The Holocaust is the defining event of the past century. The sheer horror of the cold statistics has an indefatigable hold on global cultural consciousness. Six million Jews stripped of clothing, hair and names were fed to the insatiable war machine.
And it was a machine, carefully oiled and maintained. Brainwashing propaganda, from posters and speeches to salutes and faux-science, kept it in beautiful working order. To look at archival footage of thousands of polished Nazi boots marching in perfect synchronization is to stare into the whirring cogs and gears of Hitler’s locomotive.
Even as the Allies charged across Europe at the close of World War II, such films played an integral role in the Nazi war effort. A psudo-documentary film of concentration camp Terezín made in 1944 proving the benevolent protection of the Third Reich fooled the world. Some still believe its fabricated images.
So on International Holocaust Remembrance Day we should reflect on the truth and the lies propagated throughout the years. Then, as now, film is a powerful tool able to awaken and enrage as well as coddle and deceive. How far have we come from the Nazi’s self-serving portrayal of Terezín?
Night and Fog
A mere decade after the liberation of Auschwitz, famed director Alain Resnais unwillingly faced the subject in a 32-minute documentary. He decided to tackle the material only when survivor and resistance fighter Jean Cayrol agreed to write the script. As read by Michel Bouquet, his poetic lyricism is the backbone to Hanns Eisler’s score. Resnais turns the Nazi’s proclivity for documentation on its head, employing their own black and white stock footage to unflinchingly show life in the camps, from experimentation and gas chambers to the final shots of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. Tragically empty color contemporary footage of the camps speaks as much to the lives lost as the archival footage of death and destruction. “Night and Fog” is still considered to be one of the best Holocaust documentaries. François Truffaut even went so far as to name it the greatest film ever made.
But at its release in 1955, French censors attempted to squash the film, displeased by a shot of a French police officer working for the Nazis. The German Embassy in France tried to have the film barred from the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s producer, Anatole Dauman, told Resnais, "It will never see a theatrical release." Though critics received the film with open arms, so soon after the horrors of the war, the French were eager to forget.
The Sorrow and the Pity
In 1969, another French director confronted Holocaust memory in two-part documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity.” Marcel Ophüls exposed the heroic and the monstrous in French reactions to World War II, spending equal time documenting the resistance and those that collaborated with Nazi Germany. Part one involved and extended interview with Pierre Mendès-France, a Jew who escaped the Vichy government to join Charles de Gaulle's forces and later served as Prime Minister of a liberated France. Part two details the alternate path, confronting the anti-Semitism and Anglophobia that lead Christian de la Mazière to embrace Fascism and fight on the Eastern Front in a German uniform.
Once more, France was unwilling to reflect on the truth of its mixed history, and the film was banned. President of the European Parliament Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor, was the primary force behind the ban, claiming the film was too one-sided. Though “The Sorrow and the Pity” was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 1971, it didn’t make it to French television until 1981.
Jakob, the Liar
As time marched on, documentaries about the Holocaust gave way to fictions. In one of the first portrayals of Jewish resistance, Frank Beyer adapted the novel by Jurek Becker to make “Jakob, the Liar” in 1975. Remade with Robin Williams in 1999, the East German-Czechoslovakian drama starred Vlastimil Brodsky as a Jew who provides hope to his small ghetto by relating fictitious radio broadcasts of the Allied advance. In the end, Jakob dies rather than debunk his lies. Both films have been criticized for trivializing the Holocaust, but the original was nominated for an Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film.
Nine and a half hour French documentary “Shoah” was a groundbreaking film based on deceit. Claude Lanzmann spent 11 years on his opus, a loosely structured Holocaust documentary that, amazingly, conjures up the past without a single minute of historical footage. To “reincarnate” the tragedy, Lanzmann takes survivors, bystanders and perpetrators back to Chełmno, Treblinka, Auschwitz and Warsaw. Through gentle, insistent questioning, Lanzmann gets even SS officers to frankly discuss the past. However, most of the subjects of the 1985 film did not agree to be filmed, so Lanzmann captured his footage through hidden cameras. The overwhelming film ends with Abraham Bomba, who survived as a barber in Treblinka; cutting hair in a Tel Aviv barbershop while remembering what is was like to shear the locks of those bound for the gas chambers.
Unquestionably the iconic film of the Holocaust, “Schindler’s List” is based on Australian Thomas Keneally‘s novel “Schindler's Ark.” Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler in the 1993 American drama, saving Jewish refugees by employing them in his factories. Director Steven Spielberg refused to be paid for the picture, saying it would be akin to taking “blood money.” Looking to “Shoah” for inspiration, Spielberg recreated the past by using the German and Polish language, but decided to include English because "there's too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else." Black and white, while challenging for his color cinematographer, provided timelessness, while a handheld camera brought immediacy to the action. Spielberg was convinced that the film would be a flop, but it was a box office success and went on to win seven Academy Awards.
Life is Beautiful
Half of “Life is Beautiful” is a romantic, almost slapstick comedy about the seduction of an aristocrat by a Jew. But the latter half abruptly switches tone to a Holocaust history as the family is sent to a death camp. Writer-director Roberto Benigni tapped his father’s experience of being interned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to provide authenticity to the 1997 Italian film, while bringing a desperate charm to the story of a father willing to do anything to save his son from the reality of the Holocaust. Some critics complained that Benigni made a mockery of the horror by turning it into a game for a young child. Others realized the incredible strength and resistance portrayed by a father maintaining the fiction for his son, even when he knows he will be shot. “Life is Beautiful” won three Academy Awards in 1999.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
On the opposite side of fictitious Holocaust portrayals, Mark Herman adapted Irish writer John Boyne’s novel for his 2008 drama of the same name. The film, like the book, explores the horror of World War II through the eyes of two young boys, one the son of a Nazi commandant, the other a Jewish inmate. Critics questioned the fabrication of children surviving in Auschwitz, others claim the film accurately reflected the value system of the war. All acknowledge the gross sentimentalizing of a fictional Nazi loss at the close, when both boys die in a gas chamber.
“Defiance” also departed remarkably from the history it claimed to portray. The Bielski partisans avoided military clashes with the Germans, but in the 2008 film, Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay attack tanks. The blunt war film antagonized critics, and even took the author of the adapted book a while to accept. Reports from Poland, where the Jewish brothers operated, held that audiences booed Edward Zwick’s Hollywoodized portrait of Jewish strength.
In 1967, a California High School teacher answered a question about whether the Holocaust could happen again by embarking on a two-week social experiment with his students that he called the Third Wave. The 2008 drama adapts those real events to the pregnant setting of modern Germany. Director Dennis Gansel charts how easy each step toward autocracy is on its own, forcing the audience to the same painful realization as the class—the Holocaust could be repeated. It is as simple and dangerous as the desire to belong. By indirectly addressing the adage of the Holocaust, to never forget, “The Wave” powerfully returns awareness to the human capability for violence and the need for constant vigilance. The film was unbelievably and incredibly successful in its domestic market, proving how willing Germany is to confront its demons.
Quentin Tarantino has never really explained the misspelling in his 2009 war film. His highest grossing film to date, “Inglourious Basterds” stars Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent in a revisionist history wherein an American strike force kills Hitler. Tarantino spent just over a decade writing the script for the film, wrestling with the ending. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
“Inglourious Basterds” is not a film that could have been made before the Six Days War, or even during the 1990s. While completely revising history, the film reflects a modern Jewish will to fight, at odds with early portrayal of Holocaust victims.
As time marches on, it is inevitable that the truth of the history will take a back seat to manipulating cultural memory. The circle closes; Holocaust films today are just as false as the Nazi’s were 67 years ago.
But the motives have evolved. Never forget has become never again.