In my “real life” I am a History teacher. Although this hasn’t got anything directly related with movies and TV, it does offer me the chance to use movies as teaching devices sometimes. History has been such a ripe source material for movies that many are useful for bringing a topic to life or helping to explain a concept which a standard lesson can’t always do justice.
One topic I teach is The Holocaust. Nobody can argue the merits of teaching this topic and there are so many different movies which I could use. The most popular choice is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List however this isn’t always suitable, often being slightly too slow and even “mature” for the age range I teach.
The last three years I have used the second half of Robert Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and found it manages to both entertain and teach the students about The Holocaust in an accessible way.
This is down to the way in which the sensitive topic is presented. I use the second half of the film, from when Benigni’s Guido and his family are taken from their home to the concentration camp, and allow the story to speak for itself. It is striking from the very beginning, particularly because Benigni is such a compelling actor, using physical comedy to entertain his son (a particularly cute Giorgio Cantarini).
The film is also effective for conveying The Holocaust because the event is in the background rather than being the complete focus of the movie. It is about a father trying to protect his son and the ways Benigni does this are particularly funny, touching and desperate in places, making for a suspenseful and thrilling tale which keeps students engaged.
It also helps because there is nothing too graphic. There is one key scene which shocks with only a glimpse of the true Holocaust horror but the rest is effectively conveyed through suggestion and conversation between the key characters. It brings the history home to the audience without actually showing the violence and gore. There is a place for that (like in Schindler’s List) but not necessarily for students of the age I teach.
The fact that the movie is excellent is an added bonus and the students clamber to watch more and know what will happen next with each lesson (I show the film in installments). The end of the film really brings home the horror of the Holocaust, managing to be heartbreaking but uplifting at the same time.
Overall, Life is Beautiful has now become a useful teaching tool for delivering the story of The Holocaust. It is compelling, truthful and engaging without showing too much of the shocking horror of the real-life event. If you haven’t seen it, give it a look.