United 93: A Gift of Memory for Those who Already can Never Forget

Remembering the Before and, Thereby, the After

My first memories of Holocaust movies are not of seeing them. My first memories are of not seeing them. That was when I was young and my mother had more say regarding what I watched when she wasn’t even in the building than she has now when she’s in the other room. A note from her, or a quick chat with my teachers, and, when my classmates would be solemnly gathered up and ushered into the auditorium for a special Holocaust memorial program, I would find myself being informed that I should remain in the classroom until after the film and then someone would come get me for the speeches. At the time I recall feeling left out and, perhaps, a little mollycoddled. If I was allowed to hear the speeches in which stories of the Holocaust were recounted, why was a movie off-limits? Didn’t I have an obligation to remember? Wasn’t it insulting to the Holocaust to say that it wasn’t important enough to warrant a few nightmares and some loss of innocence? It is only in the years since my mother deemed me “old enough,” years in which I have seen many Holocaust movies, that I realize the power and true meaning of my mother’s prohibition. It wasn’t simply a matter of innocence or nightmares; my mother did what she did because film has a pervasive and haunting capacity to burn into our minds the memories of others, which cannot be matched by any other medium, and because the memories of the Holocaust, transmitted so overwhelmingly by this medium, are too important to be entrusted, prematurely, to a child.

Holocaust movies must be made. I stand by this statement with all the conviction I can muster. And, in the same breath, I wish to remove the capital ‘h’ from the word “Holocaust.” While the world has never known the sheer magnitude of bloodshed that was the Nazi attempt to exterminate those they deemed unworthy of life, genocide and war were not born with the Third Reich and did not die with it. All movies that remind us – as we sit in darkened theatres that are dark enough to hide our tears and never dark enough, thank God, to hide our shock – of the most tragic moments of our collective history must be made. We must remember each time a human being shed the blood of another human being and, as is inevitable, when we cannot possibly contain within our minds every such instance, we must cry even more that there are too many memories to capture. We must make movies of the victims, of the perpetrators, of the heroes and of the indifferent. We must make these movies because our past, as a species, is, second only to our future, our greatest legacy. What we have done has shaped the road we walk on and, despite many cultures’ attempts to deny it, we all tread this path together; we all built it together. Our next step is not only influenced by the previous in an unconsciously causal way but it is determined by our reactions to that previous step. If we like it we may repeat it; if we hate it we will avoid it. If we forget it, we are lost.

The Jewish calendar reverberates with the recognition of the past’s importance. We commemorate events that shaped our history and we gird ourselves to face the events that await us. We celebrate the birth of our nation on Pesach; we rejoice in the endurance of our nation on Chanukah; we mourn the weakness and suffering of our nation on Tisha b’Av. Our ancestors’ stories are our stories and our children’s stories[1]; we are a nation built on the intertwined pillars of temporal history and eternal theology. We were all at Sinai and, yet, Sinai must be viewed as an historical event – firmly anchored in the ancient sands of an ancient world. And, so, every year, as a new year dawns, as we face the future, we reconsider our past. We walk ten days into the new year and then we take twenty-five hours to comprehensively jump backwards. We constantly live our lives, as Jews, with one foot in what has already happened. We learn from the past, we strive to be better than the past, and we never forget the past. We know that it is our past which holds the key to our future.

I remember, and always will, where I was when I heard about the twin towers. That day is clear to me in ways that last Monday, for example, never had the hope to be. Many people have said that 9/11 is my generation’s Kennedy assassination. It is probably true. Now ask me, what do I know about the way America felt on that day when Kennedy, their beloved Kennedy, was shot? I know what the history books say but if you ask my heart then I don’t know anything. I can’t really know; my generation does not have a love for leaders like that. We are less likely to give our loyalty, more likely to ridicule and we are so far from Camelot that I wonder if we could even tell you if we wish we had it. We are the product of a world post-Kennedy’s assassination and, in a “post” world, it is almost impossible to pretend to be “pre.” That is the beauty of historical cinema. The right script, the right set, the right cast and, suddenly, a white teenager in the twenty-first century can have an emotional inkling of what it must have been like to be a black slave in the 1700s. Or, even better, what it might have been like to be a white teenager in the 1700s. Speeches and books can give us facts but, for emotions, for tears that we could not possibly know to shed, there is nothing that can compare to the guiding glory of the moving picture.

I walked into United 93 terrified. I lived through that day in Manhattan and I was not sure if I was prepared to live through it again. It is one thing to live through a previous generation’s tragedy, to use film to try to understand that tragedy from that generation’s point of view. Yet, would I ask a Holocaust survivor to watch a Holocaust movie? Does a black slave need to be manipulated into feeling what a black slave felt? Does anyone whose heart broke when Kennedy’s head fell, really have to watch it happen again? If these movies must be made so that we can understand the quintessentially generational nature of our species’ tragedies then why must our generation re-watch the tragedies of our generation? Was United 93 really capable of making me feel something that I hadn’t already felt? And if it could, could I handle that? In other words, I suppose I echo the debate surrounding this film: is it too soon? I ask, though, not because the wound is still too raw to be touched but because I wonder, if the wound is still raw, do we need to touch it at all?

I’m not in the mood for suspense so I’ll answer my question right away. Yes, this movie needed to be made now. In a moment, in however long it took for that first plane to crash so horrifically into the first tower, the world changed. And, while it is true that I do not understand Camelot because it died almost two decades before I was born, I also no longer understand a pre-9/11 world despite the fact that I lived in it for most of my life, that it only died five years ago and that it died right before my very eyes. I know this because, while I watched United 93, I shook my head in disbelief that no one noticed the odd behaviour of the obviously Muslim obviously terrorists on the plane, that no one in air traffic control had a clue what to do with a possible hijacking and that no one in airport security found those knives. Of course they didn’t. Would I have thought it possible for 9/11 to occur even five minutes before it did? Absolutely not. I know this because, that morning, as I dressed for class, my roommates and I heard a plane – the plane – and I joked that it was flying too low and would hit a building if it wasn’t careful. Would I say that in a post-9/11 world? Would that be funny in a post-9/11 world? No, it would not but I must remember what it felt like for that to be funny if I am to ever recall what happened that day.

So, there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity. We must capture the emotions of 9/11 before we forget. Not just for us, but also for the future. When Elie Wiesel wrote Night, it may have felt too soon but it needed to be done before even the witnesses forgot what it was to not be afraid of their neighbours. The raw memory of Night is not to be underestimated even as the darker images of later Holocaust literature and films step forward and command our hearts’ attention. In the years to come I am sure that we will encounter many more movies that attempt to remind us and teach the upcoming generations of the emotional signature of September 11, 2001. These movies will have to rely, more and more, on speculations and drama. The manipulative wheels of Hollywood will grind faster and faster. They will have to be classic movies – movies that truly steal a person from reality for the time allotted and shove that person, swiftly and surely, into the spider’s web of another world. United 93, created so soon after the paradigm shift, need not be.

United 93 needs no Harrison-Ford-like hero to succinctly command that the terrorists stand down, no Aaron-Sorkin-infused wit to capture the crux of the crisis, no Mission Impossible score beating the rhythm of a synchronized retaliation. It needs to be the closest we can get to those moments, the closest the future will be able to get to the clumsy and real flux of the past. It needs to be a testimonial, simple and stark against the changing background of a present in turmoil. Not just for the future, but also for us. The film cannot possibly be more dramatic than the actual events and so it does not even try. Thereby, United 93 succeeds in reminding me of what I did not even realize I had already forgotten. And, so, one day when I have a daughter who tries to remember a day before she was born, a day that shaped the world she will live in, and I decide that she is ready to sacrifice a bit of her innocence, I will let her see this movie. I will allow her that precious glimpse into the past so that she can better navigate the course of her future. And I will watch it with her. And we will both remember a world that didn’t need heroes like the brave men and women on United 93. And then we will both remember a world that does. 

Dodi-Lee Hecht

[1] Nowhere is this idea of timeless history better highlighted than in the perpetual commandment to remember the Exodus, culminating in the Pesach Seder. It is at the Seder that we are obligated to feel as if we ourselves left Egypt and not simply to recall the events that transpired in a disconnected and distant past. For more on this concept please see Nishma.org’s April 2006 Commentary: Children of Believers.