The Holocaust in American Film

By Baron, Lawrence | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Holocaust in American Film


Baron, Lawrence, Shofar


by Judith E. Doneson. 2(nd) ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002. 288 pp. $19.95.

In Memory of Judith E. Doneson (1947-2002)

I received my review copy of the second edition of Judith Doneson's pioneering study of American feature films about the Holocaust the same day I learned of her death. It is still difficult for me to believe that I will not meet her every year at one of the Holocaust or Jewish Studies conferences where we regularly presented papers dealing with cinematic representations of the Shoah and then sneaked away for a cup of coffee to discuss and dispute each other's conclusions. Despite our disagreements, which will become apparent in this review too, I always valued our friendship and her unwavering advocacy of the role films could play in popularizing the memory of the Holocaust and relating the issues surrounding it to contemporary concerns.

When The Holocaust in American Film was first published in 1987, the prevailing attitude towards the "Hollywood version of the Holocaust," as Annette Insdorf dubbed it in her survey of Holocaust cinema, was articulated by Elie Wiesel in the foreword to that book: "One does not imagine the unimaginable. And in particular one does not show it on screen."(1) While Insdorf praised several American pictures about the Holocaust, Ilan Avisar bluntly dismissed Hollywood's ability to make a significant movie about the ordeal of European Jewry during World War Two: "Unlike the personal drives of west and east European filmmakers, who deal with the Holocaust in order to explore and express their own national traumas,...the American interest in the subject is motivated by other considerations which are not necessarily rooted in a genuine concern with the disturbing truth of the historical tragedy."(2) When the majority of Holocaust scholars and survivors suspected that Hollywood inevitably would Americanize, trivialize, and universalize the Jewish genocide, Judy Doneson commended undertakings like NBC's miniseries Holocaust for raising public awareness about the event and establishing it as a "model, a paradigm, or a framework for understanding history".

The first four chapters of Doneson's book contain only minor alterations from the first edition. Therein she traces the evolution of the portrayal of Jews and the Holocaust in American films from the 1930s to the 1970s. Doneson repeatedly cites Pierre Sorlin's crucial insight that movies about historical topics mirror "contemporary circumstances" more than the past.(3) In contrast to Avisar and Insdorf, Doneson focuses on the historical contextualization of American movies rather than on comparisons of national cinematic styles or treatments of common themes. She analyzes how the characterization of Jewish figures in American films changed from the contradictory image of the Jew as a crafty usurer and useful ally in The House of Rothschild (1934), to the Jew as the victim of antisemitism abroad in The Great Dictator (1940) and domestic bigotry in Gentlemen's Agreement (1947), and finally to the Jew as a universal proxy for any target of ethnic, religious, or racial hatred in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). These shifts in emphasis conveyed prewar warnings against the dangers Nazism posed to Europe and postwar extrapolations of the lessons of the Holocaust to combat manifestations of American intolerance. Doneson correctly observes that in the Forties and Fifties the minimization of Jewish distinctiveness was fully congruent with American Jewish aspirations for assimilation into their host society.

The achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Viet Nam War, the Six Day War, and the gradual displacement of the "melting pot" model for American society by the ideal of cultural diversity provided directors with the opportunity to make films about the Jewish particularity of the Holocaust. While analogies of Jewish suffering under Hitler with the situation of American blacks still persisted in movies like The Pawnbroker (1965), the liquidation of the Jews eventually occupied center stage in theatrical releases like Voyage of the Damned (1976) and the television docudrama Holocaust. …

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