At a certain point there will be no more Holocaust survivors still alive, and the firsthand accounts of what happened, how the Nazi regime rose to power and how they enacted their plan of white supremacy, will be gone. There are about 100,000 survivors remaining, according to the Holocaust-remembrance foundation From the Depths, and the responsibility they carry—of bearing witness to such unspeakable tragedy, of being living reminders of the trauma they endured—feels unthinkable.
When I was studying literature in graduate school I wrote a paper about the connections between theology and trauma, about how to consider the abstract concept of God alongside the historical reality of as destructive an event as the Holocaust, and I tied that all to Hamlet and the ghosts in the castle of Elsinore, because that’s who I am as a person. (To quote 30 Rock, grad students, we’re the worst!) What came up over and over again in various scholarly texts I read while working on that presentation was an idea put forth by academic Shelly Rambo in the publication “Haunted by the Gospel”—that to bear witness to trauma is the practice of “unearthing silences, of testifying to the unnarratable.”
It is pushing forward, of embodying what occurred, of demonstrating—through your very body and the life it still holds—that while the violence may be over, the trauma is not, and the responsibility of continuing to live is not easy. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, still lurking within the castle walls, urging Hamlet to pursue revenge he could not; it is Beloved in Toni Morrison’s novel, coming back to Sethe, urging her mother to give her the love and attention the master who owned them would not allow. Hamlet’s father led his son to paranoia and despair; Beloved consumes her mother, growing larger and larger until she suddenly disappears. Rambo added in “Haunted by the Gospel” that such ghosts can lead to the “truth of things … what has been missing, which is sometimes everything,” and the fundamental idea is this: The key to living after such pain is to address the wound and to acknowledge what was lost, to face the ghost, to understand that the opportunity to move forward is, in and of itself, a weight that must be accommodated, whether one thinks are worthy of living or not.
Sometimes things don’t make sense, and sometimes the devastation feels too great. And that’s where we find Cate Blanchett’s Florence Zimmerman in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the all-purple-wearing next-door neighbor to Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), whom she treats with affectionate disdain. (SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE AHEAD, SO BE WARNED.) They’re best friends (the relationship is strictly platonic), she’s a witch and he’s a warlock, and they eat cookies together and fire insults at one another and tackle spells side by side. She almost immediately becomes a matriarchal figure for Jonathan’s nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, stepping up nicely from those garbage Daddy’s Home movies), who comes to live in New Zebedee, Michigan, after his parents die in a car accident, and she offers calm wisdom, an ear for listening to Lewis’s problems, and even more of those amazing-looking cookies (pecans and chocolate chips are clearly the best combination). She seems like a remarkable woman who considers herself very unremarkable, and Blanchett plays her with typical coolness, with side eye and a slight smirk at the ready.
But what comes into sharp focus in Eli Roth’s film, through details methodically sprinkled throughout the script written by Eric Kripke (adapting the 1973 YA mystery by John Bellairs), is that Mrs. Zimmerman is a survivor of World War II, a woman whose entire life was destroyed by the Nazi agenda. She was once a famous witch in Paris, working with her husband, but now he and their child are dead. When she sticks an arm out of the sleeves of her robe, we see a concentration camp prisoner number tattooed on it. And, like Nymphadora Tonks would experience in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe years later, her sadness has affected her magic: Mrs. Zimmerman can’t perform the same kind of spells she once could, she can’t summon the same energy or power, and her wand—hidden within her umbrella—barely glows.
Mrs. Zimmerman isn’t the only character dealing with extensive pain from the war; the movie’s villain, warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, reminding us again of all the terrifying shit he does when possessed by BOB on Twin Peaks), is inspired after serving in World War II to create a doomsday clock to turn back time and wipe out all humankind. (Oh, and he arises from his grave to enact his plan — another ghost.) “I was dead long before I died,” Izard tells Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathan, his one-time magic-show partner, and he tries to sway Mrs. Zimmerman to his side by noting that with his plan, her husband and child would never have endured the concentration camps and never been killed, and her pain as it is now would never have existed. “To erase the horrors I had witnessed,” Izard says of his plan, but it would effectively erase the horrors Mrs. Zimmerman had witnessed, too.
There are two ways Mrs. Zimmerman could react—agree with Izard that humanity deserves to be destroyed for what it allowed to happen to her and her family, or address her pain, stand by Jonathan and Lewis, and find a way to save the world—and she goes with the second option, seizing the opportunity to go from victim and witness to hero and avenger. The House with a Clock in Its Walls then allows Mrs. Zimmerman to re-contextualize the exact same imagery she must have experienced while being oppressed by the Nazis, but this time, places her in the position of power. Mrs. Zimmerman’s resolve to save her friends inspires her magic, and she uses her umbrella wand to shoot haunted pumpkins that vomit sticky goo; to pipe gas into the house where an army of automatons has come to life and to then step over their immobile bodies; and to help lower Lewis, her adopted son figure, down a boiler that serves as a secret passageway to Izard’s doomsday device. You recognize these scenes as the horrors Mrs. Zimmerman and her family faced—Nazi soldiers advancing upon them, gas chambers, ovens built for people—but she is then allowed to reconfigure these familiar images, to transform them into opportunities for heroism instead of tragedy.
This isn’t to say that what Mrs. Zimmerman does for Jonathan and Lewis, and in fact for the entire world, is replacing her lost family, or removing the pain she felt. That will stay with her; that is the burden of bearing witness. But there is also triumph in what Mrs. Zimmerman accomplishes—in helping Lewis climb back out of that boiler, in helping Jonathan put his house back to rights and clearing away the automatons and the pumpkin goo, in sitting down for another plate of shared cookies, in stepping forward into a life that honors her lost family while giving her the opportunity to form a new one. Trauma doesn’t leave you, wars aren’t forgotten, and that tattoo Mrs. Zimmerman received in the concentration camp will never really fade. But The House with a Clock in Its Walls delivers a message about allowing love into your life as a counter to entrenched pain that is surprisingly nuanced for a PG movie in which there is also a topiary winged lion that splatters poo on Lewis more than once. There are levels to this shit, and that’s thanks to Mrs. Florence Zimmerman.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube, Universal/Epk.tv, YouTube