Do Holocaust Movies Help Or Hinder Our Understanding?

Posted on December 28, 2008 at 8:00 am

Stuart Klawans, movie critic for The Nation for 20 years, has written a provocative essay about Holocaust movies for the website Nextbook.
Like so many other Jews, I have made my contribution toward the multiplication of Holocaust films. On New Year’s Eve 1985, I chose to spend my money at a movie theater, watching Part One of Shoah. A few years later, when asked in the wake of Schindler’s List how many more Holocaust films the world needed, I snapped, “We can stop at six million.”
But now, some dozen years and perhaps hundreds of movies later–in a season swollen with no fewer than six such releases–I respectfully request a moratorium on Holocaust films. By continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate. Call it the law of diminishing returns–or call it a paradox that mirrors the Torah’s famously self-contradictory commandment at the end of Parshat Ki Tetze, concerning the people who were the prototype of Nazi Germany: “Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.” Very soon, with Holocaust movies, we’ll need to forget if we want to remember.
This issue has been on my mind as well. While others on Beliefnet have written approvingly about the recent film “The Boy in Striped Pajamas,” I found it to be superficial and manipulative. A lot of WWII movies are. As our world is increasingly troubling and complex, it is too easy to return to the Holocaust and portray Nazis as the last unambiguously evil villains, and just as important, unambiguously defeated. And yet, the very magnitude of the Holocaust requires a mosaic of stories for us to understand it even imperfectly.
According to Klawans, the number of Holocaust-related films is increasing as the few left who were there to witness it are dying out. He describes a recent screening of the upcoming film “Defiance,” based on the true story of The Bielski Partisans, three brothers who hid more than 1000 Jews from the Nazis. But it seems to me he makes a powerful point against his argument when he describes the reaction of the audience.
This audience, with its special moral authority, clearly did not care that the true story of the Bielski brothers was being filtered through calculated performances, invented speeches, dramatic conventions, and cinematographic effects. What mattered to them, as people irrevocably claimed by these events, was that their past was real, and so was the movie that acknowledged it.
This alone is a valid enough reason to make movies about the Holocaust, to reassure the survivors who saw so many stories lost forever that at least their stories will be told. We will not ever know all the more than six million stories of the Holocaust, but each succeeding generation has something to learn from the moral failings and moral triumphs of the era. That may not always mean dramatic re-enactments, however. The Holocaust movie I have found most insightful and affecting in recent years is Paper Clips, a touching documentary about a Holocaust curriculum in an almost all-white, all-Christian elementary school.

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4 Replies to “Do Holocaust Movies Help Or Hinder Our Understanding?”

  1. I have no family Jewish ancestry, and my German ancestry is ancient and mostly irrelevant. My wife’s family is no different. However our daughter has developed an intense interest in many facets of the Holocaust, to the point of working on several academic projects related to it. For that reason, we are going to the Holocaust museum & memorial in St Petersberg, FL to see the exhibit about the historic Bielski Partisans before going, as a family, to see “Defiance”.
    She hopes to help keep telling the story, not because of what happened 60 years ago. This is a story that must be told so it does not happen any more today. It is clearly a story that has not been told often enough, because there are still genocides in other countries. By virtue of being a movie “Defiance” employs every convention and technique. But do we not add inflections and pauses in our own storytelling? Let the film speak its eloquence, and then listen to those who were there. Does the truth take seed in your heart, or do the images only fill your eyes for a short while. There will be the measure of the film’s value.

  2. After seeing ‘Schindlers List’ I thought that it should be mandatory in high schools. It is not possible to make a movie that is 100% accurate because for the screen you need some embellishment and creative liberty. But, it appeared that it was endorsed by the tribute to Schindler made at the end of the movie by those that were saved or related to those who were. Being a Christian, I would view any persecution as one done to an ‘older brother’… without Judaism you don’t have any Christianity. As for the movie ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’, I would agree with the ‘contrived’ aspect of it. My daughter was told at school “there were no children in concentration camps so it is not a true story in any way”. Whatever. My first thought after the movie was “how come people don’t see that tragedy of 40 million children being murdered by so called doctors as a tragedy?” America has it’s own Holocaust and we will pay for it one way or another.

  3. Thank you very much for this comment, and I appreciate your compassion for all who suffer. As I said, I did not care for “The Boy in Striped Pajamas,” but there are many other stories for people of all ages to convey the historical truth we must make sure every generation understands well enough to ensure it never happens again.

  4. A term I’ve seen for these hollow, Pavlovian Oscar baiting movies that have been appearing at the end of the movie season is “Holocausploitation Movies”. There is something very wrong with exploiting the Holocaust like recent Holocaust movies have, and we’re now seeing an appropriate backlash against it.
    With that in mind, I have just written a review of a movie called “Esther’s Diary” that is the exact opposite of this in every way. It’s a modern story about first generation Holocaust survivors with a narrative interwoven into it that is based on actual Holocaust stories the director’s Polish Catholic grandparents told him about hiding their Jewish neighbors from the Germans during World War II. It features a cast of unusually colorful and lovable personalities, and features actual footage of the camps provided by the Auschwitz State Museum in Germany. The story is a very inspirational one about people coming together despite their differences. As far as family-friendly goes, there are three incidental curse words in the movie total, and then you have the Holocaust footage (which is some of the less gruesome footage), but otherwise there is really nothing to complain about.
    Do a Google search on “Esther’s Diary” and you’ll find a little more on this movie, which I call “The Holocaust Movie to End All Holocaust Movies”.

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