Recently, I watched "Imaginary Witness," a terrific documentary about how Hollywood has depicted the Holocaust, and even though I think I know a lot about both Hollywood and the Holocaust, I found that I learned a number of things from this documentary. I mentioned to Danusha Goska that I had just seen the film, and she told me that she had also recently seen it and that she was writing a piece about it. When I said that I wanted to read it, she said that she'd be happy to pass it on to me when she finished.
Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust
Directed by Daniel Anker
Produced by Daniel Anker and Ellin Baumel
Narrated by Gene Hackman
Commentators include authors Michael Berenbaum, Thane Rosenbaum, Neal Gabler, Annete Insdorf, Norma Barzman, Sharon Rivo,
And directors, producers, screenwriters and actors Steven Spielberg, Branko Lustig, Robert Clary, Rod Steiger, Sidney Lumet, Vincent Sherman, Stanley Frazen, Gene Reynolds, Malvin Wald, George Stevens Jr, Martin Starger, Abby Mann, Robert Berger
The Holocaust: I was not there, and neither were you, yet we both know it happened. We know it happened, we are certain of the immense, implausible evil of it all, because someone told us the story. See? Storytelling really is central. As incredible as it may sound, no storytelling, no Holocaust. Without storytelling, the Holocaust would disappear, like last year's snow.
Stories are not natural products that pop out of our mouths the way that flowers sprout from soil. Humans engineer stories. We select this fact, and not that one. We highlight this event, and not the other. We do this in response to our audience's ability to hear what we have to say, and to achieve our own goal. The story of the Holocaust has changed over time, from teller to teller. In the immediate post-war era, as the 2001 radio show "This American Life" episode, "Before It Had a Name," reported, people were overwhelmed, and even survivors themselves didn't know how to tell their own story. Under the decades of Soviet domination, communists tried to turn Auschwitz into a site of class struggle, rather than, primarily, Jewish martyrdom. James Carroll's much lauded 2001 book, "Constantine's Sword," played games with the number of Polish non-Jews who were imprisoned and died at Auschwitz, thus rewriting the camp's history and significance to Poles and Jews. It is essential in understanding the Holocaust that we understand storytelling, too.
"The TV miniseries 'The Holocaust' had more impact in Germany than the original event." Film historian Michael Berenbaum's joke is an exaggeration. The kernel of truth at its heart is this: a Hollywood production forced Germans to confront the Holocaust in a way that many had not confronted the original event. Again and again the commentators in the 2004 documentary "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust" attest to the power of storytelling through film to affect audience understanding of a world-historical event. As the documentary reports: "This most horrific chapter in modern world history happened far from America's shores. It has been American movies, perhaps more than any other medium, that have shaped how we understand and remember these events."
"Imaginary Witness" is an excellent introduction into understanding how the Holocaust story is told. The original music, by Andrew Barrett, creates a mood of intellectual inquiry, but also of the ache of a deep, unhealed wound. The scripted narration is beautifully, powerfully written – something one can't say about most documentaries, where words play second fiddle to images. Gene Hackman's narration hits the proper note of authority, respect and compassion. At several points in the documentary, I had to pause the frame because the film clip I had just watched was so overwhelmingly moving. This is especially true of the scenes selected from two different films, shown in two different media, and made in two different eras. "War and Remembrance" is a 1988 TV miniseries made five decades after the start of World War Two. It depicts naked victims falling to Nazi bullets and Zyklon B. "The Mortal Storm" was a very polite and reticent Jimmy Stewart movie made in 1940, under Hollywood's strict Production Code, while the Holocaust was happening. It is a film so careful the word "Jew" is never used. Even so, a "Mortal Storm" scene of Jimmy Stewart responding uncomfortably to a Nazi song sung in a restaurant gave me chills and will remain in my memory for a long time.
As published reviews show, one of the most shocking segments of "Imaginary Witness" reports on the passivity of Hollywood moguls in response to the rise of Nazism. The moguls themselves, including Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, The Warner Brothers, and Carl Laemmle, were largely Central and Eastern European Jews. Reviewer Nancy deWolf Smith wrote in the April 1, 2005 Wall Street Journal, "Perhaps nothing, including powerful movies, could have generated the force necessary to get rid of Hitler in time to save his victims. What's sickening to contemplate is that Hollywood, and by extension society at large, didn't even try."
"Imaginary Witness" reports that "From the moment Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Hollywood treated Nazism with kid gloves… Even the newsreels, produced and distributed by the major studios, ignored the implicit threat in Nazi propaganda, often recycling it uncritically for the American audience." A newsreel treated a Nazi book burning as if it were a high-spirited teen prank: "It's a big night for the younger Hitler set," the newsreel narrator reports.
Hollywood, like the rest of America, was slow to wake up to even the most detailed, first-hand accounts of the Final Solution. As "Imaginary Witness" puts it: "Hollywood's vision of Germany was marked by an innocence that was in stark contrast to a growing body of information about the war." Director Vincent Sherman said, "We heard about concentration camps. And we thought, as the Germans said, that they were just a place that kept people. Nothing was ever mentioned about the ovens. Nothing was mentioned about the horrors that took place in the concentration camp." In a scene from 1942's "To Be or Not to Be," a notorious comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Jack Benny, star Carole Lombard appears in a sleeveless lame evening gown; she plans to wear the dress in a concentration camp. "Hitler's Madmen" included a cheap, titillating scene of a Nazi officer, John Carradine, ogling a lineup of sexy young women. "The Ducktators" was a comedy cartoon.
As powerful as the masters of Hollywood were, they feared retaliation from anti-Semitic Americans if they spoke out, and from Germany, as well. They relied on international audiences for profits. Germany provided ten percent of their overseas market. When Nazi Germany demanded that studios fire Jewish workers in Germany, nearly all the studios complied.
It's clear that Hollywood's early failure to respond in full to the rise of Nazism is worthy of its own documentary dedicated to the topic, rather than the preliminary view "Imaginary Witness" can provide. There is already an excellent documentary on the wider American failure to respond adequately to Hitler's rise: PBS' 1994 "America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference."
"Imaginary Witness" praises Harry Warner, of Warner Brothers, for showing the courage and determination to speak up. In 1939, after the 1938 arrest of Nazi spies in the US, Warner Brothers made "Confessions of a Nazi Spy." The entire production was under wraps. It was code-named "Confessions of Nancy Drew." More than half of the cast requested that their names not appear in the credits. The part of Adolph Hitler was dropped when Warners could not find a single actor willing to play the role. The film came under attack. A propaganda leaflet, published in America, by Americans, identified everyone involved in the film as Jewish. The film was banned in almost every European country.
In 1940, MGM made "The Mortal Storm," the story of a Jewish family during Nazism's rise. The word "Jew" is never used in the film. Rather, the word "non-Aryan" is used. Even under this self-censorship, the clips from "The Mortal Storm" shown in "Imaginary Witness" are disturbing. Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Robert Young are seated at a crowded restaurant when Dan Dailey enters and urges diners to rise and sing a Nazi song. Stewart is hesitant to do so. It's a powerful scene. A representative of the German consulate said that those involved in "The Mortal Storm" would be remembered after a German victory in the war. It was rumored that Goebbels called Louis B Mayer to complain. Germany soon banned the distribution of all MGM films.
The most notable anti-Nazi film made before America entered the war was not produced by a Hollywood studio, or by a Jew. 1940's "The Great Dictator" was produced, directed, financed by and starred Charlie Chaplin. Director Sidney Lumet, who saw the film when it premiered, said that when Chaplin used the word "Jew" "You realized you had almost never heard the word 'Jew' in a movie." "The Great Dictator" was a comedy; its criticism is light-hearted. In a famous scene, Chaplin, imitating Hitler, dances with a globe while fantasizing world domination.
Politicians in Washington were alarmed at what they saw as Hollywood's war-mongering. Joseph Kennedy flew to Hollywood to convene a meeting of the heads of the studios. A paraphrase of Kennedy's message: "I warn you: do not press for American involvement in this conflict. Because this will be seen as your war." That had a very chilling effect on the Jews of Hollywood, film scholar Neal Gabler remarks. Kennedy comes across as the heavy; this viewer wondered what FDR was doing while Hollywood's Jews were being scapegoated.
Even non-Jewish Chaplin's innocuous film inflamed Hollywood's critics. The US senate formed the Nye-Clark Committee to investigate charges that Hollywood was encouraging anti-German bias. The committee cited "The Great Dictator" and "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy in Hollywood to propel the US into war. Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota declared in a nationwide radio address that it was Jews, not Hitler, who posed the greatest threat to America.
My own book, "Bieganski" argues that one use of the Brute Polak stereotype is to exculpate those, including anti-Semitic Americans and American Jews, who could have done more in response to the rise of Nazism, but did not. "Imaginary Witness" supports that argument in several respects. Hitler made his intentions clear. The world did not react as it should have: with unambiguous condemnation and a promise of firm response. The United States did not react as it should have at least partly because many in the US shared the Nazi worldview to some degree; in fact Scientific Racism, a response to immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe to the US, was an American export to Germany. "Imaginary Witness" includes footage of some of the ten thousand German-Americans who joined The Bund, a pro-Nazi group. As the documentary makes clear, anti-Semitism was widespread and socially acceptable. Mississippi Congressman John Rankin publicly used words like "kike." American anti-Semites referred to the "unchristian Jews" who controlled Hollywood.
Viewers can feel compassion for the moguls' plight, while also feeling disappointed that they did not do more. I was reminded of a passage by Romanian-born Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel:
"While Mordecai Anielewicz and his comrades fought their lonely battle in the blazing ghetto under siege … a large New York synagogue invited its members to a banquet featuring a well-known comedian … The factories of Treblinka, Belzec, Maidanek and Auschwitz were operating at top capacity, while on the other side, Jewish social and intellectual life was flourishing, Jewish leaders met, threw up their arms in gestures of helplessness, shed a pious tear or two and went on with their lives: speeches, travels, quarrels, banquets, toasts, honors … If our brothers had shown more compassion, more initiative, more daring … if a million Jews had demonstrated in front of the White house … if Jewish notables had started a hunger strike … who knows, the enemy might have desisted."
The point is not that Hollywood's Jewish moguls could or should have stopped Hitler and rescued six million Jews, not to mention the tens of millions of others who died during World War Two. The point is, rather, that the Holocaust burdens the world with overwhelming pain, guilt, and regret – all of which seek a target – an isolated scapegoat we can blame so that we can carry on feeling good about ourselves. The point is that speakers who resort to the Brute Polak stereotype use two different rhetorical strategies. When Poles are discussed, rhetoric acts as a prosecuting attorney. When Americans and American Jews are discussed in products like "Imaginary Witness," rhetoric becomes a defense attorney.
Scholar Lawrence Baron published a review of "Imaginary Witness" in the May, 2005 issue of "Film and History." In spite of its careful and sympathetic depiction of the moguls, Baron is very tough on "Imaginary Witness." Baron goes to greater extent than the documentary does to defend the moguls and justify their actions. His defenses, and others like them, are sound. "Congress would regulate the film industry," Baron reports, if the moguls had risked speaking out. True enough. Poles who helped Jews risked, not Congressional regulation, but murder of their entire families by Nazis. One might ask why the moguls should even have bothered to speak out. An anti-Semitic America might respond with hostility or indifference. The Polish Underground Home Army sent Jan Karski, at great risk to himself, into a concentration camp and the Warsaw Ghetto and then to Washington to deliver first-hand reports of the Final Solution to Roosevelt. Roosevelt did not respond with stepped-up action to stop the Holocaust. Again, how we tell the Holocaust story matters, including in a documentary dedicated to analyzing how the Holocaust story has been told, and in published responses to it.
On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Washington previously criticized Hollywood for alleged war-mongering. Now Washington demanded that Hollywood make films that would promote war. Even so, only few and minor films focused on Nazi atrocities. A few B movies without big stars or budgets, that were rarely sold overseas, and that fell beneath the censors' notice, offered a more serious look at Nazism. A scene from the 1944 Warners' B film, "None Shall Escape," shows Nazis massacring Jews.
"Imaginary Witness" argues that America knew, early and in detail, about the Holocaust but chose not to act on it directly. It features Holocaust survivor and film producer Branko Lustig stating, "We were sitting in the concentration camp in Auschwitz and American planes were flying over our head. If American planes would put only one bomb on the railway station before Auschwitz the four hundred thousand Jews who came at the last moment from Hungary would not be killed."
Within weeks of the victory in Europe, twelve Hollywood moguls, at the invitation of General Eisenhower, flew to Europe to see for themselves the horror of the camps. "Imaginary Witness" includes footage of their arrival. They are all wearing American military uniforms. The moguls made public declarations of their intentions to incorporate Nazi atrocities into films. Jack Warner said, "No one connected with motion pictures who has seen these things can allow themselves to assume responsibility for a screen which portrays only a make-believe world."
One newsreel opens with words one would not see today: "German Atrocities." Germans have been rehabilitated. Any such film today would not open with the words "German Atrocities," but, rather, "Nazi Atrocities," or, simply, "Atrocities." The Film Daily reported record-breaking audiences for these newsreels. "Imaginary Witness" reports that after this initial saturation viewing, the concentration camp footage was put away, not to be seen again for several years; it would take decades, the documentary claims, before Hollywood would tell the Holocaust story in full. "Maybe," screenwriter Norma Barzman conjectures," "audiences didn't want to be reminded of their own anti-Semitism and racism. Maybe people don't go to movies to feel awful about themselves." Lawrence Baron, in his critical review, questions this, citing some films that made use of concentration camp footage. The films Baron mentions were not major productions.
Mainstream Hollywood's immediate response to the Holocaust included two 1947 films that never mentioned the Nazis or the murder of European Jews: "Crossfire" and "Gentleman's Agreement." Perhaps it was too soon after the war for Hollywood to produce a coherent response. Perhaps the events had not quite sunk in, guesses author Thane Rosenbaum.
"Imaginary Witness" again supports arguments in "Bieganski." Germany was important to America in a way that other countries were not. Neal Gabler states, "There was another factor here. The United States very rapidly wanted to rehabilitate Germany. We wanted to create a democracy there that would be hospitable to American ideas, American values, American goods. The last thing America wanted to do was to make films that would alienate a group of people that America was trying to woo." And, as in the pre-war era when it was important not to criticize the rise of Nazism too overtly, Americans who claimed German descent were the largest subset of the American ethnic mix. Titles like "German Atrocities" were put away, not to be seen again. "Imaginary Witness" does not mention, but should have, "Decision before Dawn," a 1951 Hollywood production that exculpates, not just Germany, but Nazi Germany. Hollywood went overboard to help America bring Germany back into its embrace.
Concentration camp survivors did not speak about their experiences. Robert Clary is familiar to Baby Boomer television audiences; he played LeBeau in the 1960s sitcom, "Hogan's Heroes." Clary was a French-Jewish concentration camp survivor. "I spent thirty-one months in four different camps. I never wanted to talk about it." Branko Lustig says, "A lot of people were ashamed. I never told my story to anybody." This silence was reflected in films. In "The Search" a child survivor won't speak; in "Singing in the Dark" a survivor has amnesia.
The single weirdest clip in "Imaginary Witness" is of an episode of the TV reality show, "This Is Your Life." In this normally chipper, upbeat program, guests are treated to a televised summary of the highlights of their lives. In a May 27, 1953 episode, the guest was Hanna Block Kohner, an extraordinarily beautiful Holocaust survivor. It's squirm-inducing to hear Ralph Edwards, the golden-voiced TV host recount to Hanna, as the camera focuses in tightly on her anguished face, the details of the loss of her family to Zyklon B, and to watch her on-camera reunion with a pal from Auschwitz and her brother from Israel. On the other hand, it is undeniable that this episode forced audiences to confront the reality of the Holocaust.
"Imaginary Witness" touches briefly on the 1947 HUAC hearings on communism in Hollywood. Screenwriter Norma Barzman says that the HUAC hearings were interpreted as a sign of the rise of fascism in the US. This fear, "Imaginary Witness" reports, caused Jews in Hollywood to further shy away from making films with Jewish themes.
In 1959, though, Hollywood made "The Diary of Anne Frank." "They tried to make Anne Frank more universal and less Jewish so that it would be more appealing to an American audience," reports film scholar Michael Berenbaum. Director George Stevens had been in the Army Signal Corps. He filmed in Dachau. He certainly felt a call to make films that would honor what he'd witnessed. Stevens also cited this call when making his 1965 all-star Biblical epic, "The Greatest Story Ever Told." "The Diary of Anne Frank," Stevens assured audiences, would be "devoid of Nazi horrors." It includes Frank's famous line, "I still believe in spite of everything that people are really good at heart," but it does not include scenes of Anne's death in Bergen-Belsen.
On April 16, 1959, television's Playhouse 90 aired Abby Mann's "Judgment at Nuremberg" dramatizing the American trial of Nazi war criminals. Mann himself identifies the antagonist of his play, not as Nazism, but as "patriotism." The documentary does not mention this, but Mann was one of many who would use the Nazis, the ultimate evil, as metaphor to attack another target – in his case, patriotism. A more recent example of this unfortunate trend would be singer Hank Williams Jr., who, in October, 2011, in a televised interview, compared Barack Obama to Hitler. Williams then lost his job on the television program, Monday Night Football, and his song, "Are You Ready for some Football," was dropped from the program as well. Polemicists have used Nazism to criticize Western Civilization, Christianity, Poland, Feminism, environmentalism, abortion, stem cell research – almost everything except Nazi Germany itself. This exploitation of Nazism to criticize one's chosen target is so ubiquitous it is satirized in Godwin's Law. Film scholar Michael Berenbaum expresses the appeal of Nazism, "It's absolute evil. Part of its attraction to filmmakers and to audiences is that you are touching the absolute."
In the 1959 television broadcast of "Judgment at Nuremberg," the extraordinarily handsome German actor, Maximilian Schell, asks questions that help to remove guilt from Germany and locate it in the entire world that watched Hitler's rise without doing enough to stop it. "What about the rest of the world, your honor?" Schell asks, rhetorically. "Did it not know the intentions of the Third Reich? Did it not read his intentions in Mein Kampf? Published in every corner of the world?"
Playhouse 90's sponsor was the American Gas Company and the Magic Chef gas range whose slogan was, "Americans are cooking with gas." In a very dramatic scene, Claude Reins is shown obviously mouthing the words "gas chambers" but the sound is deleted.
In 1961, "Judgment at Nuremberg" was made into a feature film, and concentration camp footage was shown within the movie. That same year Adolf Eichmann's trial was broadcast on TV. Interestingly, clips are shown in which Jewish, Israeli victims of the European Holocaust are shown testifying in English. This may reflect a conscious desire to reach the widest audience possible.
Two Holocaust-related films were released in 1965 "The Pawnbroker" and "Ship of Fools." Though "Imaginary Witness" does not bring this up, the clips shown from both could be interpreted as, almost certainly inadvertently, blaming the victim. In "The Pawnbroker," an old man castigates Rod Steiger, playing a Holocaust survivor and pawnbroker: "You breathe; you eat; you walk; you take a dream and give a dollar. What survival? No passion. No pity. The walking dead." Like Abby Mann, "The Pawnbroker" uses Nazism to attack its own chosen target, poor living conditions for African Americans in Harlem. In "Ship of Fools" a friend warns a wealthy German Jew about the rise of Hitler. His chuckling reply, "The German Jew is something special. We are Germans first and Jews second. We have done so much for Germany. Germany has done so much for us. A little patience. A little good will. It works itself out. Listen, there are nearly a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do? Kill all of us?" The viewer might be tempted to blame this naïve German Jew for his own fate. Again, the Holocaust story is so horrific that those who hear it or tell it are constantly looking, consciously or
unconsciously, for a scapegoat to carry the horror in order that the hearer may be redeemed.
A handful of Holocaust-related films from the late sixties and early seventies are mentioned: "The Producers," a comedy, "Harold and Maude," "which," as "Imaginary Witness" comments, "uses brief holocaust imagery to imply a back story that need not be embellished," and "Cabaret" which used the Holocaust to serve as a metaphor for something else, according to the documentary. Baron strongly criticized that last point, arguing that "Cabaret" is no metaphorical treatment of Vietnam, but a worthy depiction of the rise of Nazism, especially in its undeniably excellent beer garden scene.
The 1977 television broadcast of "Roots" was the catalyst for a turning point in film depictions of the Holocaust. "Roots" was very ethnic, and it treated unpleasant subjects, and it scored very high ratings. The week it aired, producers gave the television miniseries "The Holocaust" the green light.
Broadcast over four consecutive nights in 1978, the miniseries tells the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of the assimilated German Jewish Weiss family. They were meant to personify something that was very much part of the American experience: people who came from somewhere else and became assimilated into the culture. Berenbaum says that they were "One family that seemed to have been everywhere and done everything. That's the magic of Hollywood, not the abstract, the concrete." Ratings were high. In NYC, during commercial breaks, the water pressure went down.
In the New York Times, Elie Wiesel published "Trivializing of the Holocaust." Wiesel calls the miniseries "morally objectionable" and "indecent." Thane Rosenbaum says, "The idea that we can recreate the event with props and set pieces and makeup is in many ways a desecration… We dominate world culture. We have to be careful of Holocaust films because they can be diluting or trivializing or distorting or simply false." Neal Gabler says, "Almost everyone had operated under the assumption that just dealing with the Holocaust is good. You are bearing witness. Wiesel says that any representation trivializes the event. This is something that is beyond any kind of traditional narrative form. What you are getting is a war between narrative on one hand and history on the other." A poster at the International Movie Database offered an interesting take on the question of whether it is morally objectionable or trivializing to dramatize the Holocaust on film. What about the destruction of the Native Americans, so often, and so inaccurately, depicted in Western films, he asks. His point, of course, is that a double standard is applied by some critics: other people's atrocities and genocides are okay to put on film, even in a grievously distorted fashion, but, for some critics, the Holocaust is not.
Theorists might debate the propriety of the depiction, but it is undeniable that "The Holocaust" miniseries had impacts that many might assess as positive. Scholar Sharon Rivo says that, "I watched teenagers watch that program, and it had an enormous effect upon them." In Germany, Chancellor Helmudt Schmidt watched it. As a direct result of the miniseries, the German legislature extended the statute of limitations on Nazi war criminals. The United States Holocaust Memorial Commission was set up. Survivors now began to tell their stories on film. A clip is shown from "Kitty: Return to Auschwitz." Robert Clary reports that he began to speak publicly. "Imaginary Witness" implies that a television miniseries, attacked by purists for desecrating the Holocaust, actually helped to make possible the telling – and the hearing – of the Holocaust story, more than a generation after it ended.
The Holocaust film to which all others are compared, of course, is Steven Spielberg's 1993, multiple Academy-Award-winning "Schindler's List." "Imaginary Witness" does not probe deeply into that film's central irony: the most significant Holocaust film to date stars a non-Jew, Liam Neeson, playing a handsome, heroic and sympathetic German Nazi Party member. As many previous commentators have pointed out, it had to be that way. It didn't have to be that way for reasons of representational truth. Your average Nazi party member was not Oskar Schindler. Your average rescuer of Jews was not Oskar Schindler. Yad Vashem records more Poles as rescuers of Jews than members of any other nation. But the most significant Holocaust film to date would not be about a Polish peasant who rescued Jews. Polish peasants are poor, dirty, relatively disempowered laborers, and few would want to look at them onscreen for a couple of hours. It would not focus on Raoul Wallenberg. Schindler was a German Nazi; Wallenberg was a Swedish Christian. Schindler went to Nazi-occupied Poland to make money and to party; Wallenberg volunteered to go to Nazi-occupied Budapest to rescue Jews. He knew he was risking death by doing so. Schindler saved over a thousand Jews; Wallenberg saved magnitudes more. Schindler was alive at the end of World War Two. He won. Wallenberg, whose exact fate remains unknown, probably died horribly in Soviet captivity. Few would go to see that movie, the one that ends with the obscure, tragic murder – at the hands of America's Soviet allies – of a noble hero.
Audiences would not choose to identify with typical Jewish Holocaust victims, who had been, because of no crime of their own, unjustly targeted, terrorized, humiliated, tortured, and mass murdered. Few people would ever purchase a ticket to that movie, a movie that ended as the Holocaust ended for its typical victim: with unredeemed, diabolical mass murders committed by fully empowered perpetrators, all too many of whom managed to escape any justice. A film that attempted to depict some of those horrors, Tim Blake Nelson's 2001 "The Grey Zone," has been little seen or honored.
No. "Schindler's List" was not made for reasons of representational truth. "Schindler's List" was made in obedience to the demands of narrative. Audiences want to look at tall, powerful, handsome, well-dressed characters. Audiences want to look at men who charm and seduce women and enjoy life's blessings. Audiences want stories to end in triumph. The handsome, well-dressed, powerful people, the men enjoying parties and girls and champagne, in Nazi-occupied, Holocaust-era Poland were all on the very wrong side, and so to give audiences what they want, a Nazi party member had to be the protagonist of the most significant Holocaust film yet made. The most successful Hollywood director in history is a slave to narrative rules, no less than the rest of us who attempt, in our own fumbling ways, to tell our own stories to our own small audiences. Again, that is why you can't understand the Holocaust story unless you understand story itself, its demands, gifts, and limitations.
And, of course, in "Schindler's List," Nazis are not the sole antagonists. There are other bad guys: vicious women who haul off and fling large fistfuls of mud at helpless Jews being driven out by Nazis, moppets who wait beside trains going to death camps in order to make slicing movements across their little throats and to terrorize Jews further, and elegantly dressed women who mince about Krakow's thoroughfares unimpeded, not realizing that the ash falling on their furs is from cremated Jewish bodies. All of these clips from "Schindler's List" are shown in "Imaginary Witness." In these clips from the most significant Holocaust film ever made, the antagonists are all Poles. Are these typical Poles? Is Hollywood telling the Holocaust story accurately here? My own book, "Bieganski," argues that it is not – and that it is not doing so for narrative reasons.
I was in Krakow this summer; indeed, I was in Oskar Schindler's former factory in Krakow, now a museum. I spent several hours in the "Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945" exhibit. The museum does record the anti-Semitism expressed by a poisonous and deadly minority of Poles. Unlike "Schindler's List," that is hardly the only Polish story the museum tells.
In fact the Nazis had genocidal designs on Poles – and this complicates the Holocaust story. Their designs were made clear in the opening days of the occupation of Krakow, when Jagiellonian University professors were sent to concentration camps. Some argue that Polish culture is fundamentally anti-Semitic. A casual viewer could certainly gather that from "Schindler's List." That the Nazis themselves did not assess Polish culture so is evident from their actions in Krakow. There they destroyed landmarks of Polish culture. The Nazis destroyed Krakow's monument to Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's national poet. Mickiewicz is said to have been of partially Jewish ancestry. He was a proud son of a multicultural Poland, celebrating both Lithuania and Poland, and he celebrated Jews' contributions to Poland in numerous ways, including his depiction of Jankiel, a key character in the national epic poem. The Nazis destroyed Krakow's monument to the Battle of Grunwald, the largest battle in medieval Europe, in which pagan Lithuanians and Catholic Poles defeated genocidal Teutonic Knights who practiced conversion by the sword. The Nazis planned to destroy Krakow's monuments to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who approached Poland's Jews with respect, and Josef Pilsudski, who was much loved by Jews for his dedication to a multicultural Poland. None of this Nazi cultural genocide in Krakow, of course, in mentioned in "Schindler's List" or any other Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust, though Polish anti-Semitism is now a frequent theme in Hollywood and TV productions.
"Cabaret" includes an unforgettable scene. This scene tells the viewer all he needs to know about the benefits, and failings, of tight focus. A beautiful, young, blond boy is shown in tight focus. You certainly see every detail of his face. He is singing a song. The song is rousing and uplifting. The camera pulls back. You see the boy's clothes: a Nazi uniform. You hear more of the song's lyrics. The scene becomes terrifying.
"Imaginary Witness" maintains a tight focus. It focuses on Jewish victims. That is a good thing. We need to know that story. But it never pulls back. It never mentions that the first and last group the Nazis mass murdered were handicapped people. It never mentions that the first to die from Zyklon B were Soviet POWs. It never mentions the Nazis' plans re: Poles or Poland. This tight focus itself distorts history. A mere mention of Hitler's other victims would have been enough to provide context, both in this documentary and in films like "Schindler's List."
In "Bieganski" I quote two memoirists and children of survivors: Julie Salomon and Anne Karpf. Salamon pointed out that Steven Spielberg, maker of Schindler's List, has never made a film about American anti-Semitism. Indeed, Spielberg, a Hollywood mogul himself, has never made a film about Hollywood moguls who dropped the ball before and during World War Two. Karpf pointed out that Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, though himself "A French Jew, remained silent on the wartime fate of Jews from France: though one of the film's dominant languages is French, Lanzmann nowhere brings in French witnesses to talk about the events on his doorstep." There are reasons these two powerful filmmakers made these choices. Narrative reasons. "Imaginary Witness" is an excellent primer addressing the narrative pressures faced by the world's most powerful storytellers in telling one of the world's most important stories.
Danusha Goska teaches at William Paterson University. Her book Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture (Academic Studies Press, 2010) is available from Amazon. She blogs about anti-Polish stereotypes at Bieganski the Blog.