actors, authors, books, History in Films, movies

History in Films: The Holocaust

Teaching about the Holocaust is important and a mandatory topic in schools, but sharing the stories from books and films with my students wears on me like a wet, woolen overcoat, five sizes too big. I think everyone is aware of the chestnuts, The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. 

I recommend four books that portray this Jewish chapter in history in an intriguing way: Pulitzer winning comic book, Maus I & 2 by Art Spiegelman, Second Hand Smoke, by Thane Rosenbaum, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2005). The film adaptation written and directed by Liev Schreiber is marvelous. It’s a dark comedy about a man on a quest in search of his roots and stars Elijah Wood. Incidently, Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, won top prizes for his first novel, Everything is Illuminated and his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, locked him in as a new voice in literature although some critics dislike his writing style.

There have been hundreds of films about the Holocaust since the end of WWII. A genre all unto itself, I don’t claim to have seen more than fifty, but still, that’s more than many people have seen. How do I feel about that? I mean,  “Oh, that’s a great  Holocaust film” seems a twisted thing to say and get enthusiastic about.

While all of them concern the central theme of the triumph of the human spirit or the power of friendship or the loss of faith, to rate them also seems distasteful. How do Jews feel about all the Holocaust films? Also, how about today’s Germans? How embarrassing to have Nazis be the number one association of your culture surpassing all the good in German culture like Mozart and Hegel? No wonder there are so few German comedies today.

Stuart Klawans is Jewish and a film critic. His article complained about the

incessant amount of Holocaust films and a wish to stop making them. The problem as he sees it is that people are desensitized to the violence and because it is a film, the viewer steps into the story much like a horror film and then steps out when the film is over and brushes aside the history of the event. I understand his complaint and understand all humans become hardened to a degree and even insensitive to violence.

However, I am in the polar category. I’ve seen so many of them, I brace myself because I know I will become depressed. I know I will cry. Seems like good old-fashioned masochism to me. And therein lies my problem. If you see enough of Holocaust films, the visceral pain of another’s tragedy becomes yours like a shadow or ghost following you. At some inner level, because my heritage is German, watching and reading about the Holocaust seems a flagellation of sorts, an apology to Jews for their suffering.

9781451661590_p0_v1_s260x420  The Burgdorf Cycle

Ursula Hegi writes about Nazi Germany from the perspective of common citizens. She’s an awesome writer and I highly recommend reading about Trudi, a most unusual and powerful female character in literature. 

My relatives were firmly established in the U.S. for many decades before World War II. I was born decades after the Holocaust, and yet, I feel responsible to teach “Never Again”.  Of course, my quasi-pain is nothing compared to those that suffered and their children and grandchildren who had to grapple with the experience.

As Stuart Klawans comments that Hollywood’s versions of the Holocaust like Defiance,  has been “filtered through calculated performances, invented speeches, dramatic conventions, and cinematographic effects.”

I will still analyze the newest release of a Holocaust film or book I suppose out of habit. It’s not the brutality and gruesome details that attract me. I look for a unique  delivery and the compassion.

What’s my favorite Holocaust film? Rosenstrasse.  It’s about love and devotion of German women whose Jewish husbands were prisoners in a warehouse and how one of them, the daughter of a German officer managed to free her husband. The tears come from love and satisfaction, not horror. Rent that one–It’s beautiful.

25 thoughts on “History in Films: The Holocaust”

  1. Great commentary, Cindy! Even though my heritage is neither all that much German nor Jewish, I too feel responsible to read and view Holocaust media. It seems … The morally proper thing to do.

    And yet I sometimes wonder: does the Western world focus so much on the Holocaust that we end up not giving other periods of genocide (some of them even more recent) enough attention?


        1. As a teacher, when I go hunting for resources regarding troubled Africa or S. America, for instance, I’m shocked how few choices I have. Films like Blood Diamond or Slum Dog Millionaire are invaluable for the majority of America who have no idea what’s going on in the world. Even if it includes the tricks of Hollywood, it’s a starting point for discussion. Thanks, James, for your comments 🙂


  2. Great stuff! I’m always drawn to Holocaust films. I can honestly say that considering all I’ve seen I’ve never grown desensitized. In fact the opposite is true. In not Jewish but I don’t want to ever forget the Holocaust. It’s to important of an event. There are so many heart wrenching stories to tell and I appreciate it when movies do it right. Have you seen La Rafle? It’s a fantastic French film about the Paris round ups. It’s very very good.


    1. Thanks, Keith for your comments. I find stories about the degree people go to survive inspirational. That tug at the heartstrings reminds me how fragile and special we humans are and what we are capable of. The Holocaust is that ultimate contrast–the worst and best of what humans are capable. I know your appreciation for French films, and that’s an area of weakness for me. I have not seen La Fafle, so I will do so soon! 🙂


  3. I’m quite mystified as to how it seems that those here in the States are happy to point out the holocaust of Europe yet blindly ignore the one they initiated in the land-grab of America. The last round up of Native Americans was about 170 years ago when we marched a bunch of them from the east coast to the nearly the west coast in what was known as “the Trail of Tears’. Not to mention we still institutionalized their children for years after. Barely any acknowledgement of what we did seems to make it’s way into popular literature or film. I know, there is some, but even slavery has gotten better exposure (which it should get exposure) than the American Holocaust.


    1. You are so right. It’s easy to condemn the Nazis and Hitler as a madmen when euthanasia was a biproduct of WWII around the world. The history of the U.S. includes our hand at displacement and euthanasia of the Native American. Colonization, Imperialism, and Nationalism truly wrecked the natural order of things. Thanks for your comments!


    1. Just watched it yesterday. Alan Arkin was very good (he sounds just like Christopher Walken’s voice!) the music at the end was melodramatic, otherwise, it still is strong. I appreciated the inference of the strikes that was so common back in the 80s and 90s.


  4. Holocaust films are often very heart-wrenching and tough to watch, esp. Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice and Life is Beautiful. Interesting you mentioned Everything is Illuminated as I saw that at TIFF 7 yrs ago or so though somehow I didn’t think of it as a Holocaust film. Great post as always, Cindy!


        1. It goes back and forth from the present to past. A daughter can’t understand why her Jewish mother has issues. She seeks out to find out her past and the story is amazing. It’s not like Schindler’s List. It’s really a film about love and family and healing. Hope you get a chance to see it!


  5. When I was 17, there were still people in my class who didn’t know what the Holocaust is. That is just sad.
    I don’t think it really makes you get used to violence though. Everytime I see a movie like for example on the Holocaust, I just remember how gruesome people can be and how important it is to make sure it will neevr happen again, ever. When you hear about this in history class, it seems a bit far away, but when you get to see a movie, you start to empathise with the people and then it really kicks in.
    I think.


    1. Hi! Sorry I didn’t see your comment or I would have replied sooner. Yes, you are so right. History books are good and some are bad. Statistics and summaries just don’t convey the human aspect of the event. This is where books and films come into play. No matter how crappy your life is, you can turn to a Holocaust film and see what these brave people had to deal with and those that persevered are inspirational. My life is awesome in comparison. Thank you for your comments!


I ♥ comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s