Kinematographie des Holocaust I
PD Dr. Marcus Stiglegger (Mainz)

Cinema as Historical Archive?
Representing the Holocaust on film

Presented at the IPP conference 2006, University of Mainz (GER)

To reflect on historical, social and political events could be considered the 'duty' of the audiovisual media, in particular narrative television and cinema. The great success and the influence of programmes and films such as HOLOCAUST and SCHINDLER'S LIST on public opinion about historical events prove that the worldwide audience is more open for fictionalized history
than for more challenging documentary work, like Claude Lanzmann's SHOAH. This poses the question: Has cinema finally reached the status of an historical archive for some audiences. If this is the fact it would be the goal of film studies to analyse the specific value of such representations, especially in the case of a significant phenomenon, like the according to Lanzmann 'un-filmable' Holocaust. The findings of such an analysis may well be trivialization and not representation of history. In my article I will
attempt to break down the history of holocaust cinema into several phases and take a closer look at recent films like THE GREY ZONE (2002) that effectively challenges many of the rules set by former 'Holocaust-cinema' - and offers a new perspective on a topic that usually only regenerates established images.


Significantly it was by no means the historians, who made the decisive contribution to the long term establishment of the problematic term ‘holocaust’ – and the crimes connected therewith – in both the European and the north American collective consciousness and memory. They may have critically researched sources, documented their findings, published textbooks and produced documentaries on and around the topic, but when compared with the effect by one television melodrama, a family saga, staged in the midst of vicious of Nazi-war-crimes, suddenly their efforts seem to have little value other than that of confirming the historical accuracy of the scenes of persecution and extermination of ‘imaginary’ figures. The four part television show Holocaust, whose transmission in 1978 was followed by around 100 million viewers in the U.S.A , was seen in West-Germany one year later by an audience of 16 million . From a media-historic perspective, the television event Holocaust can be described as a decisive point in the social roll of television as a medium of mass communication. Knut Hickethier comments on the effects the series had on the formatting of public television as follows:
“The defining television event at the end of the 70’s was the transmission of the American series “Holocaust” (1979), which showed the murder of European Jews by the Germans. In setting its focus not on social criticism and resolving the past but rather on fictionalisation and entertainment this film marks a turning point (...) The success was considerable, and uncontested. The series was accused of emotionalising, trivialising, and falsifying history”.
In Germany, Holocaust made a lasting, one could almost say the first, deep impression, especially on the sons and daughters of the perpetrators. The fact that this impression can be traced back to the transmission of a commercial television mini-series, which intentionally slipped under the customary ductus of distanced impartiality, has to be seen as an important indication of a strong change in the social and medial handling of history in general and the history of the genocide of the third Reich in particular. From then on the mass-extermination practiced under the Nazi regime had a name, which everyone knew. At the same time the expression of sober documentation of the complex topic was unavoidable in order to further develop the staging of scenes in successful socio-dramas.
The lasting effect of this phenomenon can still be seen today, especially in the many ‘made-for-the-box office’ cinema films of the 1980’s, which attempted to cash in on the success of Holocaust. Parallel to the change in the televisual handling of this sensitive topic it is also possible to trace a general change in attitude towards the subject: Cinema: Films were produced purely on the basis of the commercial and aesthetic considerations of the entertainment industry (dramaturgy, imagery, casting in conjunction with Hollywood’s star system). The fact that among these, there were also productions, which, by means of a complex narrative and the more considered use of forms of expression, left television far behind them, can be seen in films such as Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982). However these more demanding films also fuelled the debate, which today still questions the legitimacy of ‘artistic’ processing of the Nazi genocide. According to Matías Martínez, art cannot possibly ignore the largest crime of the twentieth century, yet at the same time such art is essentially impossible, “(...) because in the opinion of many, the holocaust, defies aesthetic portrayal, in a special, perhaps even unique, way”. In this respect Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) marks a turning point. As in its case, the questionable symbioses between commercial and the ethical production is widely acknowledged, by both the public and critics, to have been a success. ”Unlike Marvin Chomskys and Gerald Greens Holocaust the Hollywood film seemed, in the opinion of the critics, to have resolved the conflict between popular reception, aesthetic content, and appropriate thematic” . Schindler’s list can also be seen as a turning point in another respect. If one looks at the film as a social phenomenon (which it unquestionably was and is), various modes of interpretation present themselves, two of which will be referred to here.
Firstly, one can speculate that in the film Schindler’s List a trend, which started in the 70’s with the mini-series Holocaust, came to a provisional end in the 90’s: Little by little a culture of remembrance, which attempted to find access to the events and environment of Nazi terror by way of fictional film and always searched anew to defining methods of staging, established itself next to that of the immediate witnesses of the concentration camp terror, the victims and the perpetrators. However, because the witnesses are now increasingly withdrawing from public life, both new and old films need to be critically analysed regarding intention and principle.
Secondly the arrival of Schindler’s List made clear the importance of film as an archive, whose influence on the formation identity in present day culture is ever growing.
If we accept that film, as an archive, exists as a threshold between the cultural and communicative/collective consciousness, only by way of the critical reflection of the viewer and discourse about old and new films, then this paper can be understood as a proposal for the critical handling of the film as cultural archive.
The representation of Nazi genocide in the form of feature films is a subject which has already been widely discussed and documented. As one can imagine, the filmic representation of events under the Nazi occupation developed sluggishly at first, then feeling its way, underwent several ‘experimental’ phases, until by the end of the 1970’s it had developed into a form of filmic mediation which could be compared to ‘Auschwitz literature’, in which a unique iconography of genocide and the concentration camp developed. This process of development ended, in effect, with the television series “Holocaust”, even here it is necessary to look from the cinema to the television in order to be able to take all relevant intermediate interaction into account. This instructive overview covers all films after 1945 which explicitly handle the events of the holocaust, not films which merely busy themselves with the Nazi regime (or came in to being earlier than 1945).

The Post-War Years: 1945-1960

Film theorist Béla Baláz remarked in a review, which was only made accessible after his death, that the polish film Ostatni etap (1947) by Wanda Jakubowska had founded its own genre, and in so doing he almost prophetically lent the ‘holocaust film’ an emblematic character similar to that of ‘Auschwitz literature’. Jakubowska’s film reconstructs the fate of a group of female prisoners, she utilises both professional and lay actors, survivors from Auschwitz, who return to the camps barracks two years after the end of the war. Numerous standard situations in filmic Holocaust representation are to be seen in the film: the roll-call, informing on ones fellows, torture, and in particular the nightly arrival of the prison trains, to swirling flakes of snow or ash and sludgy muddy ground... Alain Resnais quoted this scene in Nuit et Bruillard, George Stevens integrated it completely into a nightmare sequence in The Diary of Anne Frank, and lastly, Steven Spielberg reconstructs the scene authentically in Schindler’s List. In his essay ‘Fiction and Nemesis’ Loewy stresses that this film, which reconstructed these events directly after the historic horror of their passing, is regarded as an historical document (Fröhlich et al 2003, S.37).
Shortly after the end of the war a German Jewish producer Arthur Brauner and his CCC-production company produced a film about the Holocaust: Morituri (1948) by Eugine York. In a sober documentary style the film tells the story of a group of fleeing concentration camp prisoners and Jewish and polish families who are hidden in a wood awaiting the arrival of soviet troops. Parts of the film have an affinity with the novel ‘Das Siebte Kreuz’ (The Seventh Cross) by the Mainzer author Anna Seghers, which also tells the story of the flight of seven prisoners, who are hunted mercilessly by the camp commandant. The commandant has constructed seven crosses, of which only the seventh remains empty, as one of the prisoners is successful in his escape thanks to the charity of a handful of villagers. Fred Zinnemann had already directed the un-pathetic feature film The Seventh Cross in 1944, with Spencer Tracy in the lead, the film was however first shown on German television in 1972.
With regard to the concentration camp system, one of the most important filmic documents of the 1950’s is not a feature film but rather an essay film. In Nuit et Bruillard/Night and Fog (1953) Alain Resnais cuts material which he himself produced together with scenes of the liberation of the death camps, in which masses of dead were found and filmed by allied troops. In his very subjective, poetic film Resnais established a technique which is also of importance for later holocaust-film: ‘meaningful montage’, which reflects on the connections between history and memory, between past and present. In this respect the influence of this widely screened non-fiction film upon later fictional cinema films is not to be underestimated.

Orientation: The 1960’s

One of the most drastic and effective stories of a prisoners fate is the Italian film Kapo (1960) by Gillo Pontecorvo: Susan Strasberg plays a young Jew, who ‘rises’ to the rank of warden or ‘Kapo’ in the camp system and from this position torments her fellow prisoners. The film portrays the woman’s moral dilemma in uncompromising images. Kapo shows the painful dehumanisation of the prisoners so vividly in order to make the point that survival in an extreme situation is often contingent on the suffering of our fellows. Sadly, because the director died in an accident while still filming, only fragments of Andrzej Munks Pasazerka/the passenger (1961/1963) remain: On a cruise a former Kapo-woman recognises one of the passengers as being a former prisoner. The film was presented in the cinemas as a mixture of film sequences and photographs. A tragic monument, from which one gets the impression that this was the most ambitious attempt to handle this theme up to now – by means of a complex montage this film was to interweave past and present.
In 1963 in the DEFA studios Frank Beyer filmed Nackt unter Wölfen. Based on the novel by Bruno Apitz the film handles an episode of uprising in the Buchenwald concentration camp in which political prisoners successfully manage to hide a child. Beyer’s film places the roll of the political prisoner in the forefront, especially in the uprising and in so doing cultivates a so called ‘socialist realism’. According to East German critics in stead of ‘martyrdom’ he presents the story of a successful uprising against tyranny. West German critics however, reacted more sceptically, remarking on the one sidedness of the action and the one dimensional virtuousness of the resisting prisoners. It is clear that in this case one can not speak of a realistic representation of events.
Sydney Lumets dark New York city drama The Pawnbroker (1965) tells the story of the Jewish pawnbroker Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), who is haunted by his memories of the concentration camp, which mix themselves with his present (a gang war). Lumet’s film was, aside from the passenger, the first holocaust film to mixes the past and present by way of ‘meaningful montage’ (Anette Insdorf), a dramaturgic technique which was often used in later productions to add an air of authenticity. One can find a similarly structured use of flashbacks in Karl Fruchtmanns television film Kaddisch nach mein Lebenden (1969): the plot centres on the trauma suffered by the protagonist, who was tortured by a fellow prisoner. The man, who later lives in Israel, becomes analogous with the viewer, an affected witness plagued by memories of past injustice. The director also dedicated later works to the discussion of the destructive effects of an ideology on the individual.

Scandal and Experiments: The 1970’s

The 70’s were, an extremely productive decade for many nation’s cinemas,: the seed of former revolutionary years began to grow and brought forth astounding film productions in America (New Hollywood), Germany (New German Film) and in Japan (New Wave). With this new progressive tendency and the simultaneous relaxing of censorship came an enormous wave of exploitation films, which began to push the boundaries of the portrayable in the direction of sensationalist entertainment. This exploitative trend did not even shy away from the holocaust theme: with the Canadian productions Love Camp 7 and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974) the pornographers Robert Lee Frost and Don Edmonds brought the so called Sadiconazista-films to the cinema. Italian cinema also experimented with the connections between sexuality, politics and history, albeit on a higher level. In her psychodrama Il portiere di notte/The Night Porter (1973) the former documentary filmmaker Liliana Cavani further develops some realisations from her previous series on the third Reich, and tells the story of the fatal re-meeting of an SS man (Dirk Bogard) and his former fantasy victim (Charlott Rampling). As the couple re-start the destructive relationship under now different circumstances, they land on the execution list of a group of SS veterans, who wish to remove all witnesses to un-pleasantries, in order to erase the past and, in so doing, their own guilt. Cavanis film is both the representation of the continuing Nazi mentality following the war and (arguably) an attempt at a psycho-sexual adaptation of the concentration camp system Although Paolo Pasolini’s modernised Marquis-de-Sade adaptation Salò/120 Days of Sodom (1975) is rather a film about the fascist Italy of the present day, in this apocalyptic scenario Paolo Pasolini has constructed an oppressive microcosm of the concentration camp system, which was only really understood when the film was recently re-shown in cinemas. Here the mechanisms of power and production have liberated themselves and are running amok in the collapsing fascist republic of Salò. The scandalous success of these three films also inspired the production of a series of concentration camp sex-films in Italy.
A rare satirical production, the East German comedy Jakob der Lügner/Jakob the Liar (1974) by Frank Beyer appeared in the mid-seventies. It tells the story of a Jewish man (Vlastimil Brodsky) who creates and spreads rumours about the advances of the Red Army, in the Warsaw ghetto, thus strengthening the hopes of the ghetto inhabitants. The criticism against the film was directed towards the ambivalent effect of Jacobs lies, which were thought to placate the ghetto inhabitants with a feeling of security and therefore cripple their spirit of resistance (Anette Insdorf).
One of the most consequential feature film portraits of a perpetrator is Götz Georges presentation of the Auschwitz Commandant Rudlof Höss (here: Friz Lang) in Theodor Kotullas Aus einem Deutschen Leben (1977). The film shows key episodes from Höss’s biography, his journey from being a Freikorpsman to the SA and SS and up to the war crimes tribunal, which sentenced him to death. With a distanced and minimalist coldness we are shown the inhuman rationality with which he organised the gassings in Auschwitz. Here the representation concentrates on the perpetrator and shows the unimaginable horror from a distance. Breaks are found in single moments, such as when Himmler’s eyes meet those of a prisoner and then look nervously away.

An iconography of it own: The 80’s

The most important impetus for intensive media discussion of the holocaust thematic was the four part American television series Holocaust (1978) – a term which was used to describe the Nazi genocide against the Jews in particular, and later became synonym for this genocide. Marvin Chomsky’s epic series follows the fortunes of two families in the third Reich both on different sides of the genocide: the Jewish family Weiss and the German family Dorf. Where as one family has to flee, and is deported, Eric Dorf (Michael Moriarty) joins the SS and becomes implicated in organising the holocaust. The series was criticised for its melodramatic and oversimplified structure, which clearly followed the successful family epic Roots, which told the story of the enslavement of Africans in the southern states of the USA. Regardless of its trivial aspects the series Holocaust made a massive impact, comparable only to that of Spielbergs Schindlers List, and must therefore be recognised as a milestone in holocaust dramatisation.
The block buster Sophie’s Choice (1982) by Alan J.Pakula is another film which makes use of the concept of ‘meaningful montage’. A melodrama about the polish catholic Sophie (Meryl Streep) who survived a concentration camp because she attracted the attention of an SS officer, who then posed her the question, which destroyed her life: he asked to choose which of her children should be spared death. The film tells of this harrowing event by way of long flashbacks from the midst of its melodrama structure. As in Il portiere di notte the victim is not of Jewish origin, Sophie is even able to secure herself a special position by stressing her Christian heritage. Palukas film reconstructs the scenes of the concentration camp in faded, monochrome images, a style which, can be seen as an own iconography and was later adopted by other productions, occurring sometimes as ‘an empty quotation devoid of meaning ’(Matthias N. Lorenz) e.g. recently in Brian Singer’s X-Men (2000).
With an elaborate and in places naive naturalism the Arthur Brauner production of Europa, Europa from Agnieska Holland focuses on the story of a Jewish boy’s spectacular escape, he first find sanctuary with the communists, then with the Nazis and finally he is educated in a Napola (national political educational institution), until it is dismantled at the end of the war. Unlike Volker Schlöndorffs pathetically simplified Michel Tournier adaptation Der Unhold / The Ogre (1998), Holland’s film is, alone by means of its fable/story, able to distance itself from the dark fascination of the re-staged Nazi spectacle.

After Schindler’s List: The 1990s

In the early 1990’s all filmic work on and around the holocaust stood in the shadow of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994). Liam Neeson plays the industrialist Oscar Schinlder, who saves the lives of several hundred prisoners in Poland, by giving them work in his factories. Spielberg shows the relationship between the socialite Schindler and the concentration camp commandant Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) as an ambivalent almost dialectic relationship. In an interview the director describes Göth as being “the shadow which Schindler cast”. The film makes use of elaborate historical reconstructions of ghetto and camp life, but never the less concentrates the events of the film on a few key figures, which brings its melodramatic structures to the fore front. The use of typical Hollywood ‘thrill’ scenarios (such as the ‘selection’ or the march to the shower room) were widely criticised, that said, few other films have managed to awake such broad public interest for this historical event. Another ground for controversy was that the ‘Shoa’ foundation, which was financed from the films profits, was also responsible for the collection of eyewitness accounts world wide.
Four films of the nineties dealt wit the Holocaust thematic in a comical way: La vita bella / Life is beautiful (1998) by Roberto Benigni can be partly taken as a remake of Jakob der Lügner, which was also re-made by the American director Peter Kassovitz as Jakob the Liar (1999) with Robin Williams in the title roll. In Michael Verhoeven’s Mutters Courage (1995) we are told, by means of brechtian meta-reflection, the tragic-comic story of the mother of poet Georg Tabori, who himself appears as narrator. The mother survived the Jewish deportations by managing to win the favour of an SS man. In Train de vie (1998) by Radu Mihaileanus the prisoners apparently deport themselves in order to escape persecution. However in the end the whole story is revealed to have been no more than a camp prisoners fantasy. Due to its bitter end this film can be seen as the darkest of the ‘holocaust comedies’.

The present day

Following Schindlers List only one ambitious feature film has succeeded in creating a convincing Warsaw ghetto drama: The Pianist (2002) by Roman Polanski tells of the historic events surrounding the suffering, fighting and death in the ;forbidden zone’, from the extremely personal point of view of the Jewish pianist Szpilman (Adrain Brody). In this mature work Polanski creates a mostly un-pathetic reconstruction of this human drama, which does not shy away from the protagonist’s physical deterioration. At around the same time Tim Blake Nelsons film Grey Zone (2002) using the typical New York actor troupe (Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi) recreates the story of the Jewish ‘Sonderkommandos’ in Auschwitz. For the first time in a Hollywood-production Nelson creates images according to eye-witness-account that no film before dared to present: the privileges of the Sonderkommandos, they dinner meals with red wine, people having a break on stairs outside the crematory, the green lawn around the crematory being watered artificially. These images – although historically correct – seem cynical, artificial, metaphoric. But yet this film may be closer to the fact than Schindler’s List. For the average viewer Spielberg’s film seems more accurate simply because his sharp edged black and white images are congruent to the image-archive the film- and media-industry has reproduced so far. Images of images seem more historical than accurate reconstruction. Being the opposite of The Grey Zone, another film falls in every trap on the way: Jeff Kanews Babij Jar (2002) should have been the glorious finale of Arthur Brauners work on the holocaust, however through its simple structures and stereotypical staging the film hardly even portrays this unimaginable massacre, in which over 30,000 people were killed in two days. “To show, how it was“ does not mean mixing the documentary with the fictive – as this film does -, neither does it mean recreating an historical event by means of media influenced images. To really be able to create an impression of the ‘horror’ still requires artistic vision, a gift, pars pro toto, to find sounds and images for an event, which one hardly dares to imagine. Film history contains such portrayals, of such events, but they are rare and must be attempted and re-attempted. For that reason the chapter on the artistic portrayal of ‘an imagined place of horror and suffering’, is a long way from being at an end.

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Remark: Some of this article is based on the book

A. Jackob & M. Stiglegger (Hrsg.)

Zur neuen Kinematographie des Holocaust
Das Kino als Archiv und Zeuge? (Augenblick Band 36)


Schüren Verlag: Marburg 2004, 7,90 Euro

Thanks to David Bucknell for translating most of the text.