Holocaust Films

As the number of Holocaust-themed films grow, many questions arise from the attempt to depict this tragedy on screen.

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On a national scale, what change in attitude, if any, is implied by the sudden surge in the early '70s of French films dealing with deportation and collaboration? What about the increasing number of German films that are finally turning their lenses onto the Nazi era? Whether the film is a dark comedy like Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be or an enlightening drama like Andrzej Munk's Passenger, these works suggest both the possibilities and limitations of non-documentary approaches to World War II, especially the ghetto and concentration camp experience.

Defining "Holocaust"

The term "Holocaust" requires definition, for popular usage has particularized it from a general idea of disaster to the brutal and massive devastation practiced by the Nazis during World War II. I have chosen to use the word in this latter sense, and more precisely to refer to the genocide of European Jewry. For unlike their fellow victims of the Nazis--such as political opponents, Gypsies, and homosexuals--Jews were stripped not only of life and freedom, but of an entire culture that flourished throughout Eastern Europe in the early 1930s.

As chronicled in Josh Waletzky's superb documentary Image Before My Eyes (1980), Polish-Jewish civilization was highly developed between the wars and included experimental education (a Montessori school in Vilna), progressive politics (the Bund, a Jewish Socialist party), and ripe artistic movements (Yiddish writers' groups like "Di Khalyastre"). The Nazis' avowed intention was not merely to annihilate the Jews, but to wipe their traces from history, and to destroy the very notion that a Jew was a human being.

Even within the concentration camps, the Nazis developed a hierarchy among inmates; political prisoners were enemies, but Jews were insects. Hitler declared, "Anti-Semitism is a form of de-lousing... a matter of sanitation." Among the female inmates in Auschwitz, for instance, only the Jewish women's heads were shaved.

Who "Owns" the Holocaust?

One of the dangers inherent in my argument, however, is the assumption that the Holocaust "belongs" to--or is the domain of--one set of victims more than another. Does the Holocaust belong to the survivors? To those who were killed during World War II? To those who died in concentration camps or ghettos? To the Jews who were the main targets of the Nazis? To all Jews today?

Some individuals claim the Holocaust as a personal tragedy. Many Jews claim it as a religious one. And then there are those who had no direct experience of the Holocaust but feel transformed by learning of its cruelty and mass indifference--as well as of resistance and survival.

And to whom do the dead "belong"? The ending of Just a Gigolo (1979), an otherwise negligible British film, presents a chilling image of appropriation: a bumbling young man (David Bowie) with no interest in politics is accidentally killed in a street fight between a Nazi group and its adversaries. The Nazi leader (David Hemmings, who also directed the film) takes the corpse, dresses it in the brown-shirted uniform of the SA, and has the young "hero" displayed and buried as a Nazi.

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Annette Insdorf

Annette Insdorf is Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, where she holds the title of Professor as well as Chair of the Doctoral Program in Film Theatre.