Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust

[5 February 2009]

By Michael Curtis Nelson

This ambitious documentary provides not only a survey of Hollywood films about the Holocaust, but also a history of the Holocaust itself, and of the main cultural currents that characterized pre- and postwar America. The result is a frank, complex look at how the film industry both influences and is in turn influenced by the culture at large.

Imaginary Witness opens with a cinematic flourish that works well to establish the film’s themes. Accompanied by a montage of clips from feature films (Cabaret, Schindler’s List, and Sophie’s Choice among them), narrator Gene Hackman identifies the “complex and contradictory” nature of Hollywood’s efforts to depict the Holocaust, and asserts that “it has been American movies, perhaps more than any other medium, that have shaped how we understand and remember these events”. Brief commentary from filmmakers and historians establish the challenges of bringing to the screen a subject generally considered unrepresentable, and the responsibility owed to survivors to treat it ethically and accurately.

Director Daniel Anker chose his industry representatives and film historians well. Directors Steven Spielberg and Sidney Lumet are particularly eloquent, as are historians Neal Gabler and Michael Berenbaum. Nevertheless, while they offer sometimes conflicting opinions about particular films or themes, all of Anker’s informants tend to overstate the centrality of American film in informing our understanding of the Holocaust.

The documentary proceeds with its survey in chronological fashion. Because of the lucrative foreign market for American films, the chilling effect of anti-Semitism directed at Jewish industry leaders, pressure from politicians such as ambassador to England and isolationist Joseph Kennedy, and the motion picture production code’s insistence on depicting all nationalities fairly, Hollywood refrained from criticizing Hitler in the early ‘30s. Newsreels reported Nazi demonstrations and book burnings, but did so without negative commentary.

Even after Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), when the Nazis arrested many Jews and destroyed synagogues and Jewish-owned business throughout Germany, films rarely addressed Nazism. Exceptions included Warner Brothers’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), based on the true story of a German spy ring in the US, and considered so controversial that much of the cast wanted their names left out of the credits, and MGM’s The Mortal Storm (1940), with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, about the trials of a Jewish family in Germany. But it took Charles Chaplin to address anti-Semitism directly, in the independently produced and financed The Great Dictator, which Director Sidney Lumet recalls as the first American film in which he heard the word “Jew”.

After Pearl Harbor and the US entrance into World War II, propaganda characterized Hollywood’s output. While A-list films about Nazism—which had to adhere not only to the production code but also to the dictates of the new U.S. Office of War Information—emphasized the power of American democracy, B films, often made by refugees, took on the topic more thoughtfully and directly, because they cost little to make, had no overseas market, and were produced so quickly they bypassed the censors. In a clip from one such film, None Shall Escape (1944), Jews who resist being loaded into boxcars are mown down by machine-gun fire.

Hollywood also documented the war. Directors Frank Capra, John Huston, Billy Wilder, and George Stevens all worked for the Army Signal Corps’ motion picture unit. So important did the US government consider their work that after liberation, film crews went into concentration camps even before medical teams. The sequence detailing the first screening of their footage back in the States, narrated by film editor Stanley Frazen and screenwriter Malvin Wald, is one of the most powerful in Imaginary Witness. “To this day I can recall the scenes from this film. It was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen, because the inmates walking in their black and white uniforms were like ghosts”, Wald says. Frazen describes leaving the projection room and vomiting.

After the war, Hollywood rarely devoted films to Nazi atrocities. Two 1947 films, Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement, addressed anti-Semitism, but without reference to the Holocaust. Other films focused on the aftermath of the genocide, exploring the psychological apparatuses that prevented survivors from sharing their experiences: muteness for a boy in The Search (1948), amnesia for a man in Singing in the Dark (1956).

Hollywood was most successful when it fit the Holocaust into traditional stories, like the May 1953 episode of the television series This Is Your Life with Auschwitz survivor Hanna Block Kohner. All the typical features of the show—surprise visits by old friends and relatives, the presentation of the subject’s current life as fulfilling, the location of all tribulations safely in the past—reinforce the message that Kohner, like any other immigrant, had found happiness in America.

There’s something ghoulish, however, about host Ralph Edwards forcing Kohner’s life in Auschwitz into the show’s format. When he prompts, “you were sent to the so-called showers . . .”, the expressions on the faces of both Kohner and fellow camp inmate Eva suggest the inappropriateness of this format. Anker wisely refrains from commentary, and lets this moment speak for itself.

In part because of the actions of the anticommunist House Un-American Activities Committee, which targeted filmmakers and other industry workers, many of them Jews, in the decade after the end of the war, Hollywood didn’t make another Holocaust film until The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959. Directed by George Stevens, whose crew had filmed in Dachau after liberation, the film downplayed its “ethnic” component, as Berenbaum notes, in favor of a more universal treatment.

Judgment at Nuremberg, about the postwar Nazi trials, directed by George Roy Hill and broadcast on CBS’ Playhouse 90 in April of the same year, also demonstrated just how sensitive the topic remained. The show’s sponsor, The American Gas Company, insisted on muting the words “gas chamber”, spoken by judge Dan Haywood (Claude Rains) as he denounces Hitler’s Final Solution during a pivotal scene.

From this point forward Imaginary Witness focuses mainly on the explicit depictions of events of the Holocaust that increasingly characterized films on the subject, and on filmmakers’ painstaking attempts at verisimilitude, often the result of consultation with survivors. The Pawnbroker (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Rod Steiger, tells the tale of Sol Nazerman, a man tortured by repressed memories of his days in a concentration camp.

Flashbacks to the camp add a graphic element to the theme of repression present in earlier films like The Search. Film historian Annette Insdorf finds Nazerman’s difficulty emblematic of the American response to the Holocaust in general.

By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, American audiences were familiar enough with the Holocaust and its iconic imagery that films could use oblique references to add context, like the brief shot of the camp tattoo on Maude’s forearm in Harold and Maude (1971), or use the Holocaust metaphorically, like the implicit analogy between prewar Germany and Vietnam-era America in Cabaret (1972).

Civil rights activists who compared racism to Nazism connected slavery and the Holocaust. Emboldened by the success of Roots (1977), ABC’s epic miniseries about a black family’s experiences of slavery, which made Americans more mindful of the nation’s racist past, NBC produced its own miniseries the following year, Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss. The show reached a huge audience, with half of the country tuning in, but some found it in poor taste.

Survivor, author, and activist Eli Wiesel objected to the program as “indecent”. Gabler paraphrases Wiesel’s argument this way: “It’s not just about bearing witness, it’s about how you bear witness”. That is, Hollywood was now facing the same accusation often aimed at other art forms representing the Holocaust: that the subject is unique, and cannot be treated as, or by means of, traditional narrative.

At this point, Anker overstates his main thesis about the primacy of American film in educating the masses about the Holocaust. In detailing the powerful effect Holocaust had in West Germany when it was broadcast there in 1979, Imaginary Witness suggests that the film was the prime mover in enabling a new generation of Germans to acknowledge the Holocaust. It strikes me as an astoundingly arrogant claim to suggest that Europe required prodding from an American cultural production in order to come to terms with its own tortured past.

Sophie’s Choice (1982) epitomizes Hollywood’s response to Wiesel’s critique of Holocaust: the attempt to ground films in the physical, psychological, and moral verities provided by survivors. Survivor Kitty Hart, subject of a 1979 documentary, Kitty: Return to Auschwitz, served as a consultant for the film.

The 1988 television miniseries War and Remembrance, which aired on ABC and whose director, Dan Curtis, recreated parts of Auschwitz for the film, is another example. The family saga includes a graphically explicit segment on the Holocaust, in which shots follow the herding of hundreds of naked men, women, and children to mass graves.

Anker’s experts can’t agree on whether such a treatment is warranted or not. While Spielberg feels that the subject must be depicted graphically if it is to be depicted at all, Berenbaum finds that the horror of the sequence panders to an increasing appetite for “graphic imagery”, a result of “the coarsening of the American experience” that started with Vietnam. Curtis agrees with Spielberg that “you have to show it”.

And yet, in the segment of Imaginary Witness devoted to his film Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg notes that while he mined survivors’ accounts for details to put into the movie, he was motivated by restraint at all levels of filmmaking, from the choice of black and white, because color would “beautify the Holocaust”, to the refusal to use camera cranes or “camera tricks”. One of the excerpts Anker has selected from the film illustrates this sensibility well: the series of shots in which new arrivals at Plaszów concentration camp, children playing in nearby Krakow, a woman walking her dog, and Oskar Schindler crossing the street all notice the fallout of ash from the camp crematoria. Their varying responses to the archetypal metonymic referent for the lives lost in the Holocaust is certainly as affecting as the falling bodies in War and Remembrance.

Brief mention of the spate of Holocaust films that followed Schindler’s List completes the survey of films in Imaginary Witness. Gabler’s assertion that “Hollywood is the means by which most people, for better or worse, come to terms with the Holocaust”, and Sophie’s Choice producer Martin Starger’s observation that after the last survivor dies, only films will remain to bear witness to the Holocaust reinforce the message that Hollywood bears responsibility for educating and reminding the world about this epochal moment in history.

Given the glimpses of powerful cinematic experiences that Imaginary Witness marshals, this point is well taken, but aside from mention of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the film makes no reference to other influential educational resources or cultural productions about the Holocaust, such as the 1955 French documentary Night and Fog, or books like Primo Levi’s Survival At Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, not to mention the efforts of foundations and organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and B’nai B’rith International that have worked for decades to educate people about Nazi atrocities.

Still, a film about Hollywood produced by Hollywood can be expected to have its biases, and this is a minor quibble about an excellent documentary that itself provides the kind of illumination of the Holocaust conveyed by the best of the films it surveys.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/70105-imaginary-witness-hollywood-and-the-holocaust/