35 Years after the Miniseries ‘Holocaust,’ 35 Years after ‘The Deer Hunter:’ How Meryl Streep Spurred the Memory Boom

In 1978, Meryl Streep featured a movie and a miniseries; both had a tremendous impact on the culture of remembrance in the United States as well as internationally. On the occasion of her 64th birthday on June 22, I want to point out her contribution to these dramatic works.

Meryl Streep is a terrific actress, who won three Academy Awards out of 17 nominations. In recent years, she electrified her audience with character parts (e.g. The Iron Lady, 2011) as well as lightweight comedies (e.g. Mamma Mia, 2008). In this piece, I would like to go back to the beginning of her career when she starred in two widely received films that deeply influenced our understanding of the past.

NBC’s miniseries Holocaust – the first example – aired on four consecutive evenings in April 1978. The miniseries was an attempt to shed light on the entire history of the Holocaust by telling the story of two fictional families from Germany. Family Weiss is a family of assimilated Jews from the upper middle-class. Their experience is contrasted with the life of the Dorf family. The patriarch of the Dorf family, Erik Dorf, has a remarkable career as an SS officer and is in charge of developing Nazi extermination techniques. While the Dorfs rise in power and influence, the Weiss’s see their fortunes gradually reversed. The two families’ stories are partially interwoven and the plot contains numerous fairly plausible coincidences in which the paths of characters from the Dorf and Weiss families intersect at various places and events of the Holocaust. Meryl Streep plays Inge a catholic women, who marries into the Weiss family at the beginning of the series.

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep in Holocaust (1978), © CBS Inc. 

Scholarly literature has tended to describe Holocaust as a watershed production that informed a rather uninformed public about the Holocaust, thus facilitating its integration into the collective memory of the United States. Nearly 120 million people watched it in the United States alone, making it to one of the biggest TV events ever (at its time only topped by the miniseries Roots

The Deer Hunter, released on December 8, 1978, is the second example. The feature film is – in a very tiny nutshell – about a group of steelworkers from Pennsylvania (played by Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, among others) who fight in the Vietnam War and end up in a gruesome, riverside prisoners of war (POW) camp. Meryl Streep plays Linda, the fiancé of one of the American POWs. Due to his torture in captivity her spouse goes mad. Unable to return to normal life after his flight from the prison camp, he remains in Saigon and eventually kills himself playing Russian roulette.

The Deer Hunter was one of the first and most influential dramatizations to be critical of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. The war was depicted as a wasteful endeavor, which left its veterans physically, and most importantly psychologically, harmed and then neglected by the government. This depiction became a common and central element of subsequent Vietnam War films, such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Rambo: First Blood (1982), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Born On the Fourth of July (1989) and Forest Gump (1994), to name a few of the most popular ones. (If you like to get an impression how these movies differ from earlier, more traditional war movies please have a look at The Green Berets (1968) starring John Wayne as a two-fisted colonel hijacking a NVA commander in a blunt special forces action.)

All in all:

Holocaust informed a rather uninformed public about the central events of the Holocaust and established it as a discrete and Jewish event. The Deer Hunter did not establish many facts about the Vietnam War, which was unnecessary in the face of a war that ended three years before the movie’s release, yet it created a powerful framework of interpretation. These are rather subtle results of popular cinema, which is able to enforce and often intensify a certain view of an historical event.

I would like to strengthen my line of argument by showing some causal relations between the cinematic representations and the culture of remembrance.

One of the 120 million Americans who watched Holocaust was President Jimmy Carter. It is said that he was so deeply moved by the show that on May 1, 1978 he announced the creation of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust whose final report suggested the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The museum was planned and constructed during the 1980s and opened in 1993. It is situated in close proximity to the National Mall in the capital, next to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, and has become one of the major research facilities of the Holocaust. Its exhibitions, memorial events and research achievements have a decisive impact on the remembrance of the Holocaust.

There is also a second important process that was triggered by the miniseries Holocaust, which arose due to unease with the series. Holocaust survivors, most prominently Elie Wiesel, harshly criticized the miniseries and accused it of trivializing the Holocaust and turning the event into a soap opera. Therefore, one response to the miniseries was the foundation of oral history projects, which started interviewing Holocaust survivors and recording their life stories. By videotaping survivors, the creators of these projects wanted to restore their stories, which had been exploited by television. Joanne Rudof from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, one of the first oral history projects that started in 1979, is quoted with the following words: “Everything had been taken from them. Now television was trying to take away their stories too.” Following the initiative and example of the Fortunoff Video Archive, dozens of separate projects have recorded testimonies of survivors during the past few decades. American initiatives created more than 75,000 interviews with Holocaust survivors or witnesses.

The Holocaust miniseries has deeply influenced two pillars of the culture of remembrance- the national memorialization and the role of survivors.

Let’s have another look at The Deer Hunter, as it also plays an important role in the memorialization of the Vietnam War. In this case it was veteran Jan Scruggs who watched the movie and afterwards decided to found the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in order to collect donations for a memorial. The Memorial Fund was founded on May 28, 1979. One year later Congress authorized a piece of the Constitution Gardens between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial for the construction of a memorial. After a vehement public debate, a 21-year old American Chinese architect, Maya Ying, designed the memorial. The architecture of the memorial differs widely from the traditional, mostly Roman and Greek influenced, memorials on the Mall. It consists of two black walls built partly into the ground, hitting each other in an obtuse angle. Engraved on the wall are the names of Americans who died during the war or were missing in action. The memorial mirrors a view of the Vietnam War that was already outlined in The Deer Hunter; it was not a heroic deed but a senseless grave for thousands of Americans (the Vietnamese perspective plays neither a role in the movie nor at the memorial sight).

The Vietnam War and the Holocaust are two poles in the culture of remembrance in the United States with partially contrary lessons. The one drawn from Vietnam warned against getting involved in foreign affairs, while the Holocaust constitutes the Never Again imperative to interfere in cases of mass violence, gross injustices and crimes against humanity. It is no coincidence that both events were debated at the same time. (Persuasively Rob Rogers captured this conflict in a cartoon for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. See illustration below.)

Bill Clinton in 1993

Bill Clinton lost in commemorative culture in 1993 (Rob Rogers © UFS Inc.)

All right, what has Meryl Streep to do with this again? She is one of the few persons I can think of, except maybe Jimmy Carter, who has a part in both creating a certain view of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War; thereby shaping central aspects of American commemorative culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s (which plays a huge role until today). (By the way: In 1982 Streep also starred in Sophies Choice, a movie about a Polish Auschwitz survivor, for which she won the Academy Award for best actress.) Both filmic dramatizations faced substantial critique. The Deer Hunter mostly for its infamous roulette scenes, and Holocaust for turning the historical event into a melodrama. Although both films were criticized, Streep’s role was praised. She made these works a success – and gave historians a lot to think and write about.

With this in mind: Happy Birthday, Meryl!


6 thoughts on “35 Years after the Miniseries ‘Holocaust,’ 35 Years after ‘The Deer Hunter:’ How Meryl Streep Spurred the Memory Boom

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