Films, Holocaust Documentary

views updated

Films, Holocaust Documentary

Documentary films about the Holocaust are generally well-researched and precise chronicles of the inordinately tragic events in Europe from 1933 through 1945. They include films of the Ministry of Propaganda of the Third Reich, made at the time these tragic events were taking place, and documentary studies of these events that appeared years afterward. Each film has its own historical context, values, and sociopolitical and moral impact.

Origins of Genocide

One can trace the sources of some of the Third Reich's anti-Semitic and genocidal policies to eugenics, the early twentieth-century pseudo-science and international social movement. That some "races" are superior to others was a doctrinal element of this movement. Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich (1991), a film written by Michael Burleigh and directed by Joanna Mack, chronicles Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s. It has unsettling clips from Erb Krank (The hereditarily ill, 1935), which provide a basis for understanding Germany's efforts to create a biological new world order—an agenda that included the elimination of persons with disabilities. Peter Cohen's documentary films Architecture of Doom (1991) and Homo Sapiens 1990 (2000) both delineate how, in Germany, "aesthetic" cleansing both in art and human form, as well as "racial purity," would become rationales for the mass murder of the weak and marginalized. In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine (1996), a documentary film by the author of this article, places the origins of eugenicsrelated medical practices used by the Nazis and experimentation with human subjects in the involuntary sterilization laws that were passed in the United States in the 1920s.

Third Reich Propaganda

Joseph Goebbels became the Reich Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment in 1933, and subsequently all German-made films were scrupulously censored by his office—as part of the effort to promote a collective vision of an "Aryan" Germany and its great destiny. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), the most well known of the Nazi propaganda films, are about the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg in 1934 and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, respectively. Merging propaganda and art, the films—as propaganda pieces—have few rivals. Less well known is Riefenstahl's Victory of Faith (1933), about the (more seminal) 1933 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. Providing direct evidence of the propaganda campaigns of the Third Reich are Die Deutsche Wochenschau (weekly newsreels produced in Nazi Germany) and the large number of films about these campaigns that have been made in Great Britain and the United States. Among films that document the Nazi rise to power, two stand out: Campaign in Poland (1939), a Nazi-produced propaganda film that strove to justify the German invasion of Poland, and For Us (1937), a film about the sixteen German demonstrators who died during the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 (Hitler's first attempt to gain power in Germany). More pernicious is the viscerally anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew (1940), which compares Jews to rodents that have infested civilized society. In general, the Nazi documentaries portray Hitler and the Third Reich as saviors of the German people—a superior race destined for eternal glory.

Overview of the Holocaust

Several films provide an overview of the Nazi Holocaust. One of the earliest of these is Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (1955), filmed within a decade of the events and two decades before the U.S. production Holocaust (1978), the made-for-television miniseries. Night and Fog, which shows footage of abandoned concentration camps (such as they were in 1955) mixed with wartime footage of the camps, chronicles the cruelties of the Holocaust. It documents the rise of the Nazi Party and the horrors of the concentration camps—from the round-ups of prisoners to the camp experiences. The film's closing sequence consists of footage from the 1946 Nuremberg Trials.

"Genocide," written by Michael Barlow, was an episode within the British made-for-television series World at War (1975), narrated by Laurence Olivier. It furnishes a basic understanding of the forces that produced the Holocaust.

Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary epic Shoah (1986) is a provocative study of the Holocaust that includes interviews with eyewitnesses of many nationalities. The film, which does not use archival footage, blends heartrending testimony from interviewees, who represent a wide array of perspectives that divulge the horrors of the camps.

The Cross and the Star: Jews, Christians, and the Holocaust (1992), a film by the author of this article, examines how religious, political, and cultural anti-Semitism can be traced from the Gospels, through the Crusades and Inquisition courts, to Auschwitz.


By the time the brutal Nazi war machine was fully in operation, resistance forces in several European nations had come into being. Resistance took many shapes—spiritual, political, and military. Marcel Ophuls's controversial documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) tells the story of France under Nazi occupation, at times confronting what some historians considered the "myth" of the resistance. Interviewed in the film are French men and women who found themselves performing heroic acts for the Free French movement, as well as those who collaborated with the Nazis. Aviva Kemner's Partisans of Vilna (1986) is an account of the lesser-known Jewish resistance movement in Eastern Europe; it shows Jews in an active role, taking on their enemies, and challenges the more prevalent view of Jewish victimization and passivity during the Holocaust. Haim Gouri's Flames in the Ashes (1985), the Israeli educational film Forests of Valor (1989), and Chuck Olin's In Our Own Hands (1998) poignantly document the generally underrecognized Jewish resistance.


The Foundation for Moral Courage (formerly Documentaries International) produces educational films and teachers' guides. It has produced a series of films about rescue efforts during the Holocaust; the films include The Other Side of Faith (1990) and Zegota (1991), both dealing with rescue efforts that took place in Poland; Rescue in Scandinavia (1994); and It Was Nothing—It Was Everything (1998), about the rescue of Jews in Greece during the Holocaust.

Two of the better-known films about rescue efforts during the Holocaust are Alexander Ramati's The Assisi Underground (1985) and Pierre Suavage's Weapons of the Spirit (1988). Both films illustrate how the altruism of private individuals saved lives. The Assisi Underground is about rescue efforts by Italian priests. Weapons of the Spirit is the story of a small town in France, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, inhabited mostly by French Protestants (descendants of Huguenots), in which villagers risked their lives to shelter and hide approximately five thousand Jews.

Two films that focus on the rescue of children are Mark Jonathan Harris's Into the Arms of Strangers (2001) and Melissa Hacker's My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports (1998).

The Ghetto Experience

Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning feature film The Pianist (2003) and Jon Avnet's television miniseries Uprising (2001), both fictional accounts of historical events, brought about a renewed interest in the Warsaw Ghetto and its resistance movement. A documentary film entitled The Warsaw Ghetto (1969), a BBC production, studies the daily life and the struggle to survive within the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. David Kaufman's documentary film From Despair to Defiance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (2002) tells the story of that uprising via the personal accounts of veterans of the Warsaw Jewish Fighting Organization. A related documentary film is Alan Adelson and Kathryn Taverna's Lodz Ghetto (1989), about the Nazi occupation of the Polish city of Lodz.

Concentration Camps

Produced by the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda of the Third Reich, Theresienstadt was shot in 1944—a film that (the Nazis presumed) would be used to prove to the International Red Cross and the world that Jews were being well treated in "relocation camps." The film purports to show the wholesome daily life of Jews in Theresienstadt (in Czech, Terezín), a "city" established by the Nazis in the former Czechoslovakia. The film was an elaborate hoax. Every scene in the film is staged. Upon completion of the film, most of its cast of prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz. The Führer Gives the Jews a City is a 1991 reconstruction of the film. Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender's Prisoner of Paradise (2002) tells the tragic story of Kurt Gerron, a German-Jewish cabaret and film star—and the director of Theresienstadt.

The Memory of the Camps was filmed by the British Army in 1945 (and stored in London's Imperial War Museum until 1984); it is a compilation of original documentary footage taken inside the concentration camps immediately following Germany's surrender and the liberation of the camps. Alfred Hitchcock served as one of the consultants. The film was never shown until 1985, when it was broadcast by PBS Frontline.

A camera crew accompanying the Russian Army filmed the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945; the Russians excepted, the armies of the United States and Great Britain (with their camera crews) were the first to document the horrors of the camps. In the wake of liberation, the U.S. government sponsored several films about the camps and the freeing of prisoners, including Nazi Concentration Camps (1945), Death Mills (1945), and Henri-Cartier Bresson's The Reunion (1946). Bresson, a prisoner of war, made the film for the U.S. Information Service.

Among the films that are about the experiences of other (non-Jewish) prisoners in concentration camps, two stand out. The Watch Tower Society's Jehovah's Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault (1996) deals with the persecution of Witnesses in the camps, and Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman's Paragraph 175 (1999) recounts the persecution of homosexuals.

Postwar Narratives

In the wake of the Nuremberg Trials, the U.S. government produced Nuremberg (1946), an account of the actual trials, which includes the footage of the camps at liberation that was shown at the trials, as evidence of German crimes against humanity. Marcel Ophuls's film diptych about the Nazi crimes examines the phenomenon of sadism. The films that make up this diptych, The Memory of Justice (1976) and Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988), uncover some aspects of the psychology of human barbarism.

Displaced: Miracle at St. Ottilien (2002), another film by the author of this article, and Mark Jonathan Harris's Long Road Home (2002) show evidence that, immediately following the war, the world's populations became rapidly disinterested in the plight of persons displaced by the war. The films illustrate how the survivors of the Nazi genocide were able to begin life anew in the state of Israel, a reluctantly welcoming America, or a postwar Nazi-free Europe.

SEE ALSO Films, Dramatizations in; Films, Eugenics


Avaisar, Ilan (1988). Screening the Holocaust: Cinema's Images of the Unimaginable. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Doneson, Judith (1987). The Holocaust in American Film. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Hull, David Stewart (1973). Film in the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Insdorf, Annette (1989). Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lansmann, Claude (1985). Shoah: An Oral History. New York: Pantheon Press.

Leiser, Erwin (1974). Nazi Cinema. New York: Collier Books.

Schwarz, Dan (1999). Imagining the Holocaust. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Taylor, Richard (1998). Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Totten, Samuel, and Stephen Feiberg, eds. (2001). Teaching and Studying the Holocaust. Needham, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

John Michalczyk