Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust

By Baron, Lawrence | Film & History, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust


Baron, Lawrence, Film & History


Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust Directed by Daniel Anker, (USA: Anker Productions Inc., 2004.).

As its title indicates, Imaginary Witness traces how Hollywood has depicted the Holocaust in feature films. Daniel Anker, who won an Oscar for his documentary Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, interweaves clips from Holocaust movies, narration by Gene Hackman, and interviews with survivors who work in the film industry like Branko Lustig and Robert Clary, directors of major Holocaust pictures like Steven Spielberg and Sidney Lumet, and scholars like Michael Berenbaum and Annette Insdorf to illustrate how the portrayal of the Shoah has evolved in Hollywood productions over the past 60 years.

Anker devotes much of the documentary to the formative years of Holocaust cinema. He locates the causes of Hollywood's timidity to make films critical of Hitler and Nazi anti-Semitism in the assimilationist aspirations of the Jewish movie moguls, their fear of American anti-Semitism, the financial dependence of Hollywood on the German distribution market, isolationist opposition to US intervention in European affairs, and the Production Code Administration's system of self-censorship.

Anker gets this story essentially right, but assigns too much blame to the Jewish movie moguls because he relies so heavily on Neil Gabler's characterization of the Jewish studio owners as obsessed with proving their American identity by minimizing their Jewish one. Other film historians like Michael Birdwell and Steven Carr emphasize the external pressures the Jewish producers had to contend with: the threat that Congress would regulate the film industry if it did not censor itself, the State Department which cautioned against antagonizing Germany for diplomatic and economic reasons, the Third Reich's ban on movies deemed anti-German, and the PCA whose clout stemmed from grassroots backing by Catholic and Protestant organizations. Independent anti-Nazi films like Hitler's Reign of Terror and Are We Civilized? were made as early as 1934, but were never released due to Germany's pressure on the Loews and MGM theatre chains. Similarly, PCA chief Joseph Breen squelched MGM's plans to adapt Sinclair Lewis's antifascist novel It Can't Happen Here into a movie in 1935.

While Imaginary Witness acknowledges that Harry Warner was one of the few producers who spoke out against Hitler, it does not explore his activities in any depth. Warner Bros. discontinued its operations in Germany in 1934 to protest the order to dismiss its Jewish employees in Germany. Since shorts and cartoons fell outside the purview of the PCA, the studio made an animated cartoon Bosko's Picture Show in 1933 that parodied Hitler. The 1936 Warner Bros. production Black Legion dramatized how an anti-immigrant hate group recruited a disgruntled worker who lost a promotion to a Polish co-worker. Based on a series of ethnically, racially, and religiously motivated murders by the real Black Legion, the movie's script originally featured a Jew as the target of the worker's wrath, but changed his identity because the PCA threatened to withhold its seal of approval if this "inflammatory" plot detail remained in the final cut of the film. Breen worried that the portrayal of anti-Semitism in Warner Bros.' The Life of Emile Zola (1937) might provide Germany with a pretext to ban all American films from distribution in the country. In response the studio limited its reference to Alfred Dreyfus' Jewish heritage to a single visual allusion. The busting of an American Nazi spy ring in 1938 provided the opportunity for Warner Bros.' to produce Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Highlighting the dangers Nazi authoritarianism and racism posed to American democracy, the movie never mentioned anti-Semitism. Anyone cognizant of current events, however, would have recognized that these movies implicitly denounced Hitler and Nazi ideology.

Although Hollywood remained hesitant about tackling the issue of Nazi anti-Semitism until the United States entered the war in late 1941, Charlie Chaplin's independent production of The Great Dictator (1940) mocked Hitler as an ambitious dictator with aggressive military aims and an obsessive hatred of Jews. …

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