Social Impact Authors: How & Why Rich Brownstein Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Edward Sylvan
My goal is not to celebrate individuals or specific movies, but to elucidate truth and intellectual honesty. I would rather that readers walk away from my book and lectures with the courage to state well-reasoned convictions more than with the knowledge of which Holocaust films are worth watching. Using art to teach critical thinking should be art’s goal. Sure, enjoyment is the point of art. But why do we enjoy some art and are repelled by other art? There is nothing wrong with enjoying a film or museum. I simply urge people to understand their reactions, and then to think critically about their opinions.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rich Brownstein.
After a career in Hollywood, Rich Brownstein has become the leading international expert concerning the history and use of Holocaust films. He is a lecturer for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem, Israel. Brownstein is the author of Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide, September 2021, McFarland Press. His book is unprecedented in scope, breadth and analysis of this crucial film genre.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me. I was born in Portland, Oregon in 1962. Most of my undergraduate work at Reed College was in psychology. By the time I graduated, three of my experiments were on their way to being published in the top social psychology journals in the world. Those studies are still being cited today. During college, too, I was a Sunday school teacher specializing in Holocaust education and I was also on the board of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center (now the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education).
A few years after college I moved to Los Angeles, working with Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker Productions, the people who made Airplane! (1980), Ruthless People (1986) and Naked Gun (1988). I was the associate producer on one of David Zucker’s projects, directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, just before they created South Park. In fact, there is a South Park character that I inspired and I am credited on South Park’s pilot episode.
I then founded The Transcription Company, starting from a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. Initially, my company transcribed the raw interviews for tabloid TV shows such as Fox’s A Current Affair, NBC’s Access Hollywood, and King World’s Inside Edition/American Journal. Eventually, every network and studio used my company, including: NPR, Oprah, ABC News, Curb Your Enthusiasm and even Playboy videos. At the end of Nightline when transcripts were offered, those were produced and processed by my company. By the time I sold the company in 2003 to move my family to Israel, I had over 100 employees and contractors.
In Israel, I became a professor of Jewish and Holocaust film for the Young Judaea Your Course program, accredited by the American Jewish University. For a decade, I taught hundreds of college students during their “gap year” about film and critical reasoning. My teaching methods and theories about Holocaust films eventually came to the attention of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies where I have been a lecturer since 2014, specializing in the use of narrative Holocaust films in the classroom. Thousands of educators worldwide use my methods. I have also written for the Jerusalem Post about Holocaust films and for The Times of Israel about my experiences in Poland.
Next month my book about Holocaust films will be published: Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide. Forwards for my book have been written graciously by UJA Professor Michael Berenbaum and Eddie Jacobs; Professor Walter Reich, the former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, the director of the finest Holocaust film ever made, The Grey Zone (2001); and by director David Zucker.
Along the way, I also sang “Louie Louie” with The Kingsmen, taught Stan Lee how to use Microsoft Word, presented on the Chabad Telethon, read Shas, worked with the man who wagged the tail of the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, wrote one unpublished children’s book, one unpublished novel, and one unpublished book and documentary about Jimmy Carter’s antipathy toward Israel, and I have also accumulated the largest collection of basketball memorabilia in the world, all of it related to my beloved Portland Trail Blazers. That’s my childhood and backstory.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I was a George Orwell fan. Reading 1984 and Animal Farm during the Cold War was very intense. But, in terms of my current path, when I was in high school, I read Michael Elkins’ Forged in Fury: A True Story of Courage, Horror…and Revenge, about Holocaust survivors. And I also read Leon Uris’ Jewish/Holocaust novels Exodus, Mila 18 and, most importantly, QB VII, which definitely turbocharged my interest in the Holocaust. A few years later I saw Leon Uris lecture in Portland, where he was incredibly rude to a high school girl who asked him a question; his poor behavior made more of an impact on me then did his books.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When writing about D-Day, I mistakenly referred to the greatest “navel invasion” in history, which of course, is anatomically impossible. Fortunately, that was caught in editing. I suppose I learned the limitations of voice-to-text dictation.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
Although my field of study is Holocaust films, the point of all reasonable analysis should be to find the truth by stripping away conveniently hollow opinions. For example, I contextualized the icons of Holocaust imagery — Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, Oskar Schindler, and Roman Polanski — to gain an understanding of Holocaust cinema, not to score cheap points. Likewise, I am very frank about the Academy Awards’ irrational obsession with Holocaust films. My goal is not to celebrate individuals or specific movies, but to elucidate truth and intellectual honesty. I would rather that readers walk away from my book and lectures with the courage to state well-reasoned convictions more than with the knowledge of which Holocaust films are worth watching.
Using art to teach critical thinking should be art’s goal. Sure, enjoyment is the point of art. But why do we enjoy some art and are repelled by other art? There is nothing wrong with enjoying a film or museum. I simply urge people to understand their reactions, and then to think critically about their opinions.
Take a film like Schindler’s List (1993), made by Steven Spielberg, an honorable man and a distinguished philanthropist. Schindler’s List is regarded by most as the greatest of all Holocaust films and has been rated by IMDb users as one of the top films of any kind ever made. Most people walk out of Schindler’s List overjoyed that Jews were saved during the Holocaust by a Nazi who was ultimately buried in Israel. Although all of those things happened, the story of the Holocaust was certainly not about the rescue of Jews by Nazis! Schindler’s List is like a movie about the hundredth birthday of a three-pack-a-day smoker; the story is only interesting because it is an anomaly. Worse yet, the message of that smoker — that smoking will not kill you — is antithetical to everything we rationally and scientifically understand. Yet, we want to hear the smoker’s birthday story because it gives us hope that we can survive reckless behaviors and merchants of evil. Likewise, the lesson of Schindler’s List is one of Nazi redemption, about a horrible man who tacitly participated in the slaughter of more than five million Jews and millions of more non-Jews by his German government before suddenly growing a conscience. While Oskar Schindler saved a thousand Jews, the story of the Holocaust was about six million Jews being killed by Nazis, not about Jews being saved by Nazis. Schindler’s List also incorrectly implies that the Holocaust was responsible for the founding of Israel, which is insulting to those Jews who had been toiling for a homeland in the land that would become Israel for the half-century before the Holocaust.
On the other hand, Inglourious Basterds (2009) also tells a story that is unrepresentative of the Holocaust; Jewish American soldiers did not scalp Nazis and Hitler was not killed in a movie theater by Jewish refugees or anyone else. Nonetheless, Quentin Tarantino’s vision of the Holocaust — as well as his vision of the Manson murders in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019) — are farcical, not intended to be a historical record. No one can walk away from a Tarantino film believing anything about the story other than it was entertaining. But Schindler’s List was neither a farce nor a fair representation of the Holocaust. Obviously, society will not necessarily be improved by being able to differentiate between Quentin Tarantino’s and Steven Spielberg’s storytelling. But, with all of the online rubbish and partisan bombast that spews throughout society, sharpening our intellectual knives on art should allow us greater skill in cutting through the rhetoric of modern society.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
The image and commercialization of Anne Frank is fascinating. The theatrical version of Anne Frank through the 1980s was devoid of her Jewishness, her death in Bergen-Belsen, her explicit sexuality and her cantankerousness. Then, in the 1980s, unabridged versions of her diary started being published, where she talked about anatomy and masturbation and the pettiness of adolescence. Soon enough, films started to match the real Anne Frank. Beyond that stark microcosm of cultural development, I have always been stunned by the misappropriation of Anne Frank’s aspirational phrase, “that people are truly good at heart.” Certainly, as Anne Frank was dying after Auschwitz in Bergen-Belsen — with her beloved dead sister rotting next to her — Anne Frank did not believe the people are truly good at heart. Yet, it is astounding how this wishful musing of an optimistic child has been used as the benchmark of hope for humanity. So, yes, the most interesting story to me in my book is about how Anne Frank has been commoditized over the past 75 years, including in dozens of movies, plays, a videogame, cosmetics, costumes, memorabilia, tours, biographies, experts, friends and entire industries. I muse, at times, whether Anne Frank would still think that the people who have literally made billions of dollars off of her image and writings “are truly good at heart.”
As for a specific story, there is what I call the “Hoffman Principle,” completely unrelated to Anne Frank. When Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier starred in Marathon Man (1976), the original script called for the young Jewish graduate student played by Hoffman to kill the old Nazi played by Olivier. Before filming started, Dustin Hoffman had a meeting with Marathon Man’s very famous director, John Schlesinger, and even more famous writer, William Goldman. Hoffman insisted that he would not kill Olivier’s character because murder would imply that Jews are no different from Nazis. Hoffman said, “get Al Pacino or someone else, but I won’t do it.” And so, the ending of Marathon Man was changed. However, Dustin Hoffman did not invent the Hoffman Principle, but simply articulated what had become a filmmaking tradition. Indeed, in the dozens of fictitious Holocaust perpetrator films made since 1945 — from Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) through Remember (2015) — Jews never kill the Nazi, even when holding a gun to a Nazi’s head in the final scene.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Certainly. I was lecturing about Holocaust films to a group of educators at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel. I was explaining why Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (2001) is, by far, the greatest Holocaust film ever made. Some of my students asked if I would write about my assertion. So I went home and started to type. But there were so many topics required to fully answer the question, that my book just came spilling out, which includes a fairly detailed history of all Holocaust filmmaking worldwide and a detailed list of more than 440 Holocaust films in the appendix, including where to find each film. I also included a pedagogical guide, an index/glossary with more than 2,700 entries, a chapter about morality vis-à-vis Holocaust films and Roman Polanski, and detailed reviews of the 52 Holocaust films that I recommend.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I started teaching the Holocaust almost 40 years ago to sixth graders. Recently I received letters from two of those students telling me the impact that I have had on their lives. Likewise, I have received many letters from my college students and educators from around the world telling me about how I was able to help them see the world in a different way. Certainly, this is the most gratifying part of my work.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The irony for me is that I never consider myself to be a crusader against anti-Semitism, racial injustice, or for Holocaust education. It just never occurs to me — until I hear a question such as this — that the natural assumption made about my expertise and goals are intertwined with those issues. In reality, of course, anyone who sits in my class or reads my book already knows the evils of anti-Semitism and, generally, about racial injustice. And certainly, there are far better places to get a Holocaust education than from narrative films, such as textbooks and documentaries. So, instead, I think of myself as a crusader for critical thinking.
With that in mind, what are three things that community leaders, society and politicians can do to address a lack of critical thinking? Education certainly helps. Also, we should all be encouraged to broaden our fields of expertise, which will engender greater understanding. And we should all remember the ratio between two ears and one mouth. For the most part, lack of critical thinking is a function of intellectual inertia more than political will.
I am not suggesting that knowing the best Holocaust films will save the planet. I am suggesting, however, that the tools needed to extract truth from our cognitive mosaic are crucial for dealing with other issues. The ideas that are presented to our eyeballs and ears in media are increasingly difficult to interpret. Any honing of that skill is productive. For example, being able to discern the unscrupulous and manipulative characteristics of misleading films such as Jojo Rabbit (2019), The Reader (2008), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) and Life Is Beautiful (1997) is helpful in Holocaust education, but essential in life, especially when interpreting our fractured media that is seemingly devoid of any limits of truth or responsibility.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
The trick to leadership is mostly about removing ego from decision-making. After I bought out my major competitors in Hollywood, I held court by calling a companywide staff meeting. One of my managers seemed very distracted. I asked her about it. She said, “as long as we’re in this meeting, I can’t make you money.” I never had a companywide meeting again, except on 9/11.
In the long run, we perform best when empowered to achieve a manageable goal, not when bullied, bribed or hindered. On a short-term basis, any moron can lead by instilling fear (punishment). And, by the same token, behavior changes based on incentives (rewards) are fleeting, especially after the incentives are received. Leadership, on the other hand, is the ability to instill a cognitive commitment to achieve a goal, ideally relying only on intrinsic motivation, not external carrots and sticks.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I recall in college playing guitar with physics Professor Richard Crandall at Reed who was Steve Jobs’ BFF. I was telling Crandall about this fancy, very complicated song that I had written, bragging that it was unique and interesting. Crandall stopped playing and turned to me, saying, “Brownstein, sometimes I just don’t get you. Anyone can write a unique song out of 20 chords; try writing something unique using three.” Again, throughout my life I have looked at overly complicated art, music, theater, storytelling and especially movies, and replayed that conversation.
Around that same time, I played racquetball against a really good opponent. I thought I was pretty good until then. He had this one serve that would float off the front and side walls before landing in a spot in the opposite corner that made it impossible to swing my racket. After the third time he served that ace, I asked how he would handle his own serve. He said, “I would never let it get to the wall,” which I have used as a metaphor for over half my life.
But, overall, I don’t think you can tell anybody anything. We all know the things that we can do to improve our lives. For some of us, it’s eating less chocolate. For others it’s binging less television. For others it is not letting our anger eat us from inside. Who does not know this? Who needs to be told? We need to understand our own behaviors and our own motivations, and even then, no one needs to be admonished to learn about life. I was told everything: life is short; people are more important than things; make the best of your potential; treat people with kindness; leave a place better than you found it; we are all products of our effort; opportunities are fleeting; if your name is on it, you own it; no skill is more important than competent writing; honey, not vinegar; Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot. I could go on. The point is, I was told, but could not really internalize the lessons until I had lived the experience. Some of these things I understood innately. Some I needed to internalize after learning the hard way. And some are beyond me. Sometimes, too, it is not the things you are told, but the examples you are given.
In my life, I have been a programmer, a producer, a business owner, an educator, a historian, a journalist and now an author. Yet, my only formal training is in experimental psychology, which is useless vocationally without a graduate degree. I was told when I was young — and I still believe it to be true — that the purpose of a liberal education is to learn how to learn. To me, that is the definition of privilege: gaining the tools to navigate the frying pan. Still, even then, I have failed far more than I have succeeded. Far more of my businesses have crashed than flourished. I have written several unpublished books. I have given good-faith advice that was useless. So, I suppose a useful pithy metaphor early in my life would have been: feel fortunate if one of a hundred avocado pits survives in the garden.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
At one point in Los Angeles, I was annoying the crap out of a good friend about some mistakes he had made in a book. Fed up, he finally turned to me and said, “you know, Rich, you are your own worst enemy.” I was devastated. I immediately retold the story to a mutual friend, who said, “you know, Rich, that’s true for everyone.” And I shot back, “I am everyone’s worst enemy?!” He said, no, “we are all our own worst enemies.” More than 20 years later, recently, out of the blue, I called the good friend to apologize for having been so hard on him. Of the thousands of calls I have made in my life, that was one of the most important.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Great question! I have already met many of my heroes, from politicians to celebrities: Kirk Douglas, Joni Mitchell, Mel Brooks, Michael J. Fox, Tim Blake Nelson, Elliott Gould, Harry Shearer, Steve Guttenberg, Randy Newman, Natan Sharansky, Irwin Cotler, Bill Walton, Larry Weinberg, Lloyd Neal. In the entertainment industry, generally, I suppose I would like to meet the great directors Barry Levinson, the Coen Brothers, David Mamet, Spike Lee and the actress Emmanuelle Seigner. Regarding Holocaust films, I would like to meet Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice ), Liza Minnelli (Cabaret ) and Liev Schreiber (director of Everything Is Illuminated ). Quentin Tarantino lives less than 20 minutes from me here in Israel, and that breakfast would be fabulous. Mostly though, I would like to have a heart-to-heart with Steven Spielberg about Schindler’s List. Can you make that happen?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Certainly! Please check out my book at HolocaustFilms.com and subscribe to my mailing list.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you. It was such an honor.