The Holocaust in movies
Student number: 0400637
MA American Studies
Readers: Dr. Robert Skloot
Dr. Jaap Verheul
1. Introduction 3
2. Historical and Artistic Holocaust 9
2.1 Historical Holocaust 10
2.2 The Artistic Holocaust 17
3. The Holocaust & Hollywood. The Diary of Anne Frank, The Pawnbroker, and
Schindler‘s List 21
3.1 The Diary of Anne Frank 22
3.2 The Pawnbroker 26
3.3 Schindler‘s List 30
4. Europe, Hollywood, and the Holocaust. Seven Beauties, La Vita e Bella vs.
Schindler‘s List 34
4.1 Seven Beauties 35
4.2 La Vita e Bella vs. Schindler‘s List 39
5. Conclusions 45
6. Bibliography 48
1In the memory of Ladislau Grun
When I decided that I would try to write about the Holocaust‘s representations in movies, somebody asked me where did I get that idea from. Somehow in the last semester of my master program we had more and more discussions about America and the Holocaust, about movies and the Holocaust and statements like: the Americans do not understand the Holocaust, and Spielberg is a really bad director; Schindler is loved because he is so commercial; Life is Beautiful is mocking at something so sad as the Holocaust; if Night and
Fog had been directed by an American for sure nobody would complain about the loud music, and the bad synchronization between sound and image; Benigni succeeded in what no other director did: a comedy about the Holocaust; How can you represent in a movie one of the most important events of the modern history?; How can an American understand the Holocaust; became just normal discussions during our courses. Having heard these debates and others like them quite often, I have started to ask myself if the Holocaust is someone‘s property, if there are nations and people that ―have more rights‖ than others to write about the Holocaust, and even more, if art changes the facts of a historical event. Max, one of the characters in The Model Apartment by Donald Margulies says, ―That‘s my life! […]This is
1 Ladislau Grun was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Kaufernig – Dachau when he was 14 years old.
Ladislau was just a normal kid until the beginning of May 1944 when he was put in a cattle train heading for the German concentration camps, with his mother, father and sister and the entire 10,000-strong Jewish community of Targu- Mures, Romania. Released after two years, Ladislau weighed just 32 kg. On returning to Targu - Mures he discovered his mother and almost the entire Jewish community had been murdered. But he used to say: ―I have managed to rebuild my life. I married and have two children. But at the same time we should never forget. Most from Auschwitz couldn't talk about it without crying. But I resolved to talk, not to forget. I will never forget how my father saved my life when he told the Germans I was 17 and that I was a carpenter, someone who could be of use to them. I won't forget that they murdered my mother because they thought she was an old woman, her hair having turned grey on the train to Dachau. And I won't forget my number ... 72045.‖ Parts of
his testimony will be found also in this paper. Ladislau Grun passed away a few months ago.
2mine to tell‖, and reading the play I have asked myself once more, who has the right to tell the story, and who is entitled to carry on the message? Obviously this is not a ―task‖ that has been reserved only for the survivors, because in that case soon there will be none left to say what happened in the death camps. In addition, thousands of historical, philosophical, theological and fictional texts have already made their contribution to telling the story. Still, the questions remains about proprietary rights to the story. Further, there is an ongoing conversation about weather the arts can offer us a different kind of understanding of this event. It is obvious that the Holocaust affected not only Europe, that the murder of 6 millions of Jews and millions of others during the World War Two has had consequences not only for the Europeans, but upon most of the nations of the world.
Who then inherited the Holocaust? It seems that everybody did, and that the Holocaust does not belong to the Europeans, to the Americans, to the Jews. Holocaust is not meant only for Hollywood, or only for the European film market; we all have the right to it, we all have the right to understand, if possible, how could the Holocaust happened, and if art – books,
music, theatre, film – can help us to understand better what happened, the nationality, ethnicity, religion of the writer, director, actor, and so on should be our concern only for the way it affected the finished artistic product. The main concern should be then the reflection/representations of the historical truth through art, in order to enhance the understanding one might get from these representations.
How is the Holocaust represented in the movies? Are the American films picturing the Holocaust differently from the European production? Is there a ―commercial‖ Holocaust promoted by Hollywood? Do films aim for the "box office" and, in doing so does it influence the cinematic result? My main focus in this paper will regard these questions. In this thesis I will try to prove that through an investigation of representative Holocaust films we can understand how art/movies has shaped the perception of the Holocaust. For my purpose I will take a look at some movies regarding the Holocaust, movies that had a great impact at the moment of their release, and have been important ever since: The Diary of Anne Frank (1959,
directed by George Stevens), The Pawnbroker (1964, directed by Sidney Lumet), Schindler’s
List (1993, directed by Steven Spielberg), Lina Wertmuller‘s Seven Beauties (1975) and La
Vita e Bella (1997, director Roberto Benigni).
Each of these movies is representative because they deal with the Holocaust from different perspectives: The Diary of Anne Frank brings us in the middle of the war in a hiding
2 Donald Margulies, The Model Apartment in The Theatre of the Holocaust, edited by Robert Skloot, The
University of Wisconsin Press, 245
place and portrays a real character, Anne Frank from Amsterdam, the 14 year-old-girl trapped in a war she can hardly understand in the beginning, faithful to her diary to whom she wants to confess all her emotions, all the events from the Secret Annex. This movie is also very important because is based on an authentic diary, which was adapted for the stage and for the film. How much has this changed the real story? Which details were considered to be unimportant and what was the reason of these omissions? Is the movie more commercial in this way? These are the questions that will guide the discussion of the movie. The Diary of
Anne Frank is also very important because is one of the first movies that deals with the Holocaust; and of course the figure of the little girl hidden in a house in Amsterdam trying to survive the cruel war, is probably one of the most famous ―stories‖ and Anne one of the most
significant figures of the Holocaust "art."
The second movie I will deal with is The Pawnbroker, a totally different perspective
upon the Holocaust, but still a very important one, because The Pawnbroker is one of the first
movies that is concerned with the Holocaust survivors. Sol Nazerman the operator of a pawnshop is a concentration camp survivor. He faces a horrid internal conflict. Trapped in a New York ghetto environment, Sol suffers flashbacks. The flashbacks mix concentration camp images with life in his Harlem neighbourhood. The Pawnbroker was widely criticized
for the daring theme: the juxtaposition of the African American and Jewish experience, which was considered a vulgarization of the Holocaust. Still, the movie succeeded something that no other movie did till that moment: to bring in front of the viewers the inner life of a Holocaust survivor
From movies that represent, in a way, innovations in the field, I will discuss one of the most famous movies concerning the Holocaust, Schindler’s List. Considered by many the
masterpiece of the genre, Schindler’s List deals with the Holocaust from the perspective of a
benefactor, a person who chose to save Jews knowing that he exposed himself to the same fate as theirs, an idea reflected even in the movie‘s tagline, the Talmudic verse: ―Whoever
saves one life, saves the world entire.‖ Schindler's List is based on the true story of a Nazi
Czech businessman Oskar Schindler, a man who sees profit in using Jewish labour to start a factory in occupied Poland. But as the war progresses, and the fate of the Jews becomes more and more clear, Schindler's motivations change, and from the avid businessman thinking only of his own profit, Oskar Schindler becomes a saviour; human sympathy prevails over commercial profit and he is able to save over 1100 Jews from certain death in the gas chambers. But Schindler’s List is much more complex; Spielberg's art has much to tell us
about his perspective on history, Jews, altruism, human evil etc in this ―three-hour long epic
3of the nightmarish Holocaust.‖ Its documentary appearance recreates the dark horrible times of World War II. Except for the opening and the closing scenes, and two other brief moments (the little girl in a red coat and candles burning with orange flames), the entire film is shot in crisp black and white, creating an authenticity of the time that increases its shock. Spielberg succeeds in making the audience part of the history, while watching the movie one might feel
4as a survivor; the difference is that we are always on the ―safe side‖. Praised and criticized,
loved and hated at the same time, Schindler’s List is surely one of the most important movies
in film history and its place in this overview of the Holocaust representation in the movies is fully justified.
The next section of this research will be dedicated to the representation of the Holocaust in two European movies, Lina Wertmuller‘s Seven Beauties (1975) and La Vita e
Bella (1997) directed by Roberto Benigni, in order to compare the treatment the Holocaust receives with my assessment of selected American movies.
Seven Beauties (1975), Lina Wertmuller‘s bizarre, dark comedy drama is for sure one of the most controversial movies about the Holocaust. The film is the story of Pasqualino, a Napolitano dandy known as Seven Beauties, who ends up in an unnamed death camp where he is doing everything in order to survive. Indeed, Seven Beauties is looking at the Holocaust
from a comic perspective, but the humour goes further, ending quite often in the grotesque vision of a world of depravity.
5―Holocaust fictions are scandalous‖, most of them are not authentic, and are not
written/directed by the survivors. For sure La Vita e Bella, Roberto Benigni‘s Oscar winning
movie, had and still has many detractors. But La Vita e Bella succeeded in doing something
that no other movie did – it represents the Holocaust in a comic way but without being
indecent; through comedy, Benigni underlines the tragedy. The importance of this movie is also given by the fact that it is an European movie, and it looks upon the Holocaust from the Italian perspective, a country that had been the faithful ally of the Nazi Germany. Some might wonder why these movies are found in this investigation together with three other Americans movies; I think that presenting La Vita e Bella and Seven Beauties might help the reader to
understand the characteristic of both film industries, but also the different perspectives, American and European, upon the Holocaust.
3 Tim Dirks, Review of Schindler’s List, available on World Wide Web at: http://www.filmsite.org/schi.html 4 Sue Vice, Holocaust Fiction, New York, Routledge, 2000, 95 5 Vice, ibid, 1
―Write and record‖ – these seem to be the last words of Simon Dubnow, the famous
6Jewish historian, killed in the evacuation of Riga‘s ghetto. Dubnow‘s words have been taken
by many as a sacred duty, to further tell the story, to keep the flame alive so that the cruel massacre of the European Jews will never be forgotten. But how could one do this? Since ―Auschwitz defies imagination and perception; it submits only to memory…Between the dead
7and the rest of us there exists an abyss that no talent can comprehend‖ as Elie Wiesel, the
Nobel Prize – winning novelist and Holocaust survivor has said. Still the amount of the material regarding the Holocaust – scholarly writings and discussions, films, television
programs, musical compositions, plays, photography, and internet materials, is enormous. Sixty years after the end of the war, questions continue concerning the ethnical and artistic representation of the Holocaust. Which is the best method to present the massacre of 6 million Jews? Are there words or images or sounds to describe such a disaster? Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish writer who himself survived Auschwitz, believed that ―our words‖ describe different types of hungriness, tiredness, and pain:
They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and
suffering in their homes. If Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would
have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole
day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants,
cloth jacket and trousers, and in one‘s body nothing but weakness, hunger and
8knowledge of the end drawing nearer.
The next section of this paper will provide a few theoretical methods concerning the representation of the Holocaust in art/ movies. This part will propose a possible historical background for the next chapters, in order to better understand the way the Holocaust is presented in the selected movies. How did Nazi policy change from the relocation of the Jews to mass murder? Why or why not is the Holocaust unique? Why did not the Jews react to Hitler‘s anti- Semitic plans? These questions will find their answers in this first chapter.
In section three of the paper I will present the three American movies that I have already mentioned: The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, directed by George Stevens), The
Pawnbroker (1964, directed by Sidney Lumet) and Schindler’s List (1993, directed by Steven
Spielberg). I am making distinction between American and European movies because the American film industry has its own characteristics that make it different from the European
6 Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History, New England, University Press of New England, 1987, XIII 7 Marrus, ibid, 2 8 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz. Touchstone Book, 1996, 123
one. It has been widely discussed the ―commercialization‖ of the Holocaust promoted by Hollywood and I believe that a special section for the American movies would help us to comprehend better the differences between Hollywood and European film industry. My second reason is actually a very ―technical‖ one. Because this paper represents the final project for the American Studies Master Program, so my preoccupation for American movies is completely understandable. For the same purpose the forth section will provide a comparison between Schindler’s List (1993, directed by Steven Spielberg) – the best known
Hollywood film concerning the Holocaust, and La Vita e Bella (1997, director Roberto
Benigni) maybe one of the best European productions about the destruction of the European Jews in the Second World War. Lina Wertmuller‘s Seven Beauties (1975) will also be
presented in this section as La Vita e Bella’s forerunner.
Art represents, illustrates, yet it does not copy…at least not through replication. This is one of the reasons why I chose The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List for comparison;
both movies are based on a true story, but differ widely in their methods. And although both have some of the same intention, a comparison of their methods and goals will highlight the variety and complexity of the ways in which Holocaust materials have been used. A discussion of the other films will reveal further how artists attempt their individual way of ―representing‖ the Holocaust.
One might ask why such a subject? Surely the systematic killing of the European Jews has gained its place as one of the most important events in history, the attention that this event has drawn being incommensurable. Still, for a long while, the Holocaust has been considered a very sensitive subject and the movies I will discuss are the best examples I know that can provide insight and understanding into the historical event that still attracts uncountable readers and writers who seek to know more about this dark chapter in recent human history.
2. Historical and Artistic Holocaust
The Final Solution – the murder of the Jews of Europe became the plan of the Nazi
regime led by Adolph Hitler. This event is now known in history under the name of the Holocaust - the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. The term Holocaust, began to be widely used in the 1960‘s but its origin goes back in the third century B. C.
Holokaustos comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament and signifies the burnt sacrificial offering dedicated exclusively to God – the idea of sacrifice or martyrdom of Jews
9being preferred in this reference, rather than victimizers.
The first section deals with some of the historical events between 1933 and 1945 and asks a number of questions: how did Nazi policy change from the relocation of the Jews to mass murder? Is the Holocaust Unique? And if so, why? Why did not the Jews react to Hitler‘s anti-Semitic plans? In the second part I will try to provide a few theoretical concepts for a better understanding of the Holocaust‘s representation in art. Which is the best method to present such an atrocity? Are there some words/images/sounds better able to describe the Holocaust?
9 Marrus, ibid, 3
2.1. Historical Holocaust
10 In January 1933 the Nazi regime came to power in Germany, this was the beginning of one of the darkest pages in modern history. But before 1933 a few events deserve to be mentioned that are relevant to the story, most of them related to Adolf Hitler.
11 Hitler and other SS members
Adolf Hitler was born on 20 April 1889 as the son of an Austrian border policeman. He fought in the First World War and he succeeded to the rank of corporal and to get a decoration on the Western Front. Immediately after the war Hitler became member of the German Worker's Party. When Hitler joined the party, it was comprised of only a few members. We can not really talk about an organized party because there was no platform, but the right-wing orientation was consonant with Hitler's doctrine. He saw this party as a way to reach the power he had been dreaming of, and his hatred towards the Jews became part of the organization's political platform. Later, the name of the party was changed to the National
10 Most of the historical dates were provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Web and the Holocaust Encyclopaedia, available on World Wide Web at: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/. Other information
were provided by About Library, available on World Wide Web at:
http://history1900s.about.com/library/holocaust/blholocaust.htm 11 http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/