Decades After the Holocaust, We Still Live in the Twilight Zone
A popular show on Netflix is Black Mirror, which is often compared to The Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959 to 1964. Those of us old enough to remember the latter show, or younger people who have watched episodes on Hulu, know that Rod Serling’s writing, creativity, and ability to relate to the modern world was far superior to today’s imitation. One reason is Serling’s background, which was vastly different from today’s Hollywood showrunners.
Unlike today’s writers, whose only experience of war is mostly what they have seen in movies and on television, Serling enlisted in the US Army after he graduated from high school in 1943 and served in the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division. He hoped to go to Europe to fight the Nazis, but was assigned to the Pacific.
While serving in the Philippines, Serling experienced the death and destruction of war daily. In one freak accident, a Jewish soldier was performing a comedy routine when a food crate dropped from a plane, which decapitated him. Serling led the funeral services and placed a Star of David over his grave.
His platoon suffered a high casualty rate in battles to take control of Japanese strongholds, and Serling was wounded. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal.
Serling’s combat experience naturally influenced his writing, and he became a passionate opponent of war, bigotry, and fascism.
Though he was not a practicing Jew, he wrote two notable episodes with Jewish themes that resonate today. In “Deaths-Head Revisited,” a former SS captain returns after the war to Dachau. In the opening narration, Serling explains:
Mr. Schmidt, recently arrived in a small Bavarian village which lies eight miles northwest of Munich … a picturesque, delightful little spot one-time known for its scenery, but more recently related to other events having to do with some of the less positive pursuits of man: human slaughter, torture, misery, and anguish. Mr. Schmidt, as we will soon perceive, has a vested interest in the ruins of a concentration camp — for once, some seventeen years ago, his name was Gunther Lutze. He held the rank of a captain in the SS. He was a black-uniformed strutting animal whose function in life was to give pain, and like his colleagues of the time, he shared the one affliction most common amongst that breed known as Nazis — he walked the Earth without a heart.
Inside the camp, Schmidt/Lutze sees the ghosts of the people he tortured, and they put him on trial. The Nazi is driven insane by the visions, and the men who find him are at a loss to explain how a man who was sane two hours earlier could lose his mind. One doctor asks rhetorically, “Dachau. Why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?”
This is a question we sometimes hear from critics of Holocaust remembrance and the maintenance of the camps that remain standing. Serling had an answer in his concluding monologue:
All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes — all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone, but wherever men walk God’s Earth.
The second relevant episode, “He’s Alive” is even more poignant today. Dennis Hopper plays Peter Vollmer, a neo-Nazi frustrated by his failure to arouse the masses to join his cause. Vollmer has a father-like relationship with Ernst, a Jewish survivor of Dachau who recognizes Vollmer’s desperate need for love and respect, feelings he never got from his abusive father.
After being ridiculed by a crowd that gathered to hear him, Vollmer slinks away and encounters a shadowy figure who instructs him on how to generate a following and inspire the masses. Rhetoric is not enough, however; Vollmer’s mentor says that he must be a man of action, and convinces him to order the murder of one of his followers, a man considered the weakest of the group. Vollmer then is taught how to make the dead man a martyr to unite his supporters.
Vollmer gains a following, and his rallies attract larger rapt audiences. Ernst becomes alarmed at his growing popularity and interrupts one rally by walking onto the stage and accusing Vollmer of being “nothing but a cheap copy” of the Führer. Vollmer is hurt and embarrassed, and his insecurities return.
The shadowy figure is appalled by Vollmer’s show of weakness and says he will now give orders for his protégé to follow. Vollmer finally demands to know who is speaking, and Adolf Hitler emerges from the shadows to give him the order to kill Ernst. Hitler congratulates Vollmer after he murders his friend and asks how it felt. Peter says he felt immortal. Hitler responds, “Mr. Vollmer! We are immortal!”
The police pursue Vollmer, who is shot trying to escape. Hitler reappears in shadow and leaves Vollmer behind to die.
The concluding narration by Serling is both unusual and poignant. In all but a few episodes, he ends his remarks by saying something about the Twilight Zone. What he says this time, however, should resonate with audiences today, not just in the United States but around the world:
Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare — Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.