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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Reprinted with permission from Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, third edition (Cambridge University Press).

Filmmakers and film critics confronting the Holocaust face a daunting task--finding an appropriate language for that which is mute or defies visualization. How can we lead a camera or pen to penetrate history and create art, as opposed to merely recording events? What are the formal as well as moral responsibilities if we are to understand and communicate the complexities of the Holocaust through its filmic representations? 

Growing Genre

Such questions seem increasingly pressing, for the number of postwar films dealing with the Nazi era is steadily growing. I had seen at least 60 such films from around the world by 1980; when I completed the first edition of Indelible Shadows in 1982, another 20 had been produced; and by 1988 there were approximately 100 new films--40 fiction, 60 documentary--that merited inclusion.

schindler's list

Schindler's List is arguably
the most famous Holocaust film.

My point of departure is therefore the growing body of cinematic work--primarily fiction--that illuminates, distorts, confronts, or reduces the Holocaust. Rather than prove a thesis, I wish to explore the degree to which these films manifest artistic as well as moral integrity. A number of central issues have emerged from this rapidly expanding body of films:

1) the development of a suitable cinematic language for a unique and staggering subject. I contrast Hollywood's realism and melodramatic conventions with the tense styles and dialectical montage of many European films, as well as present notable American exceptions;

2) narrative strategies such as the Jew as child; the Jew as wealthy, attractive, and assimilated; characters in hiding whose survival depends on performance; families doomed by legacies of guilt;

3) responses to Nazi atrocity, from political resistance to individual transformations of identity, to the guilt-ridden questions posed by contemporary German films;

4) a new form--neither documentary nor fiction--that shapes documentary material through a personal voice. Here, attention is paid to the films made by survivors, their children, and especially to the works of Marcel Ophuls.

Moral Issues

A major question is how certain cinematic devices express or evade the moral issues inherent in the subject. For example, how is Alain Resnais's tracking camera in Night and Fog involved in moral investigation? In what ways does editing not only shape but embody the very content of The Pawnbroker or The Memory of Justice? And to what degree can montage be manipulative?

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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.