Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC, coordinator of Medical Education/Professional Development, Richmond Hospital; clinical professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia
USA, 2008, Director/Screenwriter: Boaz Yakin
For those who endured Nazi persecution, the horrors did not end with the war. Although a significant percentage of Holocaust survivors have shown remarkable resilience, others have been crippled by a range of disturbing psychological symptoms. In Boaz Yakin’s film Death in Love, the connection between the Holocaust and subsequent psychopathology is made painfully clear.
The film opens with shocking scenes from a Nazi concentration camp. After being abandoned by her parents, a young Jewish woman’s survival depends upon a horrendous moral dilemma – to either engage in a sexual affair with a Nazi doctor or become the subject of gruesome medical experiments. She chooses survival, and remarkably, appears to fall in love with the Mengele-like doctor.
The war ends. Flash forward to New York City where a televised account of the World Trade Center basement bombing establishes the year as 1993. The woman – now played by a
64-year-old Jacqueline Bisset – is married with two sons and a little-seen husband (all four characters remain unnamed throughout the film). Disturbed and unlikable, she displays a number of characteristics frequently reported in Holocaust survivors.1 She has fears of abandonment, choosing her husband because of her belief that this particular man will never leave her. There are marked problems involving anger regulation, with dish-smashing and furniture-toppling tantrums. She still utilizes seductive survival strategies “from there” and has been involved in at least two recent affairs. She appears hardened and emotionally disconnected from her family and others. She recounts with pride how she was indifferent to the fate of a rejected and suicidal suitor. Frequent flashbacks involving concentration camp scenes not only suggest the intrusive recollections consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder but leave little doubt that the marked pathology and dysfunction now evident within the Bisset character arise directly from her Holocaust experience.
Unfortunately, the repercussions of Holocaust traumatization extend beyond the survivors. The children of the damaged mother – the so-called ‘Second Generation’ – are equally damaged. The youngest (played by Lukas Haas) is house-bound and emaciated; the other (played by Josh Lucas), is the central character of the film. In distinct ways, each represents a pattern of psychopathology that has been described in some of the descendants of Holocaust survivors.2
Perhaps younger son’s agoraphobia can best be conceptualized as the understandable behavioural consequences that can occur when an intense distrust of the world is transmitted from a parent to child. His severe emaciation (perhaps too heavy handedly) symbolically emphasizes the connection of his distress and dysfunction to the experience of those in the concentration camps. A pianist, he ultimately ensures that even this small pleasure is no longer available to him when an encounter with his brother’s flirtatious ex-girlfriend overwhelms his limited coping skills. One senses his fear of his raging mother has now generalized to all female figures.
Although the older brother is more functional, he is no more psychologically healthy. He appears to have internalized many of his mother’s maladaptive coping strategies. He too is morally compromised, a con man who works in a bogus fashion model agency that exploits average-looking women. And like his mother, his sexuality seems more a means to an end than satisfying, and is graphically on display within an intense sadomasochistic affair with his female boss. He has the self-loathing and existential despair of a defeated man.
After viewing Death in Love, it would be easy to be convinced that the long-term consequences of the Holocaust must continue to morbidly contaminate not only those who survived, but all their descendants as well. Yet the literature on the existence or nonexistence of psychopathology in the ‘Second Generation’ is mixed.1 Perhaps surprisingly, most research studies do not confirm the assumption of significant emotional distress in this population. It appears it is only those offspring of a ‘clinical’ population of parent survivors (i.e., those who have come to the attention of mental health professionals) that are at increased risk for psychological difficulties as compared to the general population.
Death in Love, like its characters, is flawed. There is a preposterous ‘return of the stranger/murder mystery” plot that yields an unsatisfying and almost an incongruously laughable ending. There is a very predictable confidence game subplot (orchestrated by a co-worker in the fashion model agency played by Adam Brody) that is simply distracting. Much of the film is highly overwrought and, at times, the imagery is excessive and pretentious. The film colludes with the mistaken notion that all those affected by the Holocaust are broken and damaged individuals. Yet the film does serve as a useful reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust and how its presence can dominate the lives of not only those who survived but their descendants as well. And the film’s haunting and brutal images linger.
1. Kellermann NP. The Long-Term Psychological Effects and Treatment of Holocaust Trauma. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 6:197-218, 2001.
2. Bendor SJ. Strong at the Broken Pieces: Diverse Voices from the Second Generation. Journal of Jewish Communal Service, 83: 243- 249, 2008.