“I fear I am writing pornography.”
So said former Communist and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo about his on-again off-again attempt to address the Holocaust through the first-person narration of a concentration camp officer.
When Auschwitz was liberated (ironically by the Red Army, which would soon institute a pogrom against Jews), a variety of writers tried to grapple with the Holocaust. Various interpretations of the Holocaust have been offered though out the years: Marxist (the Final Solution was the logical culmination of heartless capitalism and the fascism inherent in it); the banality of evil, the we-are-all-responsible school, etc.ect. ad nausaem.
Trumbo, the author of Johnny Got His Gun, perhaps, through the triple amputee Joe Bonham, was the ultimate victim story. With the uncompleted Night of the Aurochs, collected and published three years after the author’s death, Trumbo sought to write the ultimate murderer story. The effect is mixed, marred by the author’s attempts at making out of the Holocaust literal pornography.
Through the first person testimony of Grieben, former commander of Auschwitz, Trumbo offers the novel perception–and trivialization–of the Holocaust. Grieben is attracted to the pornographic attraction of total power. He has in his power a woman he lusted after years before, and puts her through a variety of sadomasochistic games. In his old age, he concludes that all of the deaths were worth, given that he was participating in a holy war.
This conclusion certainly is in line with Nazi thinking. Despite the subhuman descriptions in the borderline pornographic pages of the Angriff and Volkeicher Beobachter, Hitler and company found the Jews a formidable adversary–such a Satanic enemy required godly solutions. Grieben, while at Auschwitz and later as a broken, reflective old man concludes that the Holocaust allowed him to play God. And there was certainly a pornographic element to Nazism (people to this day dress as Nazis for bondage games), but the main one was homo-eroticism
Trumbo is a his best when he shows the pecking order of power hunger. When a group of Nazis humiliate a farmer by pulling down his trousers and spanking him with a switch, as soon as they depart the farmer begins beating his children–the abused kick downwards.
But Trumbo reveals a dirty old man approach to the victims. Without evidence, he argues that camp inmates met at the ovens for orgies. One gets where Trumbo is going, the victims attempt to tap into the sex is power interpretation peddled by the author, but sex is the one of the first things to go when one is nutritionally starved. In effect, he trivializes the carnage from a genocide by factory methods into some kind of swingers’ convention.
Since in the past Trumbo ran everything through a Marxist prism, Nights shows movement away from such a perspective. But eroticism is not a good substitute, especially when applied to those who hardly had the energy for sex.