From Death Mills (1945), dir. Billy Wilder and Hanuš Burger, a documentary short produced by the US Department of War to educate German audiences about the concentration camps (image courtesy MUBI)

In 1945, not long after Germany’s surrender, filmmaker George Stevens, best-known at that time for directing romantic comedies, entered Dachau. The images he and his crew captured of the concentration camp’s liberation would become some of the first the world would see of the Nazi death machine. Stevens and four other notable directors (John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra) formed an all-star frontline propaganda team during World War II. As documented in Five Came Back (both the book by Mark Harris and Netflix’s docuseries adaptation of it), from their work we can infer Hollywood’s influence on how humanity would come to view the Holocaust. Informed by the practices of the studio system and filtered through the military, they used a variety of documentary approaches to persuade and educate. Perhaps the most powerful tool at their disposal was the idea of direct witness. Indeed, in the 75 years since the end of the war, narratives of both real and fictional witnesses have had the longest-lasting impact on public perception of the Holocaust. 

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This popular approach individualizes historical experience; such accounts focused first on the liberators and then later on survivors. This emphasis is contentious, however. By their nature, genocide narratives are defined by absence rather than presence. In contemporary accounts from the period, this prioritized first outsider perspectives (often Nazis and Allied soldiers), then later survivors over victims, and in more recent years fiction over history. The images created under these circumstances only reveal partial truths (and sometimes outright lies), ultimately limiting one’s understanding of these events. The struggle to situate the unimaginable within the classic, highly Americanized form of narrative filmmaking will always prove fraught, even within the best and most persuasive examples. 

Some filmmakers would use footage shot directly by fascists. For example, Capra would use images created by the Third Reich in his series Why We Fight as an attempt to undercut their persuasiveness, hoping his ironic and mocking POV would dissipate their power. French filmmaker Frédéric Rossif’s 1961 film The Witnesses (originally Le temps du ghetto, or “The Time of the Ghetto”) combines survivor testimonials with contemporary footage shot by the Nazis to showcase life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Is the subversion of these images possible? There is ample evidence that the Nazis fictionalized or outright fabricated much of their “documentary” images. As Claude Lanzmann points out in his memoir The Patagonian Hare, images of nightclubs and other scenes within the Warsaw Ghetto were fabricated to combat criticisms of the horrible conditions there. Presented without that context, images intended to maliciously deceive become “truths” deployed to correct the initial deception.

From The Witnesses (1961), dir. Frédéric Rossif (image courtesy MUBI)

Allied images of the war tended to fall for different pitfalls. Their images were often sanitized, maintained an outsider’s perspective, and served US propaganda purposes before any other concerns. Five Came Back recounts how Stevens ran into another problem and an even more profound failure in their project. While he felt his role change from propagandist to evidence collector (his films would be presented at the Nuremberg trials), he could not come to terms with his culpability and the violence of the camera’s gaze. The cost of capturing the death and decay within these camps was high. As Harris points out, in comparison with the other American filmmakers, Stevens only made one attempt to make a war film after his experience: 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank. His perspective was drastically different from those of his peers, who focused on battles or veterans. Though flawed, the film seems to search for the unfathomable, the unseen fate of its protagonist horribly imagined rather than realized. It begets a question: What story do the liberation films actually tell? Many of these debates hinge on questions of the use of these images, and ultimately what they represent. For example, are individual photos intended to depict isolated events within the Holocaust or the Holocaust as a whole? Are witness narratives the most effective way of capturing the horrors? 

These images have since proliferated in culture — not just as documentary objects, but also within fictional narratives. Susan Sontag would argue that the reproduction of these images and other images of violence would lead to them becoming normalized. While not everyone agrees (notably, Jacques Rancière argues in 2010’s The Emancipated Spectator that the media sanitizes the actual violence of war), the ways these images have been used over the decades does suggest an uncomfortable familiarity, that they’ve been reused so many times that they’ve lost their impact.

Famous fictional or fictionalized explorations of the Holocaust, such as Schindler’s List (1993) and Life is Beautiful (1997), search to fill the gap of uncertainty through witness accounts. In conversation with propagandized contemporary images, they attempt to re-center the voices of Jews, notably absent from the first-person documents of liberation. These films have been influential and have had a significant impact on educating the public at large on the Holocaust. As fiction/fictionalizations, however, they run into ethical and philosophical issues. They give voices to people who were lost and are unable to speak about their experiences, or to survivors who represent an overall minority. Hollywood’s prioritization of witness narratives fails to capture the scope of what was lost. The iconography of the big screen similarly has the effect of creating new myths. To the public, the screen truth can become shorthand for the real event. 

From Schindler’s List (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg (image courtesy MUBI)

Integrally, many of the most notable films about the Holocaust arrived in the past few decades, where there was just enough distance for viewers to feel a lack of culpability. These films set a template for a new wave of Oscar bait films as well, movies that reveled in tragedy and sanitized complicated binaries and systems. The specific success of the Holocaust movie also works in stark contrast to other films that tackle more recent genocides, that not only feel like still-open wounds, but don’t offer the same pat closure as films about long-past events. Writing about Hotel Rwanda in 2005, Christopher Orr discussed this phenomenon within the context of the Oscars

The contrast between the fortunes of Hotel Rwanda and those of recent Holocaust films such as Schlindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and The Pianist is difficult to miss. The latter are of course easier for us to applaud in part because of their cultural proximity — there’s none of that Africans-have-been-killing-each-other-for-centuries cynicism muddying our moral waters. But Holocaust films are also easier to applaud thanks to their temporal distance. Most American moviegoers were not alive during the Shoah, and those who were are unlikely to feel in any way culpable. We were the good guys, after all, at least by the final act.

The most celebrated films about the Holocaust and genocide are fundamentally uncomplicated stories that reassure the audience that evil, in a general sense, has been abated. In their frame, genocidal violence is a thing of the past, and the act of remembering is passive rather than active. They tend to comfort rather than engage their viewers. 

From Son of Saul (2015), dir. László Nemes (image courtesy MUBI)

Writing about 2015’s Son of Saul, Richard Brody broached several of these topics by exploring the way director László Nemes engages with questions of representation in his telling of one man’s quest to bury a child within Auschwitz. Main character Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, a special squad forced to aid in the extermination process, and thus he has a unique perspective within the camp. The film portrays this perspective with a bracing, claustrophobic approach, making use of offscreen space as a means of suggesting rather than depicting horror and violence. As Brody explains, the film attempts to negate dehumanizing stereotypes while also using its unique framework to rethink witness narratives by giving the audience almost literal tunnel vision. He writes:

Nemes renounces the act of total and transparent representation — he films Saul’s experiences and observations as if he can’t fully represent them dramatically by actors on sets. The enormity of the events defies dramatization without utterly eluding it. Yet the muffling of the image suggests another mode of transmission — the word, in the future tense. The events that Saul sees and the actions that he takes will survive, if they survive at all, through Saul’s eventual verbal testimony — if, in fact, Saul survives (no spoilers here). 

Brody argues that the film, while a compelling argument, fails compared to Lanzmann’s pivotal documentary Shoah, which focuses on testimony rather than archival footage. “Nemes’s film tempers and humanizes the metaphysical radicalism of Lanzmann’s cinema. In the face of Lanzmann’s existential void and moral paradoxes, Nemes offers a tale of ordinary decency applied in indecent circumstances.” Son of Saul engages with the problematic representations of Hollywood and Hollywood-adjacent depictions of the Holocaust while also considering the philosophical weight of thinkers like Lanzmann, who have been critical of the various modes of representation and how they solidify untruths. Yet through the dramatization of genocide, it arguably falls for many of the problems it is attempting to counter. 

The persuasive power of Hollywood has come to shape our global understanding of the Holocaust on screen, but it is by no means a definitive perspective. Looking beyond witness frameworks, we land on films that deal with testimony and memory, foregoing classical narrative forms in favor of more radical and challenging images.

This is the first part of a three-part series. Part two, about the role of testimony in the cinema of the Holocaust, publishes tomorrow.

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.