2008-2009 has seen the return of the Holocaust in Hollywood with several movies either dealing with the subject directly or tangentially. The Holocaust has always been sporadic material for Hollywood. Every few years a small budget independent or documentary will show up. Mainstream Hollywood rarely invests big dollars. While many Holocaust films are done very few are big budget. A great documentary on the subject of how Hollywood has addressed the Holocaust is Imaginary Witness:Hollywood and the Holocaust.
There is no denying that sentiments and views of the Holocaust have changed over the years since the end of World War II. Hollywood has changed right along with those sentiments and views and changed the types of movies and the way events are depicted. A review of the Internet Movie Database reveals that from 1945-2008 there were over 400 theatrical productions and documentaries made which addressed the Holocaust in one form or another. Of those, the majority were foreign-made documentaries.
Here is my list of Hollywood movies and television media that I feel offer the most to the viewer in the portrayal of events and figures of the Holocaust. I include foreign films if they had mainstream United States release. I am only including films whose main focus was the Holocaust as compared to the Holocaust being just one historical event in the movie. An example would be Band Of Brothers. This mini-series addresses the Holocaust but is not about the Holocaust. Another recent two films I left off because I did not consider them Holocaust films are Defiance(2008) and Good(2008). I will start with the most recent entries into the Holocaust genre, “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas” and “The Reader”.
The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. Adapted from the book of the same name by John Boyne. A short, faithful adpation to the book. A movie similar to Life Is Beautiful. This time the story is told from the side of the child of a Concentration Camp Commandant who befriends a Jewish child imprisoned in the a camp. The child has been shielded by his father from the horror, brutality and the truth of the purpose of the camp.
The Reader(2009). Ralph Fiennes reminds us of his brilliant performance in Schindler’s List to once again tackle the Holocaust in a much different light. His character has an affair with his care-taker. Years later, while a law student observing a Nazi war crime trial, he is re-united in a shocking way. She is a defendant charged with war crimes. The Reader has sparked some revisionist sentiment in the Jewish community. The criticism is that the film through its central theme attempts to legitimize a notion that ordinary Germans were completely ignorant of The Final Solution until after the war. The producers were certainly more interested in producing an Oscar winning film than staying true to history. The Reader brought Holocaust sensitivities in Hollywood portrayals front and center again.
Paperclips(2004) An extraordinary documentary that I stumbled across surfing cables channels once night. Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee is the last place you would think would be a hot bed of Holocaust study. It however is the setting for this documentary about a unique experiment in Holocaust understanding. The students at Whitewell collect six-million paper clips to better understand the extent of Holocaust and share that understanding with Holocaust survivors.
The Diary Of Anne Frank(1959). The 1959 version appears to be Hollywood’s first mainstream attempt to bring the Holocaust to the masses although it did so by sacrificing the depth and emotion of the Holocaust to give the public a Hollywood blockbuster movie. The movie itself was a Hollywood hit by the standards of the day. It won three Oscars. An interesting side note is that Audrey Hepburn turned down the role of Anne Frank because she herself lived in occupied Holland and witnessed Nazi atrocities first-hand. To get a feel for early Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust, the Diary of Anne Frank is a must see, but be sure to view the original before viewing the remakes.
Holocaust(1978). A four-part made-for-TV mini-series. That was the first major network big time portrayal of the subject. The series was a monstrous success, drawing a 49 percent market share. So many people watched this mini-series in New York City when first broadcast, that when commercials were on, the local water pressure dropped due to the large number of people using their toilets at once. It won Golden Globe and Emmy awards. It was instrumental in rocketing the career of Meryl Streep. Michael Moriarty is brilliant as an out of work lawyer who enters the Nazi party and advances through brutality and helping implement “The Final Solution.”
Schindler’s List(1993). The Holocaust comes to Generation X with the Steven Spielberg story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and Nazi party member who started out getting rich off the backs of Jewish slave labor and ended up finding his own humanity. He went on to save thousands of Jews from the gas chamber, risking both his personal wealth and his safety to save as many Jews as possible. He spent his entire fortune to bribe Germans and buy the lives of the Jews who worked for him. He kept them for the most part safe until Germany’s surrender. He ended up penniless. Today, there are more than 6000 descendants of “Schindler Jews” living around the world. The movie is done in and black and white and riveting from beginning to end. The movie itself was a huge critical and box office success winning seven Oscars
Sophie’s Choice(1982). Sophie’s Choice is a brilliant performance by Meryl Streep as a Holocaust survivor with dark secrets in her family’s past. Her performance as Sophie Zawistowska is ranked #3 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. She won an academy award for her performance. It should be noted that this film was released 11 years prior to Schindler’s list. It contains one of the most heart wrenching moments in movie history when Sophie recounts the night she arrived at Auschwitz with her children, and of how she was forced by a Nazi officer to choose life for one child and death for the other.
Life Is Beautiful(1997). Life Is Beautiful is told from the view of a man who uses the gift of humor to protect his only son from the inhumanity while in a concentration camp. The film is incredible in that it allows you to smile and laugh with Guido right up until the tragic end and not feel sad. This movie won three Academy Awards. While classified as a Holocaust film, this film is also a joyous celebration of the human spirit.
The Pianist(2002). This movie is told from the viewpoint of a very talented piano player played by Adrian Brody. He hides out in the Warsaw Ghetto throughout the Warsaw Ghetto Liquidation and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When the German occupation begins, he simply wonders when he will be able to return to his music. When the killing begins, he is forced to hide and change his priorities to simply trying to survive. Even though he can no longer play, music is the hope and salvation that keeps him alive.
The Grey Zone(2001). The Grey Zone is gritty, dark and sometimes hard to follow. It is, however, a must-see for all those who want an understanding of the Holocaust beyond the basics. The Grey Zone deals with an issue that is very sensitive to Holocaust survivors. Jews sending other Jews to the gas chamber. These Jews were called “Sonderkommandos“. Sonderkommando members did not participate directly in the killing which was reserved for the guards. While their primary responsibility was disposing of the corpses, they often took a much more active role in getting the inmates ready to enter the gas chambers. These inmates were kept in close groups and had much better living conditions than the average inmate. They were also killed off at regular intervals to prevent any word of the inner workings of the Nazi death apparatus from leaking to the outside world. This movie is about one of several Sonderkommado revolts that took place. It features an outstanding peformance by Harvey Keitel.
Playing for Time. Playing for Time is a made-for-T.V piece that is worth seeing. It ias another movie that gives a perspective on the inner workings of Nazi concentration camps in which some inmates were forced to play music for the others as they marched to the gas chambers or life-death selection process. The purpose was to keep them calm and reduce the chances of revolt.
Europa Europa(1991). A young Jewish boy poses as a German “Aryan” orphan and joins the Hitler Youth in the early days of World War II. An interesting look at the racial, moral and religious identity struggles faced by Jews as they did what they could to prevent their extermination in Nazi Germany.
Music Box(1989). This is one of the few movies dealing with the issues of aging former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers who committed war crimes living in the United States. Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stah give great performances. The movie is based on the true story of John Demjanjuk. While the premise of a daughter representing her father on trial with such high stakes is a stretch, it works well here. Jessica’s emotional opening statement is also unrealistic and inadmissible. The movie is incredibly moving on all levels. You are torn between her father as a loving grandfather and a brutal murderer guilty of terrible war crimes. In an interesting twist of life imitating art, the father of Joe Eszterhas who wrote the screenplay, was accused of writing anti-Semitic propaganda before and during World War II. Like the character in Music Box, his father denied being the person who wrote these materials. Mr. Ezterhas denies knowing anything about his father’s past at the time he wrote the screenplay.
Also of interest is that the real life John Demjanjuk was recently ordered deported to Germany. They want to put him on trial for Nazi era war crimes. An appeals court has stayed the deportation while it considers whether his deportation constitutes “torture” due to his age and health.
That is my list of Holocaust films that I feel are must sees for anyone wanting to get a good understanding of the subject through Hollywood. Is this a definitive list? Absolutely not. There are numerous foreign films and documentaries dealing with general and specific issues surrounding the Holocaust.
Please feel free to comment and add you own movies to the list with an explanation of why you feel it is an important film or simply why you enjoyed it.