Film and The Holocaust

Film and The Holocaust
   It is unlikely that the public would seek out primary source material or archival footage for their knowledge of the Holocaust. Between fictionalized versions of the Holocaust as portrayed in film and works of popular fiction, it is probable that in the future unmediated forms of knowledge about Nazi Germany will become more frequently used as sources of “knowledge” about the Nazi genocide of the Jews than scholarly volumes on the subject. To date, cinema in particular has played a role in our understanding of the Shoah, but those who know little about the history surrounding the mass murder of the Jews, may find it difficult to distinguish films that attempts to illuminate the history of the Holocaust from those that are produced to exploit the destruction of European Jews for commercial rewards. The films mentioned here were produced not only to entertain but also to inform viewers of the murderous crimes of the Third Reich. Film audiences were exposed to issues arising from the Holocaust as early as The Juggler (1953), the first American film shot entirely in Israel and the first film to deal with the traumatic effects of the Holocaust on survivors. Perhaps the most widely viewed film in the first two decades following World War II was The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), which was directed by George Stevens, and went on to win three Academy Award Oscars. The film, based on the stage play, however, avoided any mention of the concentration camps and certainly provides no hint of what later happened to Anne both in Auschwitz and then in Bergen-Belsen. In contrast, Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) approached the Holocaust by presenting the full range of Nazi crimes, including medical experiments on camp prisoners. Jews, however, as a group are not mentioned, but footage of the concentration camps is shown as part of the trial of the Nazi war criminals. Sidney Lumet directed the independently produced film The Pawnbroker (1965), based on the novel by Edward Lewis Wallant. The main character is a GermanJewish survivor haunted by his memories of the concentration camps, and the film depicts the camps with harrowing reality. Also produced in the 1960s was Ship of Fools (1965), a film that uses the theme of virulent anti-Semitism to set the stage for the Holocaust. The 1970s continued to provide films dealing with the Holocaust, although many of these films used the Shoah as a background for thrillers. Nevertheless, two commercial films in particular stand apart in this genre: Cabaret (1975), which deals with the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s, and The Man in the Glass Booth (1975), loosely based on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Both were film versions of Broadway stage plays. However, the most important Holocaust film of the 1970s was not a film in the strict sense of its meaning and certainly not viewed in the commercial cinemas but a movie made for television. Gerald Green’s Holocaust (1978), produced as a NBC miniseries, sought to put faces on the Holocaust by telling the story of the Weiss family from their comfortable existence in Germany before the Nazis came to power, through the events of the Holocaust. The television series was criticized by Holocaust scholars, as well as by Elie Wiesel, as a soap opera. Holocaust, nevertheless, was one of the most successful programs in television history and had a major impact in West Germany among the postHolocaust generation. The 1980s into the 21st century witnessed a number of important Holocaust films produced both in the United States and in Europe. The most significant of these films, judging from its impact on audiences, was Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1984). The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film chronicled the story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. Although the film has detractors, it remains the definitive representation of the Holocaust in American commercial cinema. Other Holocaust films of note include Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982); Peter Kassovitz’s Jakob the Liar (1999), a remake of the Czech production; and Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (2001), which depicts the painful labor of the Sonderkommandos, the special squads of Jews who processed the corpses from the crematoria at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. A different kind of Holocaust film, which became the subject of controversy, was Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997). The film is a dark comedy that depicts a Jewish father trying to shield his son from the horrors of a death camp by convincing him that all that was happening was a game. The film won three Academy Award Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Actor). Another foreign film that won awards was Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), which gave many Jewish viewers what they did not receive from Schindler’s List: a Jewish hero, the famed Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a survivor of the Krakow ghetto. Other notable award-winning films touching on the Holocaust include Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa (2003) and The Counterfeiters (2007), directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. The Bielski Otriad was the subject of Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), one of the very few films that showed the manner in which Jewish partisans fought back against the Nazis.

Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. . 2014.

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