A few weeks ago, I came across an infamous essay that dance critic Arlene Croce wrote for The New Yorker in which she derided the genre of "victim art." She described it as art that so closely associates itself with a specific social ill that it renders itself beyond criticism. Its effect, she stated, is a sort of emotional and intellectual bludgeoning a challenge to the audience that dismissal (or even honest assessment) of the work will be interpreted as insensitivity to the issue itself: AIDS, racial inequality, et al.
One wonders what Ms. Croce would make of The Aryan Couple, a semicompetent Holocaust melodrama that spins a grabbily manipulative (not to mention fictitious) story of lives threatened by the Nazi menace, never stopping to wonder if the entire undertaking isn't in slightly poor taste. Anybody who blanched at the artifice of Schindler's List (another example of victim art cited by Ms. Croce) should really recoil from the blatant deck-stacking perpetrated by The Aryan Couple's director/co-writer, John Daly (an accomplished producer with only 1993's The Petersburg-Cannes Express to his creative credit). Put-upon Jews weep on cue or stare defiantly into the camera, spouting impromptu speeches about getting some of their own back one day; all the while, violins wail in the background. Pardon me if I'm leaping to a conclusion, but I think we're meant to feel something here.
Set in Hungary in 1944, the story revolves around Joseph Krauzenberg (Martin Landau), a wealthy industrialist who's struck a deal to spirit his extended family to safety in Palestine by turning over his entire estate to the Nazis. Third Reich bigwigs like Himmler (Danny Webb) and Eichmann (Steven Mackintosh) figure in the clandestine arrangement, although the biggest danger may be to the Vassmans (Kenny Doughty, Caroline Carver), a pair of married servants introduced to us as the last Aryans in Hungary working for Jewish employers. But unbeknownst to their bosses, the Vassmans are Jews themselves, and also active participants in resistance activities that could get them executed as soon as the Krauzenbergs leave the country.
Obstacles pile up like cliffhangers in an old RKO serial. Will the Krauzenbergs make it to the airport, or will the shifty Nazis double-cross them at the last minute? Will the Vassmans be found out? What brutal fate awaits them if they are? The risk factor is upped so methodically and shamelessly that Daly might have considered slipping the movie stage entirely and taking his story straight to the videogame console. ("Final Solution 3, for PlayStation.")
The effort is almost professional enough to constitute a genuine affront, largely due to the presence of Landau, who can seem credible even when a filmmaker is directing him to really pour on the schmaltz. Luckily, little else about The Aryan Couple is up to his level, especially Daly's ham-fisted writing which is almost all exposition and the absurdly lyrical British accents sported by the Nazis. Not even a token guttural consonant attaches itself to these anti-Semitic orators' perfectly enunciated hate speech. Take an uninformed middle-schooler to the film, and he may emerge believing that Poland was invaded by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Is it still victim art when the designation "art" is in question? Croce might know, though the best encapsulation of The Aryan Couple's self-serving indignation comes from a sister sociologist: Sarah Silverman, who last year challenged her audience with the out-on-a-limb observation, "Nazis are A-holes, and I'll be the first one to say it." Daly is just as adept at knocking down straw men; the problem is that he doesn't intend it as a joke.