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Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust
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Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2004)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Daniel Anker’s “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” is essentially split into two parts: how Nazi Germany was presented on Hollywood screens before the war (barely), and how the Holocaust was depicted on Hollywood screens after the war (ditto). But the question that haunts the documentary is this: to what extent can the Holocaust be recreated or depicted at all? Yes, one must never forget. Yes, one must bear witness. But how do you turn the great tragedy of the 20th century into entertainment?

The first example of how badly this can go was an episode of the television show, “This is Your Life,” from May 1953. The guest was the first Holocaust survivor to be interviewed on national television: Hanna Bloch Kohner. Why was she chosen? The documentary doesn’t say, but this article by Kohner’s daughter, Julie, makes it clear: Hanna’s husband was the agent for Ralph Edwards, the host of “This Is Your Life”; and once he heard Hanna’s story, and no doubt saw how pretty she was, the show found a way, as narrator Gene Hackman tells us, “to package the Holocaust for mass consumption.”

Here’s what Edwards says in his smooth, pleased-with-itself, radio announcer’s voice:

Looking at you, it’s hard to believe, that during seven short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror, and tragedy. You look like a young American girl out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.

Special guests/reunions include a fellow concentration camp inmate:

It was your friend and companion from four concentration camps. Now fate was kind to her, too, for she lives here in Hollywood: Eva Hertzberg, now Mrs. Warner Forsheim!

Worst of all? This conversation:

Edwards: You were each given a case of soap and a towel, weren’t you, Hanna?
Hanna [laughs slightly]: I don’t remember the soap.
Edwards: Well, you were sent to the so-called showers. [Hanna bows head.] Even this was a doubtful procedure because some showers had regular water, others had liquid gas. And you never knew which one you were being sent to. You and Eva were fortunate, others were not so fortunate, including your father and mother, and your husband, Carl Benjamin. They all lost their lives at Auschwitz.

It’s not just the words but the voice. He could be selling cars or hot dogs between innings of a baseball game. Instead he’s telling us of a tragedy so great, of cruelty so institutionalized and mechanized, that it obliterates the possibility of God. Tone is so at odds with subject matter as to seem the work of a madman.

Hanna Bloch Kohner on “This is Your Life!” in 1953

“You were sent to the so-called showers...”

American moviegoers got their first sense of the Holocaust in May 1945, when the newsreels showed graphic footage of the concentration and extermination camps, including, as historian Michael Berenbaum says here, “the bulldozers of Bergen-Belsen shoveling the bodies into mass graves.” Such footage also appeared in Orson Welles’ “The Stranger,” from 1946, about a Nazi war criminal living in Connecticut, but Anker ignores the film. Instead we get the two 1947 films on anti-Semitism, “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” along with a clip of “The Search” (1948), starring Montgomery Clift as an American GI trying to unite two Auschwitz survivors. We get “Singing in the Dark” (1956), starring Moishe Oysher as a Holocaust survivor with amnesia, but not “The Juggler” (1953), starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor in Israel. “Exodus,” the big-budget, All-Star cast film from 1960, goes unmentioned, too.

Generally, in the first few decades after the war, Hollywood dealt with the Holocaust only when its hand was forced by other media. The popularity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as both book and Broadway play, led to the scrubbed1950s movie version, starring model, and WASP, Millie Perkins. Television showed us “Judgment at Nuremberg” before Stanley Kramer directed his Oscar-nominated version.

Then came “Holocaust,” the nine-hour miniseries from 1978 that followed in the wake of “Roots,” and to which, we’re told, “One in every two Americans tuned in.” It went abroad, to West Germany, where it was shocking news to a younger generation, and where it led the German government to extend statute of limitations on Nazi war criminals. “In Germany they told a joke,” Berenbaum says, “about the docudrama ‘Holocaust.’ They said it had more impact than the original.”

Objections came. “TV and Theresienstadt are not compatible,” wrote Elie Wiesel in The New York Times. He called the project morally objectionable and indecent. Others complained about the soap-opera nature of the storyline, and to the fact that there were any commercials at all. “It’s not that it was bad,” says Rabbi Wolfe Kelman in a clip from an NBC Special Report, “Holocaust: a Postscript.” “It’s that it wasn’t good enough.”

But it led to the documentary “Kitty: Return to Auschwitz” (1979) and the feature film Sophie’s Choice” (1983) and to yet another mini-series, “Winds of War” (1988). And all the while, questions. Can you bear proper witness without being graphic? Can you be graphic without being exploitative? Steven Spielberg argues for “graphic” (during histrionic scenes of “Winds of War”) even as film critic Neal Gabler praises Spielberg for his restraint in “Schindler’s List.”

The debate in “Imaginary Witness,” unfortunately, isn’t at a high level. “Schindler’s List” is treated as the pinnacle in Holocaust depiction—the acclaimed, Oscar-winning film from Hollywood’s most popular director—but the doc never delves into its controversy. David Mamet, for one, in his essay, “The Jew for Export,” called it melodrama. He said it was destructive and its lesson a lie:

Members of the audience learn nothing save the emotional lesson of all melodrama, that they are better than the villain.

Gabler talks up “the casualness of the violence” in “Schindler’s List,” a rework of “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s phrase from the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1963. But, to me, “The Pianist” (2002), directed by Roman Polanski, a survivor, gets at this much better than Spielberg, a suburban kid from Arizona, ever did.

“The Pianist,” unfortunately, is a blip here, in part because it’s not a true Hollywood production, and the doc, per its title, focuses on Hollywood. I wanted to go beyond Hollywood. I wanted to see what other countries were doing. I wanted clips from “Ostatni etap,” a 1948 black-and-white Polish drama about a woman sent to Auschwitz, and “Nuit et brouillard” (1955), the powerful, half-hour documentary from Alain Resnais and poet Jean Cayrol, which was the only Holocaust documentary produced anywhere in the world during the 1950s. “Shoah” (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s 9 1/2 hour documentary-to-end-all-documentaries, goes unmentioned as well.

According to Wikipedia, 174 narrative films worldwide have been made about the Holocaust in some form—focusing on survivors, a search for Nazi war criminals, or recreating the camps themselves—and I could’ve done with a five-minute survey of some of these, and less talk from, say, Prof. Annette Insdorf, who always sounds excruciatingly helpful in explaining the most obvious thoughts.

“Imaginary Witness” is a good beginner’s guide to its subject. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that it’s not good enough.

Newsreel footage of the Holocaust (NAZI ATROCITIES!) first showed in American theaters in May 1945

—September 9, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard

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