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Culture, Literature, Art, Film

Be the Light in the Darkness

Remembering the Holocaust through film

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas © Miramax Films

Film has proved to be a powerful medium when it comes to insight and influence. For the Holocaust, film acts as a beacon, an unbridled archival reminder of the atrocities, and gives a platform for the survivors to tell their stories so generations never forget the evil committed.

I can remember the first time I had a mere glimpse into the extent of the atrocities. It must have been 1995, I was in the throes of the history class curriculum – which happened to be on WWII and the Holocaust. My history teacher was getting frustrated at the lack of perceived interest in the subject matter from his students. This was before the internet was as accessible as it is now, and school trips were far and few between, meaning classroom theory needed to be engaging. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, our teacher produced a copy of Schindler’s List – to say it left the class in stunned silence is an understatement.

Schindler’s List © Universal Pictures

Schindler’s List was a significant chapter in my love of film, and my first experience of the Holocaust on screen. Released in 1993, it proved to be a very personal project for Steven Spielberg in an otherwise family-friendly cannon to which I was more accustomed. Despite Hollywood backing and its tendency to sugarcoat, Schindler’s List is a relatively unflinching look at the some of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during WWII and is arguably Spielberg’s masterwork. The director went on record to insist that Schindler’s List be shown in every school (a school edition was released in 1995) and the profits made from the film helped him to set up the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education – with its initial aim to record testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust as a collection of videotaped interviews.

Night Train to Munich © 20th Century Fox

Schindler’s List was almost certainly the film that brought the Holocaust story to the masses through a major studio, but 1940’s Night Train to Munich was the first ever feature film to depict concentration camps – a year before the Holocaust was officially recorded. After the war ended in 1945, Germany started to address the atrocities through film very quickly. Die Mörder sind unter uns (known in English as Murderers Among Us) was released in 1946 and acted as a catharsis for writer/director Wolfgang Staudte who worked on antisemitic propaganda for the Nazis in the buildup to, and during, WWII. Staudte was instrumental in the denazification of Germany and worked with the Soviet authorities, the only allies to sanction the use of film to reeducate the German public – thus The German Democratic Republic’s (East Germany) DEFA film studio was established. The subsequent decades that followed, prior to Schindler’s List, saw Holocaust perspectives from different countries, varying in intensity and showing the effects of WWII and the crimes committed by the Nazis on personal, more domestic levels.

Come and See (1985) stands out during these years as the pinnacle of anti-war films, with the Holocaust told from the Soviet point of view (considered by many to be one of the best films ever made). An extremely tough watch, Come and See portrays the horrors during the Nazi occupation of Belarus and the breadth of evil that cast its shadow over Europe and the Soviet Union during this period – Hollywood later produced Defiance (2008) that charted the same conflict, yet nowhere near as harrowing. By the time Spielberg had released Schindler’s List, there had been many films made specifically about the Holocaust, but none that had entered the social consciousness through a major Hollywood production. And to witness the extent and emotional toll of the Holocaust through feature films prior to Schindler’s List, it was the indie and arthouse films outside of the US and UK that were far more extreme and, to a degree, more personal and authentic. But this is what makes Schindler’s List all the more poignant. Taking cues from the aforementioned European/Soviet offerings, it set a standard, a benchmark for Hollywood (in particular) not to water down the subject matter with sentimentality for perceived audience expectations.

The Pianist © Focus Features

Post- Schindler’s List saw an influx of films that represented the Holocaust, from multiple award-winners such as Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) and László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015), to films that documented the effects of the Holocaust such as Denial (2016) which depicts the court case concerning Holocaust denier David Irving. During the 90s and in particular the 00s, many of these told stories from varying perspectives and unique visions, and in some cases spanned across varying genres. Life is Beautiful (1997) was lauded upon its release and received a multitude of awards. It tells the story of a Jewish-Italian bookshop owner (played by writer/director Roberto Benigni) who shields his son from the horrors of internment in a  Nazi concentration camp through comedy. Other films that utilised the Holocaust (and in some cases exploited its themes) to act as a main story driver were The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), about the son of the commandant at a concentration camp who befriends a Jewish boy the other side of the fence;

Life is Beautiful

Inglourious Basterds (2009), Quentin Tarantino’s alternative WWII vision where a group of Jewish Nazi-hunters roam Europe instilling fear into the Third Reich; The Reader (2008), where a German lawyer who has a sexual relationship at the age of 15 with an older women, discovers in adult life she is a defendant in a war crimes trial stemming from her actions as a guard at a  Nazi  concentration camp; and a taut Polish/German/Netherlands thriller called Werewolf (2018), where eight children who have just survived the Holocaust find refuge in an abandoned orphanage, only to be surrounded on all sides by a pack of bloodthirsty wolfhounds who once guarded the nearby concentration camp. A lot of these films that aim to subvert the themes of the Holocaust have drawn a lot of criticism – should it be used as a basis of entertainment or should it remain autobiographical in nature and therefore authentic and respectful?

The Reader © The Weinstein Company

The truth is feature films can only go so far when it comes to the accurate retelling of an historical event, favouring drama and to a degree escapism, rather than outright validity. This is by no means disrespectful to the source material, but films (buy in large) of this nature rely on dramatic weight and degrees of fabrication to draw in audiences. As ever, personal stories and indeed historical events are best explored through documentary filmmaking. Holocaust documentaries have been prevalent since the end of WWII, detailing survivor testimonies intersected with raw footage of the atrocities – a style that Spielberg emulated within Schindler’s List. There are many notable entries: Shoah (1985), 11 years in the making and over nine hours long, presents interviews with survivors, witnesses and even perpetrators during visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland; and Auschwitz Untold: In Colour, a powerful Channel 4-produced documentary told from the perspective of 16 Holocaust survivors, using restored and colourised archive footage. In 2014 a documentary that had been sat in archives for nearly 70 years was finally released to the public after being deemed too shocking to show. Night Will Fall came as a result of the British government sanctioning a documentary called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (produced by Sidney Bernstein with participation from Alfred Hitchcock) which showed gruesome scenes from newly liberated  Nazi concentration camps – filmed by combat cameramen and using newsreel footage.

Much like the Soviets rationale when establishing the DEFA, film (in all its formats) is a powerful tool, in the wrong hands it can be devastating but in the right hands it can serve as a poignant, unflinching reminder that mankind has a duty to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 is Be the light in the darkness, film ensures that this candle will stay alight for generations to come.


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