Films, Dramatizations in

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Films, Dramatizations in

Ever since Thomas A. Edison said, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion," the human race has remained fascinated with its portrayal in film. This wonderful pairing of sight and sound has allowed the chronicalling of the events of the past century. However, the images a person sees has everything to do with the eye of the beholder. Film is a director's medium and every frame shot overtly or covertly represents his or her personal prejudices, values, and esthetics. Every camera angle, every light and shadow, every word whispered or screamed, every close-up or long shot, every note of music occurs at the discretion of the director.

How then does a director set about making a film based on historic events so horrific that to avert one's eyes is the natural response? It is an enormous challenge, especially because in reproducing these images, there is something inherently false in acting out such brutality. One can only imagine what an actual survivor of the Holocaust must feel to see what looks like blood on disinterested extras waiting to perform the next scene. How does one show the darkest side of humanity and respect its victims? What is the appropriate response? How does one make a film that is palatable to a mass audience yet expose the severity of the crimes of its perpetrators? There is no template, no perfect film. To assume documentary filmmakers make a more authentic film is to forget that they are also peering through the eyepiece of the camera seeking the best shot to tell their story. Here, is an examination of several films on the Holocaust, many of them made by U.S. directors, and other genocides. Each film is an expression of the cinematic artist, the director, who fills a darkened room with images that become his or her signature on celluloid. These films speak for the silent, the dead, and those that lived, to tell their stories in the hope that moviegoers in viewing these images, however disturbing and shocking, will cling more tightly to that which is good and moral and just.

The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler were born four days apart, with the "Little Tramp" arriving on April 16 and Hitler on April 20 in 1889. Chaplin, although British by birth, was a pioneer in the American film industry. Hitler admired Chaplin until the director satirized him in his 1940s masterpiece, The Great Dictator. It is worthy of note that when this film was made, the United States stood neutral as France and Belgium fell to the Nazis, and Hollywood, in turn, remained neutral too. In the more than five hundred films made during World War II, only The Great Dictator specifically addressed events in Europe. Why would Chaplin, best known for his silent films, make such a movie? Why did he choose to invest over $1 million of his own money to make this, his first talking picture? One may speculate that Chaplin's Jewish wife, Paulette Goddard (born Goddard Levy), might have had something to do with his decision. The Great Dictator was written and directed by Chaplin; the movie starred Chaplin and his wife.

There is no doubt that Chaplin, ever the genius, saw the potential for satire in the highly influential Nazi propaganda film, The Triumph of Will (1934), directed by Leni Rienfenstahl. Shot during the Sixth Party Congress in Nuremberg, with powerful black-and-white images of marching troops foreshadowing the coming war, the film shows all the Nazi archetypes in attendance: Hitler, Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Rudolf Hess, to name but a few.

With their matching mustaches, Chaplin and Hitler become cinematic doppelgängers, and this makes Chaplin's performance as the tyrannical dictator inspired. Chaplin also carries the look-alike further by playing a Jewish barber. In one of the more unforgettable scenes in the film, Chaplin as Hynkel the dictator plays with a globe, tossing it up and down; in a demented and almost balletlike sequence of steps, he bounces the globe from his rear until it bursts. In the film a double cross takes the place of the Nazi swastika, and Hynkel spares no one, including Mussolini who is reborn as Benzini Napaloni of "Bacteria."

Chaplin's film addressed the events of the day, showing the displacement of the Jews, the burning of ghettos, and resistance attempts. Mistaken identity as a vehicle for comedy is as old as the Greeks, and it works once again as Chaplin, as the Jewish barber, is mistaken for Hynkel. At the film's end in a moment of solemnity Chaplin seems to urge brotherhood, triumph over fascism, and world peace. Some critics dismissed the ending as it contrasted so starkly with the film's preceding lunacy, but given the subject matter, Chaplin obviously felt compelled to speak his mind. Chaplin later stated that had he known the extent of the Jews' persecution, he would have never satirized it. As for Hitler, a record of his having seen the film does exist; not surprisingly, he had it banned, as did two other dictators, Mussolini and Francisco Franco.

Life Is Beautiful

Life Is Beautiful (1997, in Italian La Vita è Bella) takes its cue from Chaplin. Roberto Benigni plays the clown-like character who tries to protect his son from the horrors of the Nazis. Benigni, like Chaplin, wrote, directed, and costarred with his wife (in Benigni's case, Nicoletta Braschi). Benigni has the same wiry frame as Chaplin and makes comic use of his body. The first half of the film is extremely humorous, depicting the madcap adventures of the loving and lovable Benigni as Guido Orefice, a man with a beautiful wife and adorable son. Some critics have complained that the film makes light of a serious situation. However, Orefice's zany antics become his method to survive the madness and to keep his young son alive and hopeful when they are sent to a concentration camp.

In the remarkable 2003 Indelible Shadows, Film and the Holocaust, Annette Insdorf makes the point that "the extraordinary international popularity of Life Is Beautiful means that audiences—which might otherwise not have been aware of the Nazi persecution of Italian Jewry—embraced an appealing Jewish hero who inspires respect rather than merely pity" (Insdorf, 2003, p. 292). Benigni, like Chaplin, was motivated by personal need to make this film. His (non-Jewish) father Luigi Benigni spent two years in the Bergen-Belsen labor camp, from 1943 to 1945, and weighed just seventy-seven pounds when liberated. Roberto grew up listening to his father's stories and, drawing inspiration from Chaplin, created a film that celebrates a man's love and devotion to his family. Although it is understandable that survivors would find little to laugh at in viewing "cartoonlike" behavior of the Nazis, both Chaplin and Benigni use the tradition of the hapless clown, the buffoon of commedia dell'arte, to lampoon the absurdities of fascism and render the jester triumphant over his tyrant.

Sophie's Choice and The Pawnbroker

Sophie's Choice (1982) and The Pawnbroker (1964), both award-winning films produced by major Hollywood studios, deal with a subject that has to some extent created a false stereotype, the guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor. In Sophie's Choice, based on the book by William Styron, Meryl Streep plays Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic who is sent to Auschwitz for her collaboration with the Polish resistance. Having barely survived the Holocaust, she finds herself in postwar Brooklyn, where she becomes friends with Nathan, a New York Jew, and Stingo, a Southern Gentile beguiled by her beauty. It is Stingo who narrates the story and to whom Sophie reveals the impossible choice she was forced to make at Auschwitz.

Alan J. Pakula, the son of Polish immigrants, wrote the adapted screenplay and directed the film. He makes use of color and setting to create a dichotomy between the two worlds of Sophie's experience: The scenes in postwar Coney Island have an energetic and dizzying feel to them, in stark contrast to the listless and lifeless haze of Auschwitz. Coney Island is a perfect visual metaphor for the relationship between Sophie and Nathan, which is an emotional rollercoaster. Sophie is physically and emotionally fragile, and one expects her, like an egg resting on a spoon, to fall and crack at any moment. Her face in close-up resembles an eggshell; there is great authenticity in Streep's performance when she speaks in broken English, Polish, and German. Sophie's love affair with Nathan, a Nazi-obsessed, cocaine-addicted manic depressive (played by Kevin Kline), reinforces the notion that the troubled survivor welcomes terror and chaos because it is familiar and therefore strangely comforting. Such guilt will only permit the most fleeting moments of joy. At the film's end Sophie chooses to commit suicide with Nathan in what feels like an emotional release from a life haunted by memories too difficult to face.

In The Pawnbroker Sidney Lumet directs Rod Steiger in a masterful performance as a Holocaust survivor working in a Harlem pawnshop owned by an African American. Lumet, who began his career performing in the Yiddish theater, uses black-and-white cinematography to illustrate the fact that even in daylight, Steiger's character, Sol Nazerman, is a man living in a dark world. The audience becomes privy to Nazerman's interior thoughts as present events trigger recollections that are seen in flashbacks. A ride on a subway car allows us to observe Nazerman as a face in the crowd, but one emotionally alone and isolated from his fellow passengers. It is as if the only feeling he can resurrect is pain, and his wretched memories at least provide him with abundant material for that. As Nazerman rides the subway, he is jolted by the memory of a fateful train ride, as he and other Jews traveled on their way to certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Lumet effectively uses the cagelike surroundings of the pawnshop, showing the shadow of crisscrossed bars across Nazerman's face and body to convey the image of a man imprisoned. The tragedy of Nazerman's past continues into the present when a young Hispanic coworker named Jesús (played by Jaime Sanchez) attempts to befriend him, only to be rebuffed. When Jesús is killed during an attempted robbery, once again Nazerman is the survivor left to mourn the dead. But his emotions have completely shut down, and his stifled cry at the film's end symbolizes his inability to articulate his loss.

There are numerous other testaments to the fortitude and courage of many Holocaust survivors. Perhaps for some, the Hollywood image of emotionally scarred and haunted characters perpetuates the myth of Jewish victimization or, worse, cowardice. It is hoped that the ongoing efforts to commit to film the many stories of survivors and their achievements will serve as a counterpoint to films they feel may distort the truth.

Night and Fog

It is important to mention the film Night and Fog (1955, in French Nuit et Brouillard) by director Alain Resnais. Although not an American film, it is nevertheless the first documentary film made about the Holocaust and it influenced many subsequent films. This film was made only ten years after the end of the war; it uses stills and newsreel to expose the horror and depravity that was Auschwitz. The title Night and Fog is the term used by Hitler on December 7, 1941, when he issued his Night and Fog Decree. The intent of this edict was to replace the practice of taking hostages with the total disappearance of those suspected of resistance. They would disappear into the "night and fog." To quote Himmler's memo to the Gestapo, "An effective and lasting deterrent can be achieved only by the death penalty or by taking measures which will leave the family and the population uncertain as to the fate of the offender. Deportation to Germany serves this purpose."

Renais's film is remarkable in its understated tone and almost monotone narration. The images need no heightened emotional soundtrack for they are shocking enough and invite quiet introspection. The film begins in color narrated by survivor Jean Cayrol, and postwar Auschwitz looks like a travel poster, inviting one to spend a day in the country. This sylvan scene cuts away to freight cars and images of human cargo. As the camera enters the camp, the past replaces the present, and scenes of inconceivable atrocities soon fill the now empty spaces of the rooms. The collection of human hair, bones, and skin used as raw materials in the production of German goods are a still-life testament to the lives lost. In its detachment this film is most effective. There is no need for embellishment: Night and Fog stands on its own as witness to humankind's capacity for pure evil.


The 1982 film Missing, directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, deals with the "night and fog" disappearance of Charles Horman (played by John Shea) during the 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet in Chile. It is the true story of businessman Ed Horman (played by Jack Lemmon) who along with Charles's wife (played by Sissy Spacek) attempt to determine what happened to the missing son and husband. The story unfolds in flashbacks, and Costa-Gavras seamlessly draws us into the plight of the anguished father and distraught wife. U.S. involvement in the coup is acknowledged, although a viewer would do well to read the now declassified documents detailing the true extent of this involvement. This film along with The Official Story and others provides chilling evidence that Hilter's 1941 decree found favor with the military governments of South America. It is estimated that more than fifty thousand young men were tortured or killed during the Pinochet takeover, and throughout Argentina's dirty war an estimated thirty thousand disappeared. Such numbers are difficult to comprehend, and by following the story of one missing person, the audience is able to put a face on the rest.

Schindler's List

Schindler's List (1993) is considered to be director Stephen Spielberg's greatest achievement. The film, based on Thomas Keneally's book, tells the story of Polish Catholic Oskar Schindler (portrayed by Liam Neeson) who ultimately saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish Jews. The film, shot in black-and-white in Poland, has an air of authenticity as Spielberg's attention to detail—from the characters' distinctly Polish appearance to Hebrew prayers—sets this film apart from the usual Hollywood fare. The audience is introduced to an ensemble of Polish Jews, and as the story unfolds, Schindler's efforts to save them from extermination becomes the focal point.

Spielberg's experiences in creating this film led him to establish the Shoah Foundation, an institution devoted to chronicling on film the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Shoah is the Hebrew word for "destruction"; it has come into prominence as a preferred word to Holocaust, which means "sacrifice consumed by fire" (from the Greek word holos-kaustos). According to the Shoah Foundation website, over 52,000 visual testimonies from 56 countries in 32 languages have been recorded. Although Spielberg did not personally experience World War II, he chose to use his recognized filmmaking skills to create a moving pictorial archive of the Holocaust's survivors.

The Pianist

One of the most recent films to dramatize the true story of a Holocaust survivor is The Pianist (2002), directed by Roman Polanski. Polanski, born Raimund Liebling, the son of Polish Jews, was initially approached to film Schindler's List, but he declined the offer, insisting that making such a movie would be too personally wrenching for him as a survivor of the Kraków ghetto. The Pianist is based on Wladyslaw Szpilman's biography written in 1946. Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) was a classically trained pianist who narrowly escaped deportation to a concentration camp and survived the war through the help of Polish Catholics and the Jewish resistance.

Polanksi drew on his own experiences of survival in making the film. As a ten-year-old, he had escaped the Kraków ghetto when his father took him to a barbed-wire fence near the SS guardhouse and, cutting the wire, pushed his son through the opening, with strict instructions to go to the home of a nearby family. When the frightened Polanski found no one at home, he returned to the guardhouse area, only to see his father being led away by the SS. The father implores the young Polanski to "get away," a moment frequently mirrored in The Pianist as Szpilman repeatedly gets away from the Nazis. After the war Polanksi learned that his pregnant mother had been killed in the Auschwitz gas chamber. He was later reunited with his father, who survived a labor camp. According to Szpilman's son, his father had once claimed, "No other director could make this film." Szpilman died before seeing the finished product.


A motion picture has the power to impose its version of factual events on one's conscience. It is conceivable that the director who has an emotional investment in a film's message will not be as likely swayed by the demands of the box office. However, the film industry is one area of "show business," and often to fund "the show," it is necessary to bend to the demands of "the business." This is a heavy burden for any filmmaker wishing to tell the story of mass murder and human rights violations. Although the majority of filmgoers are unlikely to attend documentaries on this subject, any student of history would be wise to see archival footage of these events. To some extent, the admonition of survivors, that to make these stories "artistic" is to betray those that perished, is reasonable. But human nature being what it is, to look away would be an even greater evil. Thus, the courageous artists who seek to portray genocide and crimes against humanity are to be admired for their attempts to speak the unspeakable, to shed light on the darkness in hope that such atrocities will never be repeated.

SEE ALSO Drama, Holocaust; Films, Armenian Documentary; Films, Armenian Feature; Films, Eugenics; Films, Holocaust Documentary


"Charlie Chaplin." Available from

"Edison Motion Pictures." Available from

"The Great Dictator." Available from

"Holocaust." Available from

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La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful). Available from

Lownes, Marilyn Coles. "Pianist Interview." Available from

Missing. Available from

"The Night and Fog Decree." Available from

Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog). Available from

Owino, Peres. "Roberto Benigni, Actor and Director." Available from

The Pawnbroker. Available from

The Pianist. Available from

"Roman Polanksi." Available from,128,239,00.html?celfact1.

Schindler's List. Available from

Sophie's Choice. Available from

Survivors of the Shoah. Available from

Marlene Shelton