R.I.P., Andrew Sarris and Gitta Sereny

We lost two very important writers this week, and I wanted to make sure I paid my respects.

The first of these was the great film critic Andrew Sarris, who died earlier this week at age 83. Sarris was among the last of a sort of “greatest generation” of influential American film critics (others in this group included Pauline Kael and Manny Farber). With his groundbreaking The American Cinema, Sarris spread the gospel of auteur theory and held sway over generations of American cinephiles. In a tribute to Sarris, Geoffrey O’Brien writes about what his first encounter with the essay which became the basis for The American Cinema meant to him. It was, he said,

one of those before and after moments. It’s hard even to reconstruct what it was like to have the past of American film suddenly spread out, a map of a country known previously only through rumor and fragmentary glimpses. Not just a map: a map accompanied with rich commentary by a guide at once passionate and endlessly curious. It was all so exotic then—the very titles of the movies seemed like a strange kind of recovered poetry—but it was our own past, a lost world of universal neighborhood experience that had been occulted and buried. He pointed out things that I didn’t know existed, and argued persuasively for their importance. Rarely had there been such a cascade of information and insights and urgently communicated judgments.

In the wake of Sarris’s death, there has been an outpouring of reminiscences and tributes. Fandor’s David Hudson has collected a round-up of many of them, and Film Comment has gathered together some wonderful reminiscences. There are also tributes by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir and by my favorite film blogger, Farran Smith Nehme (aka Self-Styled Siren). I will add that I, personally, am enormously grateful to the man for dedicating his life to sharing his vast knowledge of American movies, which has enriched my own life immeasurably. I am also grateful for his undying passion for the art of film. Passion is the one thing you can never fake, and it tends to be infectious.

Gitta Serenyi, who is probably a name that is not nearly as well known to most readers as Andrew Sarris (at least not on this side of the pond), died last week at the age of 91. Serenyi, a Vienna-born, London-based investigative journalist, was one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time. I first became aware of her work when, for an undergraduate lit course I took that was taught by Philip Roth (no kidding! — he was a big Sereny fan), we were assigned her brilliant book, Into That Darkness.

Published in 1974, Into That Darkness is about Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death who was directly responsible for sending over 900,000 people to their deaths. It’s based on over 70 hours of interviews with Stangl, and the drama of what Sereny was eventually able to pull out of this seemingly dull, stolid, completely unexceptional man is extraordinary. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read not only about the Nazis and the Holocaust but also about the nature of evil. As The Guardian’s Giles Fraser put it, “What is so terrifying about the work of Sereny is that she makes evil look ordinary and everyday. And in this way she shows us how close we all could be to it.” If you want to read a book that helps you begin to understand the enormity of what happened at the camps, and how seemingly ordinary human beings caused it to happen, this is an essential book to read.

Sereny also wrote other books; I thought Cries Unheard, her book about the 11-year old murderer, Mary Bell, was especially powerful. It’s a true crime book, to be sure, but one of unusual depth and seriousness. Sereny’s death is a great loss to journalism, but I suspect that readers will be making their way to her books for years to come.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee