believe that this anthropomorphism would not trivialise its subject. Instead, it makes this global narrative of grief personal and individual to Spiegelman’s description and therefore, perhaps, even more devastating because it presents such a fresh account. Almost every page is filled with Vladek’s idiosyncratic turns of English speech and this quickly allows his character to come to life within the portrayal as a mouse. This peculiar phrasing also draws attention to the separation that exists between the lives of father and son.

The narrative swerves between Vladek’s recollections, Art’s interpretation of these events and some of their everyday conversations as they navigate a relationship fraught with difficulties and cultural differences. Art is a post-war child born in America, and cannot understand his father’s compulsive need to be so frugal with everything from paper to cereal and roof insulation. Art’s frustration demonstrates the difficultly that post-war culture experienced in processing the long term effects of the Holocaust when the easiest response was to try and forget the destruction previous generations had experienced. Although Art’s mother Anja survived Auschwitz she is absent throughout the entire graphic novel due to committing suicide after living for years in America. The shadow of the Holocaust, across even Art’s life, becomes more substantial and solidifies until the present and future cannot compete.

Spiegelman constantly references the process behind Maus, as he struggles to keep Vladek on track in their recorded conversations. His idea of how the graphic novel should be shaped is different to the real experiences and there are not always conclusions to the questions that are raised. So many people disappear into concentration camps, ghettos and violence that they can only be mentioned with a question mark over their fate. The anthropomorphic concept is also demonstrated to be limiting as it cannot reflect the multiple facets of individual personalities, as people convert to Judaism or claim they are German rather than Jewish. The futile nature of attempting to divide every character into one attribute also highlights the arbitrary nature of Hitler’s policies on eugenics. There is also an increasing awareness of how Spiegelman’s work adapts in response to the critical acclaim that the first half receives. He is overwhelmed by the attention which is paid and the demands that are made to promote and diversify the work. As his own reaction becomes a part of the graphic novel Spiegelman reaffirms his connection to the trauma of the previous generation even as he becomes aware how separate he will remain.

The Holocaust cannot remain solely in history books and lessons but should be kept as part of society’s culture, however difficult an admission this may be. Maus is a book that will continue to shock people into accepting that the events of the twentieth century will continue to disrupt and destroy lives that did not even exist when the Nazis’ held Europe in their grasp and so I would recommend it wholeheartedly.


Ida (2014)

As the opening credits of Ida began I realised I had almost unrealistically high expectations for this film. I had seen posters littered with hyperbolic praise and adorned with awards from across Europe and watched the breathtaking trailer several times. I suddenly worried whether it was possible for the film to sustain so many preconceived hopes. However, it soon became apparent that Paweł Pawlikowski has focused on the small details of Ida’s story allowing the larger subjects of the film to remain undamaged by a heavy hand. This lightness of narrative makes Ida both a completely absorbing and painful film to watch.

The eponymous Ida, Agata Trzebuchowska, is an orphan novice nun who is about to take her vows in rural Poland during the Soviet rule of the 1960s. Although she has already agreed to spend her life in the stark nunnery her Mother Superior insists she must meet her remaining family, an aunt, before she makes an irreversable commitment. Ida reluctantly makes her way to the city where she discovers from this aunt, Wanda Gruz played by Agata Kulesza, that she is Jewish. Her complete faith in a Christian god is then faced with an identity crisis as she realises she knows nothing about this new culture and family which have laid a claim on her. Pawlikowski also demonstrates throughout the film that it is not only traditional Jewish culture that continues their separation but the overwhelming and inescapable grief the recent generations have faced following the loss of so many communities in the Holocaust. Ida is drawn into this shared emotion as she travels with Wanda to discover her parents’ fate and understand why she was left at the nunnery for so many years.

Although this quest to reveal Ida’s past might sound unremittingly bleak the film does also raise questions about how lives should be lived. As Ida begins to experience the full possibilities that the world has to offer, ranging from beautiful clothes to the social interaction offered by a bustling city and the suggestion of a male friend, it seems as if she has closed herself off from the world before even understanding it. The audience sees this strange new world through her eyes, as even a traffic jam appears exotic in comparison to the barren, snowy lands surrounding her previous home.

Ida was a film that I think will stay with me and in my thoughts for a long time. While many people wished they could forget the terrible things which war brought with it to Poland it is clear that this would always remain impossible without an acknowledgement of the wounds that lay across the surface of society.
Unfortunately Ida appears to have finished its run in cinemas but I think it is worth buying the DVD of this film as the clear and simple visuals will not bore with rewatching.