Midway through his novel Seiobo There Below, László Krasznahorkai tells the story of a master woodcarver at work on a Noh mask. Through one long lilting sentence, we follow the man’s daily routine and the slow emergence of the mask from a block of hinoki cypress: from its original conception, through the first hesitant strokes, all the way to its final adornment with liquid metal. The process is painstaking and frequently dangerous, “a life-threatening, perilous labyrinth, where in every single movement of every single phase of the work there exists the possibility of error.” At the very end of this process, the face of the shiro-hannya appears in all its sublime ferocity. But what the artist does not even suspect is that “what his hands have brought into the world is a demon, and that it will do harm.”
In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil draws an explicit link between aesthetic and physical violence, writing: “Even in my worst moments I would not destroy a Greek statue or a fresco by Giotto. Why anything else then? Why, for example, a moment in the life of a human being who could have been happy for that moment.” In this view, violence splinters the world and leaves trauma in its wake. It is no surprise that proto-fascists like Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Italian Futurists elevated violence to a kind of sublime aesthetic force. For them, extreme actions had become necessary to achieve individual fulfillment in a hopelessly decadent world.
Even today, many artists are tempted to envision a world transformed by dramatic violence. Don DeLillo posited terrorism as “the only meaningful act” in Mao II. Marilynne Robinson has said that her students at the Iowa Writers Workshop often enjoyed punishing their characters. And Ida Jessen, a writer who has translated Robinson into Danish, told me something similar last fall: that the highest aspiration of modernism is cruelty. Even Krasznahorkai’s latest work often falls prey to a spiteful irony, where no good intention exists but to be thwarted. Weil seems lonely in her avowal, “To sully nothing, even in thought.” Anyone who makes violent art, no matter how finely wrought, runs the risk of creating a demon.
This is especially true when that art deals with real-life atrocities. In an interview around his 2012 film Amour, the Austrian director Michael Haneke presented a critique of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and other films about the Holocaust. To create suspense around whether gas or water will come out of a showerhead, according to Haneke, is an “unspeakable” act that reduces human suffering to a form of entertainment.
I returned to this interview a few months ago when Amazon released the neo-exploitation series Hunters on its streaming service. Hunters reimagines the hunt for Nazi fugitives as a kind of high camp, its cast stocked full of every imaginable grindhouse archetype. Every gesture seems secondhand. But as it cuts between 1970s New York and the death camp at Auschwitz, the show descends to a level of stupidity not even camp can justify. When a band of Jewish musicians switches from Wagner to folk music, they are executed on the spot. A chess prodigy is forced to play against an SS commander, with Jewish prisoners as the chess pieces. And the entire plot hinges around a maniacal Nazi, the Wolf, a genius so devious he spends the entire show hiding in plain sight.
I’m not the first person to find the show distasteful—the Auschwitz Memorial registered a complaint early on. I’m not even the first to note how incredibly tacky it all is. But it occurred to me recently that the outrageous images in Hunters serve as a kind of shield against the true horrors of the Holocaust. The show elevates the perpetrators of this world-historic crime to the status of fascinating arch-villains, while reducing its victims to plot devices. It is unspeakable, to use Haneke’s word. It is also ridiculous.