My friend Fabien Nowak sent me the above article from the New York Times. It concerns a Czech reality television show. Contestants are ‘sent back in time’ to 1939 when Bohemia and Moravia were subject to Nazi rule, (English speaking WW2 buffs will know this chapter of history as the Annexation of the Sudetenland). The reality show contestants have to survive deprivations, Gestapo investigations, threats, and must adapt to their new circumstances.
The television show has provoked strong negative reaction from historians, journalists and commentators. They note that the real consequences of civil disobedience to, and oppression by Nazi rule, were often fatal, unlike in the television show. The creators on the other hand, argue that the show educates people by casting new light on the period.
The Czech show provokes interesting questions about the representation of real historical events and contexts in fiction or in entertainment. To what extent do writers or television and film producers have a responsibility to represent reality? Do these responsibilities vary in degree depending on format, or even subject? For example, should a novel writer be granted more freedom to invent than a television producer? Is it somehow more legitimate to fictionalise real people and events in novel and film, than in a reality television show? Is a novel art, whereas a reality television show is exploitation? Did the critics of the Czech show previously rail against novels and films that distorted fact?
The answers are too complex to discuss in a short essay, and the lines are of course, terribly blurred. However, one might argue that viewers are not as ignorant as the custodians of the moral high ground tend to imagine. Reality television shows are a gimmick. They are by definition oxymoronic. People cannot actually be transported back to 1939. Just as viewers know this, they know that the ‘reality’ portrayed is therefore, fiction. A significant % of the Czech viewers will have lost grandparents during the war. They are only too aware of the real history and suffering of their country. A television reality show that plays loose with the factual context will not change this.
One might recall also, that there are many good films set during WW2 which do not entirely adhere to reality. Saving Private Ryan and The English Patient spring to mind. More blatant distortion might include the film U-571, (not a great film) in which history is openly re-written to show the Americans capturing the Nazi enigma code machine, when in reality it was the British. There are even WW2 shoot ’em up films like Kelly’s Heroes or Where Eagles Dare, or Inglorious Basterds in which ridiculousness and farce are much more prominent than historical reality.
In his excellent series of Bernie Gunther novels, the British writer Philip Kerr (see separate article on this site), uses fictional representations of real Nazis. Prominent among Kerr’s supporting cast is Reinhard Heydrich, who became the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (the setting for the reality television show) in 1941. Heydrich directed a brutal campaign against opponents and was a key architect of the Holocaust. Yet Kerr does not dwell on these facts, rather he emphasises Heydrich’s cunning, his political manoeuvring, his intelligence and respect for his fellow policeman-the fictitious Gunther. In short, Kerr humanises a monster. And to an extent, Kerr repeats this with Goering and Himmler. Some might say Kerr crosses a line in so doing. I would not.
The WW2 novelist has a different responsibility to his or her reader. In my view, a key aspect of this responsibility is credibility. As such, this is part of what might be termed the pact between writer and reader. The reader suspends his disbelief as long as the writer does not abuse this gesture by making it impossible for the reader to continue to pretend the writer’s story is real. The fictional portrayal of a real person, like Heydrich, capable of true evil, despite possessing other more rational ‘human’ qualities, serves only to increase this credibility.
Put another way, credibility vanishes when pretend Gestapo officers cannot and do not shoot contestants to death in reality television shows. Credibility thrives when pretend Gestapo officers invented by a novelist can and do shoot characters to death in novels. Thus a novel will always be much more ‘real’ than a reality television show. Even though it is not!
In conclusion, I would lean towards arguing that the representation of historical fact is not a de facto responsibility for fiction writers, film makers and reality television makers. It is an individual decision. All are purveyors of entertainment. They are motivated by the expression of emotional truth, not historical fact. Certainly, the accurate portrayal of historical fact will often contribute to achieving this goal, and its absence may hinder it. Yet the facts remain complementary rather than key to the equation. The themes of love, heroism, conflict, revenge, survival, wealth and passion may be shaped and influenced by historical facts. But these themes do not depend on the facts being depicted accurately in order to make their desired impact.
The makers of Holiday in the Protectorate knew this. They also knew that in striving purely to entertain (and make money), they would alienate and disrespect some people. They decided to accept that. And as long as we respect freedom of expression, it seems to me we must concede that such a decision was theirs to make. And, in case we forget, television sets do still have ‘off’ buttons and remote controls for changing channels. Even in the Czech Republic.