Undertaking a PhD as part of Edge Hill University’s Graduate Teaching Assistant scheme has led to one doctoral student becoming the world expert in Holocaust Film Music.
Matt Lawson joined Edge Hill’s funded PhD programme in 2012 to explore the scores used in films depicting one of history’s most deplorable periods of time, when six million European Jews and millions of other victims were systematically killed under the Nazi regime during World War 2.
“Films like Schindler’s List, The Pianist and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas have popularised the Holocaust film genre, but as a musicologist I wanted to look at the ethics and politics of the scores behind these films. Composing a score for a film about the Holocaust isn’t like composing a score for a fictional action film where you can freely utilise melodrama; there are 6 million real life victims and this carries a lot of baggage with it.”
Matt’s PhD looks in depth at the music of six post-1970 German language films about the Holocaust, considering the ethics, politics and composition of each score and how they reflect society at the time period in which they were made.
“What really stood out for me is that for Germany, and the German people, coming to terms with the Holocaust is actually mirrored in the music of these six films.
“German society didn’t really engage with the memorialisation of the Holocaust until the 1970s after the release of the American Holocaust TV series featuring Meryl Streep. Before this time there were some German films about the Holocaust but they were very cautious and the musical scores were similarly muted, reflecting attitudes at the time. The music in the early films is sterile, and in one case there was no music at all. After the 1970s, Germany started to engage more with the past, and as this happened the music in Holocaust films became more pronounced too.
“My research also looked at the ethics of musical scores, and explored whether or not it’s morally acceptable to manipulate an audience by using sentimental music in films which cover such a serious subject matter. A popular example is Schindler’s List which has a hugely successful score; the violin theme is almost as memorable as the film itself, but this can sometimes veer into sentimentality. I’ve left it open to interpretation as to whether or not this is right or wrong.”
Matt’s research has already attracted widespread interest. He has presented papers at conferences in Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia, and shortly the United States.
“I’m overwhelmed and flattered by the interest people have taken in my research and I feel lucky to have picked a topic which no one has explored before in detail. My thesis leaves lots of doors open for future research, whether it’s looking at the music of the more well-known ‘Hollywood’ Holocaust films or looking in closer detail elsewhere, but as a film musicologist it’s an exciting position to be in.”