The Holo­caust on Film

People have died of star­va­tion before, and people did burn alive before. But that is not Auschwitz. What, then, is Auschwitz? I don’t have the word to express it; I don’t have the name for it. Auschwitz is a primal phenomenon . .  Wherever there is human­kind, there is Auschwitz.”

Ka-Tzetnik, The Code

The Holo­caust remains the single most trau­matic memory of the bloody and war-torn twen­tieth century. It is not so much the scale of it or the atro­cities it involved. It is not even our shock and disgust that a so-called civil­ised nation could behave so barbar­ic­ally. It is because the produc­tion line of death that the Nazis created is really no more than a night­marish exten­sion of the indus­trial society we live in: one in which human beings them­selves become the product (“articles” in the Nazi parlance) to be used up and exploited with the greatest effi­ciency: bones turned to fertil­iser, fat boiled down for soap, hair used to stuff mattresses.

The Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski talks about an “Auschwitz Universe“, a different version of reality. He believed those who exper­i­enced it became tainted by it; they became privy to a hideous ‘secret’ that meant they could no longer view the world as a stable and safe place to live in.

Borowski reminds us that many of the monu­ments to civil­isa­tion we most admire, like the Coli­seum in Rome or the Pyramids, were built out of the blood and suffering of slave labour. If the Nazis had succeeded in creating their Thou­sand Year Reich’, wouldn’t the pris­oners who were worked to death in Auschwitz for IG Farben have been forgotten just as quickly?

As the passing of time distances us from these events, we are already seeing signs of that ‘forget­ting’ taking place and we can be grateful for the film records, both fictional and factual, that coun­teract that memory-loss. It can be sobering when you next watch some 1940s Holly­wood romantic comedy to think of what was going on in Europe at the same time.

What is most heart­breaking about much of the footage that survives is the recog­nis­ab­ility of these people cast as victims: the women dressed to imitate Holly­wood fashion, the men who look like our own fathers and grand­fathers. History has yet to provide a comforting distance


Holly­wood and the Holocaust

Fiction­al­ising the Holocaust

The bulk of liter­ature about the Holo­caust consists of either biograph­ical or histor­ical accounts based on the testi­mony of those who parti­cip­ated and its literary qual­ities have tended to be seen as less important than the raw impact of the testi­mony itself. But there have also been attempts by writers of talent, including non-participants, to commu­nicate through writing that expresses a more subjective viewpoint.

You can find this ‘literary’ quality in Borowski’s laconic short stories, in the books of Primo Levi and Elie Weisel.  It is most evident in the passionate irony of the semi-fictional novels written by Yehiel Denur (Ka-Tzetnik 135633) about his family. (Few modern writers have success­fully tackled the subject but Ian McMillan comes close in his trilogy of novels Proud Monster, Orbit of Dark­ness and Village of A Million Spirits)

Attempts at fictional portrayals of the Holo­caust on film have always been surrounded by contro­versy. Reac­tions have varied from those who regard any attempt as a kind of blas­phemy to those who judge such narrat­ives by stand­ards of verisimil­itude. The normal license for imagin­ative rein­ven­tion that is granted to works of fiction is circum­scribed by a rever­ence for histor­ical facts in this case.

And yet facts alone, even starkly presented, cannot always make the emotional connec­tions that allow us to truly under­stand events, to identify ourselves with them in the way that fiction allows us to do.

The Germans, for example, knew about the role of the Holo­caust in their history, their young people had been taught about in schools; but when the Amer­ican miniseries Holo­caust was shown on German tele­vi­sion in the eighties, it had an unpre­ced­ented impact on its audience.

Nobody could pretend that Holo­caust was anything other than a piece of popu­list tele­vi­sion enter­tain­ment, with most of the typical flaws of the format. The point was the reframing of a familiar story. It made a connec­tion that worthier efforts had failed to make and should be given credit for that.

War and Remem­brance 1988

An Amer­ican mini-series about the fate of an Amer­ican family during WW2 with only partial focus on the story of the Holocaust.

While some of this coverage is hum-drum ‘human drama’ in a soap opera register, there are one or two scenes that aspire to greater depth (notably graphic scenes showing the massacre at Babi Yar).

This one takes us with one of the main char­ac­ters into the gas chamber itself and does it with some compas­sion and dignity.

Playing For Time 1980

Based on the memoirs of Fania Fenelon, who was a member of the Auschwitz orchestra, and scripted by Arthur Miller, this tv drama was most contro­ver­sial because of the casting of Vanessa Redgrave, an outspoken Palestinian sympath­iser at the time.

Miller’s script, as you would expect, is not lacking in quality but the portrayal only fitfully illu­min­ates its broader subject matter

Out Of The Ashes 2003

Like Fania Fenelon’s memoir above, this is another survivor’s story. Gisella Perl (Christine Lahti) is a Hungarian doctor and ex-inmate of Auschwitz, now facing a panel of US immig­ra­tion officers who are to determine, amongst other things, her culp­able involve­ment in the medical exper­i­ments of Josef Mengele (Jonathan Cake).

Although the dram­at­isa­tion of her life is nothing out of the ordinary, the actual biograph­ical details, and some of the perform­ances make sections of it very powerful.

(In that way it is repres­ent­ative of many similar fictional adapt­a­tions based on the testi­mony of survivors – they are rarely great art but the under­lying facts are undeni­ably compel­ling to an audience).

The Last Butterfly 1991

Tom Courtney stars in this slightly whim­sical story of a selfish mime artist who finds himself in Ther­esi­en­stadt employed as a children’s enter­tainer and discovers within himself an unex­pected altruism.
Although there undoubtedly were such people (the story is supposedly based on truth), this film’s popu­list style and ambi­tions contrasts unfa­vour­ably with, say, Andrzej Wajda’s much starker and more honest film, Korczak 1990, about a (real) man who ran a Jewish orphanage and accom­panied his charges to their death in Auschwitz.

The Grey Zone 2001

This is, remark­ably, an Amer­ican film with a distinctly European feel. It is about the revolt of the Sonder­kom­mando in Auschwitz (those pris­oners charged with disposing of the dead who were gassed) and is based on histor­ical fact.

While some of the story-lines feel didactic, overall this is an accurate and unflinching portrait of a gangster-like under­world built on the harsh laws of survival without the usual Holly­wood gloss.


The European Vision

Relat­ively few of us in the west now have had a direct exper­i­ence of war; even those gener­a­tions in Britain and America who lived through World War 2 did not exper­i­ence occu­pa­tion by an enemy invader.

This, the histor­ical prox­imity of exper­i­ence is what distin­guishes European films about the Holo­caust from those made by Holly­wood. Eastern Europe, in partic­ular, has cultiv­ated a dark spirit of fatalism and irony in defence against the suffering inflicted upon it, and this inev­it­ably colours its portrayal of one of the darkest epis­odes in its history.

Fate­less 2005

Based on a very famous Hungarian novel, this tells the story of a boy who returns from Auschwitz and finds himself changed and out of step with post-war Budapest.

Start­lingly it asserts that, even amongst the horror of the camps, there was real beauty. The cine­ma­to­graphy manages to convey this as well.

Passenger 1963

Incom­plete before the prema­ture death of its director, Andrzej Munk, this Polish film tells the story of two women meeting on a sea-voyage after the war: one a former pris­oner and the other an SS Ward­ress in a concen­tra­tion camp.

The completed section of the film mainly deals with the ‘flash­back’ to their wartime exper­i­ence. It has many original and moving moments, though perhaps not the feeling of striking authen­ti­city that comes across in The Last Stage (see below).

L’Enclos 1961

This gritty French drama is about a German polit­ical pris­oner and a Jew, both inmates in a camp, who are put into an enclosure and pitched against each other in a fight to the death by the cynical Nazi guards to prove theories of racial superiority.

Although the Nazis are portrayed in a stereo­typ­ical fashion, the film has an integ­rity that makes it stand out amongst others of that period that were broadly more concerned with portraying moral issues than depicting the life and condi­tions of the camp.

Kapo 1959

Gillo Ponte­corvo, an Italian Jew, is best known for The Battle Of Algiers (1966) but Kapo, made in 1959, is also remark­able, being one of the first fictional accounts of what was still a raw subject.

It tells the story of a Jewish girl who survives the concen­tra­tion camps by concealing her iden­tity and even­tu­ally becoming a kapo, one of the Nazis hated overseers.

Susan Stras­berg, who played Anne Frank on Broadway but failed to get the movie role, is here cast not as a victim but as a conflicted young woman forced to make diffi­cult moral choices. The cine­ma­to­graphy is delib­er­ately high contrast, suggesting a news­reel style.

Trans­port from Para­dise 1967

This Czech film is about the ‘Ther­esi­en­stadt Ghetto’, actu­ally a concen­tra­tion camp, that was the Nazi’s attempt to fool the Red Cross into believing they were treating the Jews humanely.

The film’s title is ironic and more irony is extracted from the Nazi attempt to make a propa­ganda film about condi­tions in the camp – meaning that you are often watching a film about film­making involving terror and coercion.

It contrasts quite starkly with Holly­wood treat­ments of the same subject, notably Holo­caust, War & Remem­brance and the slightly senti­mental The Last Butterfly 1991.

Land­scape After battle 1970

The main char­acter in master director Andrzej Wajda’s film is based on Tadeusz Borowski and the film describes the state­less limbo that ex-prisoners found them­selves in imme­di­ately after liber­a­tion. Moments of lyri­cism contrast with harsh­ness in a story that is both poet­ical and allegorical.

The Last Stage 1948

Like Passenger, this is a post-war Polish film but made in 1948 and features many actors who, like the director herself, were incred­ibly actual ex-inmates of Auschwitz.

Parts of the film are clumsy Soviet propa­ganda in the ‘socialist realism’ style but the scenes of camp life; roll calls, petty brutal­ities and the domin­ance of the kapos, have the unmis­tak­able ring of truth.

As authen­ti­city goes, this is prob­ably the most authentic fictional portrayal of camp condi­tions ever put on celluloid.

Romeo, Juliet and Dark­ness 1960

Despite its fanciful title, this really is a simple and affecting story about an ordinary teen­ager who helps a young Jewish girl to hide in his apart­ment building.

As they get to know each other, a wary and antag­on­istic rela­tion­ship develops into some­thing deeper but the film never veers into sentimentality.

Like Wajda’s A Gener­a­tion, this film reminds you again that the ardour and essen­tial inno­cence of the young cannot be extin­guished by even the most brutal circumstances.


Docu­mentary footage of the Holo­caust inev­it­ably has a power that no fictional recre­ation can replicate, yet it also inev­it­ably is shaped by some kind of contex­tual framing when it is presented. When directors and editors become involved in this process, the results are occa­sion­ally exceptional.

Night and Fog 1955

Alain Resnais’ assembly of docu­mentary footage is heavily inflected by his commentary which is quiet but full of a passionate indig­na­tion. His weapon of choice is often irony but when he exclaims “Dear God …” you can feel rage and sorrow under­pin­ning his disbelief.

Be warned – some of the imagery in this clip is quite hard to take.

Other case studies
the_pawnbroker THE PAWNBROKER 1961
Sidney Lumet’s study of a Holo­caust survivor desper­ately trying to detach himself from the humanity around him was a land­mark film of the early 60’s and remains one of the most powerful Amer­ican films on the subject.
Sophie_thmb SOPHIE’S CHOICE 1982
Based on William Styron’s novel, this was an early eighties love story in the ‘new America’ of European immig­rants. The revel­a­tions about a survivor’s past are used as part of the film’s powerful denouement.
  • posner:

    All I want to say is that I am abso­lutely amazed at your know­ledge of that dark period in human history.
    I would also like to know more about Borowski

    I was not aware of the huge number of films dealing with the Holocaust

    Thank you for your information


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