Beyond Holocaust museums, Holocaust documentaries, and Holocaust action movies we now have the Holocaust first-person shooter. This is our chance to virtually be an escaped Jewish prisoner of Auschwitz, heavily armed, with hundreds of Nazis in our sights. Catharsis?
Sonderkommando Revolt, the grisly new Israeli video game that coarsely recreates a rebellion in World War II's most notorious death camp, is, perhaps exploitation. Subconscious exploitation, as the Israeli creator contends he meant it to be fun, not offensive.
But the game is also part of the less polite way many of us cope with history's dark moments: with heat on our brows and the taste for blood on our tongues. It's revenge fantasy; it is entertainment as revolt. Sometimes these things works; sometimes they can make their audience feel better.
We've seen this before, in various shades of what looks in a certain light to be the perverse.
The Gory Glee Of Fighting Back
These things arrive oddly. To fictionalize revenge is to unleash it as a flood so vile that it feels almost a celebration of the offending event from which it followed — a fetishization of whichever suffering that started the hurt.
Quentin Tarantino's film Inglorious Basterds just gave us big-screen stabbings of Nazis in their face, the burning of SS officers in a movie theater. For those for whom Eli Wiesel's somber memoir Night or Roberto Benigni's Holocaust comedy Life Is Beautiful were not sufficient to cope with the Holocaust's horrors, Tarantino's ultra-violent movie about gleeful Nazi-killing special agents was a different way to deal.
In the 60s, pornographic books called Stalags titillated their Israeli readers with tales of female SS officers abusing their captives before tables flipped and the women were raped and killed. Many questioned whether perversion justified perversion. The worst of them were seized by the police.
Choose a side or a group in history that has rightly or wrongly swallowed suffering and you'll likely find in some art, some creative work, their chronicle of the dream of spitting back. Anti-American manga imagines a U.S. defeated. The most notorious hip-hop fantasizes of the killing of cops.
These are not the revenges of the politely pained. These are the vicious fantasies that there could be an equal and opposite effect — and even a more brutal whiplash — perpetrated upon history's villains or victors.
Freed from the laws of reality, revenge fantasy like that of Sonderkommando Revolt can be hard to distinguish from exploitation. The revenge fantasy portrays glee amid suffering. It encourages the nodding of heads "yes" during its recreation of the ugliest events in human history — a nod that, yes, revenge is happening; a nod that, yes, vicious, vile good is being done to bad, bad people. This video game's creator, though he says he has no political message intended for this game has decided that it takes an image of a Jewish prisoner hanging bloody from a hook to properly decorate a scene where many Nazis will now be killed. He and his team must have concluded there was a necessary sequence of experience: we will be shown the most garish signs of Jewish death before we will create scenes of Nazi death,
Revenge fantasy does not encourage the headshake of the visitor to the Holocaust museum or the viewer of the Trail of Tears documentary who wishes this portion of the past did not exist. It assumes a more aggressive posture as we prepare to perform a punishment that did not happen in real life.
Striking Back Through Video Games
The video game might be the perfect medium for this kind of thing, which makes it odd we've seen so little of it. In a movie we can watch someone else's revenge. By controlling a game, we could pretend to be having our own revenge — or someone else's, considering we could be anyone.
The revenge gamers get to carry out, though, is seldom the revenge of the wronged. It is infrequently the revenge of real people. A gamer gets to mete out the justice of space marine wrongly incarcerated or that of a freedom fighter free-running across rooftops to defy an Orwellian state. In World War II video games, the developers leave out the concentration camps. You fight Nazis as American or British soldiers. In the late 2009 game The Saboteur, an epic action adventure of insurgency against the Nazi occupiers of Vichy France, you fight as an Irishman based on a real-life French-British race-car driver turned freedom fighter.
In video games, you don't play as the trampled. You don't fight Nazis as Jews. You don't fights plantation owners as the enslaved. Japanese developers made a video game in the 1980s about the war in the Pacific. It's called 1942 and it could have made Japan triumphant. You play as the Americans, bombing the Japanese fleet. In Super Columbine Massacre RPG, the player is no victim at all; they are one of the killers in that high school massacre.
In 2008's Call of Duty: World at War you did play as the wounded party out for a revenge. In one novel moment during which you have assumed the role of a Russian fighter whose village was crushed by the Germans. You are given the opportunity to — optionally — kill Nazis after they raised their hands in surrender.
These fantasies of revenge are themselves nightmares. We'd have to play this new one, Sonderkommando Revolt, to know if it feels good, and if it did, if feeling good would feel right.