Holocaust Films

While many Hollywood films are about the Holocaust, few produced before the 1990s have addressed its darker sides such as concentration camps and extermination. The problem with commercial depictions of the Holocaust is their need to appeal to a mass audience. The overdramatization that is called for has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust. Therefore, producers and directors of Holocaust films have a responsibility to avoid the simplification typical of films. Beginning in the 1990s, they met that responsibility.

The problems of dramatizing historical facts were illustrated by the 1978 film Holocaust. The film, which was called a docudrama, told the story of the fictional Weiss family, set against real historical facts of the Holocaust. The family was removed from their town, deported and exterminated. The one surviving son departed for Palestine. The film depicted numerous aspects of the Holocaust, including the rise of the Nazis, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and partisans in the forest. While many viewers praised the filmmakers for increasing awareness of the Holocaust, other criticized its lack of accuracy. They also complained about the insensitivity of showing commercials during the television broadcast.

Even if the film distorted the image of the victims and introduced unnecessary melodrama, most credit it with reopening the subject of the Holocaust in Germany. Watching the program enlightened young Germans, who subsequently felt free to discuss the topic at home and school.

An earlier Holocaust film, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) was also criticized for its simplistic formulation of its subject. It cast movie star Millie Perkins and teen idol Richard Beymer. The musical score also reflects Hollywood conventions of a drama. The emotionality manipulative cinematography detracts from the severity of its subject.

Likewise, Judgment at Nuremberg, a 1961 film, similarly cast recognizable stars and employed questionable dramatic techniques. Yet it succeeded in using dialogue to raise central issues of national, universal and individual responsibility. Exodus (1960) also covers the topic of the Holocaust through dialogue, avoiding overemotionality. The film, which is about the birth of the state of Israel, connects Nazi and Arab anti-Semitism.

The Boys from Brazil (1978), a film about Nazis, has a science fiction type premise. It does draw attention to the fear that 30 years after the fact, the world has forgotten about Nazi atrocities. However, it falls into the Hollywood trap of trivializing the subject, reducing the menace of Nazism to a cartoonish plot wherein evil people clone Hitler. Victory (1981) more egregiously minimizes the ghastly realities of the Holocaust. The film turns Nazis into gentlemen and a prisoner of war camp into a soccer training school.

A French Canadian film Au nom de tous les miens (For Those I Loved) (1983) has gritty scenes that depict the brutality inflicted on European Jews. It shows piles of cadavers in the Treblinka death camp. Unfortunately, badly written contrived dialogue detracts from its authenticity, and poor casting makes it somewhat unbelievable.

Hanna's War, a 1988 film, features a strong female protagonist and celebrates the story of Hanna Senesh, who is an emblem of the Jewish spirit. This moving film illustrates the reality of the Holocaust in Hungary and the developing Jewish nation in Palestine. It was directed by an Israeli, Menachem Golan, who wanted to highlight a woman hero.

A highly successful film Schindler's List (1993) was viewed in U.S. theaters by 25 million people. Its 1997 television debut had 30 million viewers. The film garnered critical and popular acclaim, including numerous Oscars and other awards, leading directly to Steven Spielberg's establishment of the Shoah Foundation. His foundation interviewed and recorded Holocaust survivors the world over.

Life is Beautiful, a film which followed Schindler's List, was also immensely popular, winning Academy Awards. Genocide (1981), which was produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and, along with Anne Frank Remembered (1995) and The Long Way Home (1997) won Academy Awards. Two shorts, One Survivor Remembers (1995) and Visas and Virtue (1997) also received Academy Awards.

The prevalence of realistic Holocaust films and their ability to gain critical acclaim suggest the security of Jewish identity in the United States. Judaism is not commercially taboo as it was in the past. More than 70 Jewish film festivals across the world give ample stage for the presentation of Holocaust films. The prevalence of Holocaust museums contributes to another forum for Holocaust films. Cable television also provides an important outlet for accurate film portrayals of the Holocaust.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Choice Films about the Holocaust
Yacowar, Maurice.
Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 109, No. 3, Fall 2002
Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust
Annette Insdorf.
Cambridge University Press, 2003 (3rd edition)
While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust
Jeffrey Shandler.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Bearing Witness: A Resource Guide to Literature, Poetry, Art, Music, and Videos by Holocaust Victims and Survivors
Philip Rosen; Nina Apfelbaum.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Videos of the Holocaust Experience"
The Claims of Memory: Representations of the Holocaust in Contemporary Germany and France
Caroline Wiedmer; Caroline Alice Wiedmer.
Cornell University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "The Nasty Girl" begins on p. 87
Narration and the Embodiment of Power in 'Schindler's List.'
Gelly, Ora.
Film Criticism, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter 1997
The Reception of Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List' in the German Media
Niven, William J.
Journal of European Studies, Vol. 25, No. 98, June 1995
History and Memory after Auschwitz
Dominick Lacapra.
Cornell University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Four "Lanzmann's Shoah: 'Here There Is No Why'"
The Holocaust in the Text: Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and the Allegorical Film Adaptation
Carr, Steven Alan.
Film Criticism, Vol. 27, No. 1, Fall 2002
What Old Women Remember
Heller, Scott.
The American Prospect, Vol. 11, No. 19, August 28, 2000
Screening the Past: Film and the Representation of History
Tony Barta.
Praeger, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Holocaust Nazis: Television's Success and Failure" begins on p. 139
Search for more books and articles on Holocaust films