The Holocaust in Film

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I’ve long been interested in the way that Hollywood presents history, or anything ‘based on a true story,’ ‘inspired by real events,’ etc. A lot of people only know about historical events via their pop culture representations, no matter what disclaimers attend the opening of the film. Think “300,” “Spartacus,” “Braveheart,” “Amadeus,” “Elizabeth.” (Hm, lots of one-word titles there, what can I infer from that?)

Movies are defended as “just entertainment” when their historical inaccuracies are brought under fire, but do the intentions of the film-maker supersede the experience of the audience? I think not. The more high-profile the event, the larger the controversy surrounding questions of accuracy. Because of this, I’ll be focusing on Holocaust films to address these questions.

The German film “Downfall” was heavily criticized because of its portrayal of Hitler as a crazy man who led everyone astray (implying via the sympathetic lead character Traudl Junge that most Germans were not at fault). Oh, if only it weren’t for that one demented man and a couple crazy people around him, none of this would have happened. The poor Germans just got on the wrong bandwagon.

Likewise, “Schindler’s List” was the source of major controversy for dramatizing the story of a good German heroically saving the defenseless, often voiceless, Jews. The Good German, or the Reformed Nazi feature in Holocaust films a lot more often than resistant or effective Jews, and that is problematic. Why are we focused more on absolving the villains of history than exalting the self-image of the victims? If the movies are correct than practically 50% of the population were hiding fugitives or trying to overthrow Hitler, so why couldn’t they mount an adequate defense?

I should mention I had high hopes for “Defiance” when it came out (a movie based on some of the Jewish resistance fighters? finally!) but it fell flat, and I found myself with little interest in the characters. I’m not sure whether that says more about me, and my expectations, or the film-making itself.

The Holocaust movie that has troubled me most recently was 2008’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” If you haven’t seen it, here be spoilers. A young boy, Bruno, meets another boy, Shmuel, living behind an electrified fence near his family’s property. Bruno is unaware that his father, an SS Commandant, is in charge of the facility, or that the facility is in fact a death camp. The climax of the film really put a bad feeling in my stomach. Essentially, Bruno breaks into the camp to help Shmuel find his missing father. Bruno is accidentally herded into a gas chamber with Shmuel, and his frantic family do not arrive in time to save him.

I understand the film’s intentions: to highlight the monstrosity of the crime, the innocence of the victims, the fact that anyone was at risk, that the crime was senseless and random—basically, to make you weep. The ending is shocking, you expect the boys to be saved, but they are not. What bothers me is that the core of the tragedy revolves around the death of the German boy. The audience cries because he wasn’t supposed to be in there! His parents didn’t arrive in time to save him! Um, as opposed to the many Jews packed into the gas chamber with him? Were they ‘supposed’ to be in there? Why did the film-makers feel that this was the only way to wrench an appropriately horrified response from their audience? Is the chamber itself not horrifying enough? Was the death of Shmuel alone not tragic, because he was Jewish and ‘supposed’ to be in the camp? This really bothered me.

I believe that film-makers have a responsibility to understand the effects of their work, and to tread historical ground accordingly. In an ideal world a movie-going audience would watch films purely for entertainment, and borrow history books from the library if they wanted to know about the actual event. This is obviously NOT an ideal world, however, and I’m going to continue hearing that Caesar’s last words were, “E tu Brute,” and that Antonio Salieri was the biggest dick in all of history.

Is there a satisfactory solution to all of this? Not really. To cease making historical movies altogether would, honestly, kind of blow. I’ll be the first to admit that they are a lot of fun, and sometimes they revive interest in otherwise obscure areas of history that wouldn’t ordinarily get a lot of interest. Even documentary film-making isn’t free from bias (and its purported objectivity might make it more dangerous propaganda than admittedly fictionalized accounts). We can’t avoid a slant without getting bogged down in boring, inconclusive details.

Claude Lanzmann did his best with “Shoah,” the nine-and-a-half hour long Holocaust documentary. It is composed exclusively of modern-day interviews and modern-day footage of historical sites. There is no soundtrack (it manipulates emotions), no dramatization of narrated events (they can never be accurate), and not a single piece of archival footage (for all of it was either Nazi propaganda footage or horrible images that run the risk of de-sensitizing an audience to the violence). Lanzmann is extremely vocal about his hatred of all other Holocaust films, declaring his to be the only definitive and acceptable account. His work really begs the question: do we do more harm bombarding the public with accounts of the past, or avoiding representation altogether? How do we weigh the danger of desensitizing against the danger of forgetting?

Another interesting example is the 2001 film “Conspiracy,” a dramatization of the Wannsee Conference of 1942, in which the Final Solution was determined. It is based on surviving notes from the conference (though the film-makers had to guess at such details as seating arrangement, attire, and menu). This film also has no soundtrack (though a record is played briefly at the beginning), and it consists entirely of men sitting around a table talking. It sounds terribly boring and yet it was one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen. Despite my aforementioned humor at inappropriate British accents (we’ve got a lot of Shakespeare-trained actors in this), I can ignore that and get sucked into the movie. The careful and methodical planning of genocide is perhaps more horrifying than the dramatic musical upswells, scary villain lighting, or violence of other films.

What you should know by now is that I don’t provide answers on this blog, only questions and observations (and complaints). Food for thought, exercise the brain, whatever other clichés you care to toss in this awful metaphoric salad. I’ll stop now. But try to see through the manipulations of music and editing when you watch films like this, and honestly think, “What am I really seeing here? What is this teaching me? And how does this change my perspective?”

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Author: Sam Wood-Mills

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