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Mel Gibson: No Apology, No Forgiveness

November 3, 2016 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The disgraced director isn’t expressing remorse for his anti-Semitism. He just wants us to forget about it and move on.

Mel Gibson is back.

After more than a decade as a pariah for his virulent anti-Semitic and racist pronouncements, Mel Gibson, the Hollywood icon who gained notoriety for telling a police officer that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”, is attempting a major comeback. How should we react to Hacksaw Ridge, the new film he directed which received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice film Festival?

The film tells the powerful story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first “conscientious objector” to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor for heroically saving lives as a medic during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa, and it is getting early Oscar buzz. Film critics are almost unanimous in praise. There’s no doubt that the movie is a significant artistic achievement.

But the question begs to be asked: Is art independent of moral considerations? Does it make a difference if the director of a film probing the most intense emotions of those who fought against the Nazi regime in World War II has consistently denied the reality of the Holocaust?

Not too many years ago, Mel Gibson announced that he would be doing a film about Judah Maccabee, possibly as an attempt to undo the damage to his image from his appalling portrayal of Jews in his infamously biased retelling of the crucifixion of Jesus in The Passion. That prompted the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance to say, "Casting [Gibson] as a director or perhaps as the star of Judah Maccabee is like casting Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or a white supremacist as trying to portray Martin Luther King Jr." Joe Eszterhas, originally hired as scriptwriter for the movie, subsequently pulled out with the explanation to Gibson that “I’ve come to the conclusion that you hate Jews” and the movie never got made.

But with Hacksaw Ridge now released it is relevant to remind ourselves of a famous and somewhat similar controversy in the early 80s. CBS produced the film Playing for Time, a moving portrayal scripted by Arthur Miller of Fania Fenelon, a French pianist, cabaret singer, secret member of the Resistance, and a Jew. Captured by the Nazis, she was sent to Auschwitz where she became one of the legendary orchestra girls who used music to survive the Holocaust. The Mädchenorchester von Auschwitz (lit. "Girls Orchestra of Auschwitz") was first formed in April 1943 as a pet project of SS chief supervisor Maria Mandel for the Germans who desired both a propaganda tool for visitors and camp newsreels, and a tool for camp morale. Fania survived because of her forced involvement in the travesty of musical performances in the heart of hell.

Cast in the lead role as Fania was the PLO sympathizer and vocal anti-Semite Vanessa Redgrave, someone who had been quoted as saying “Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth.”

Fania Fenelon was enraged – but she could do nothing about the identity of the actress who portrayed her. In the storm of protest aroused by this indecent casting, CBS took the position that Redgrave’s political sympathies could not be allowed to affect the producer’s judgment of her acting ability.

Allow me to highlight the ultimate irony: The whole point of Playing for Time was to convey the unspeakable tragedy of a barbaric era of recent history, yet its production repeated a fundamental error of outlook which made the Holocaust possible. Fania Fenelon was forced to play music as fellow inmates were marched to their death. It was the expression of German culture which saw no contradiction between music as civilized art and murder as national policy.

The orchestra at Auschwitz had a philosophical underpinning. The SS guard who snatched an infant from his mother’s breast, splattered his brains against the wall and then calmly picked up his violin to enjoy the strains of Beethoven believed the two actions were compatible. What Nazism preached in mid-twentieth century, after thousands of years of supposed progress for civilized man, is precisely what was used to justify Redgrave’s right to be judged solely on artistic rather than moral considerations – even as Germanic “Kultur” disassociated one from another.

At issue was not a role but rather a rationale for creativity. As an ideal of Western civilization, Andre Maurois perceptively told us, “Art is an effort to create, beside the real world, a more human world.” Was it mere coincidence, then, that the 30s first saw the creation of “life-is-a-cabaret” decadence immediately prior to the decline of the moral fabric of German society?

It was those who forced musicians to play as background music to genocide that left as their legacy the conviction that art has nothing to do with heart and that beauty – in spite of what Keats might have famously told us – has nothing to do with truth.

We ought to know better. Mel Gibson, sad to say, has not really changed from the man who proudly told us that his father, a notorious Holocaust denier, “has never lied to me.” To those who shrug off Gibson’s vile rantings of the past as vodka-induced aberrations, Christopher Hitchens perceptively pointed out that in vino veritas – in wine there is truth – and that “One does not abruptly decide, between the first and second vodka that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion are valid after all”.

It was in August of this year – not a decade ago but in 2016 – that Mel Gibson shared with Glenn Beck the diatribe that that “Jewish people” had stolen a copy of his Jesus movie more than a dozen years ago and used it to attack him and make his life hell before the film’s release.

In his words, “And then some Jewish people – I guess some rabbis or something, I didn’t get into it – somebody stole a copy of the movie before it was shown to anybody… And then they did a deal in The New York Times with all these rabbis trashing me as an anti-Semite. And I couldn’t believe it… Nobody was really upset that these guys stole the movie…’

So, as Glenn Beck tells us, The Passion of the Christ director is still blaming Jews for his troubles – and I guess crucifying him just as they did Jesus.

Mel Gibson is not expressing remorse and asking us to forgive him; he just wants us to forget about it and move on. Even worse, he is painting himself as a victim, telling late night host Stephen Colbert, “That moment in time shouldn’t define the rest of my life.” He’d like us simply to enjoy his new movie as a work of art.

But there can be no forgiveness without genuine remorse. And after the Holocaust I refuse to separate art from heart – or to confuse any passion for the artistic merit of a film with admiration for the hate-filled director of The Passion.

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