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
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
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
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
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
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
Schüren Verlag: Marburg 2004, 7,90 Euro
Thanks to David Bucknell for translating most of the text.