How Hollywood Does the Holocaust

What kind of role has the Holocaust played in American Hollywood films?

This historical event has had a “touchy-feely” relationship with Hollywood and has just recently gotten to the point where the tragedy and horror can be depicted in a more revealing light. Movies about the Holocaust never uttered the word “Jew” until it was clear that the Post-WWII era had begun. Prior to this era, the actual footage and reenactments of the nature of the Nazis were not revealed in movies either in an effort to shelter audiences from the reality. With time and some impatience from family members of those who went through the WWII genocide, these horrors became part of the films being made about the Holocaust. Whether this is because filmmakers wanted audiences to be informed and understand the brutality that came from the event or if it was because of the grace period that stood between the actual events and the timing of the new films, Hollywood made much more solid attempts to bring the tragedy to the big screen.

In general, the Holocaust has received some negative feedback from its Hollywood movies. Like any other historical event the more time that passes, the more out of touch we are with the reality of that actual event and all we have to go off of are these Hollywood depictions. The debate over Holocaust movies is if the images do the reality any justice and if the brutal deaths suffered by innocent people are depicted accurately. There is also debate over the depiction of the Nazis in the major Hollywood films and whether or not they are glorified in their character parts. Regardless of the controversy that comes along with an event this embedded into the world’s history, the Holocaust has all of the elements for Hollywood to be able to make award-winning films. Hollywood has recognized the gold mine that comes along with this historical event and has used it many times.

Schindler’s List

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Schindlers List

Produced by Steven Spielberg, Schindlers List is a movie adaptation of a fictional book based on the story of a real man and a real situation. Schindlers List was able to be a fiction movie but still inform its audiences at the beginning of the film that what they are about to see is “based on a true story” (Raven). This fictional story about a real man, Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), is all in black and white. Whether this was done by Spielberg to appeal to the historical eye or to take the color out of a time that did not seem to have any color, this was an artistic measure taken that is very important to note about the content of the movie itself. Black and white film connotes real life footage and events that actually occurred, and Spielberg may have been touching upon the historical accuracy of his film and trying to portray events that actually happened.

Schindlers List, like every other Hollywood movie, has scenes that have been dramatized for entertainment purposes. For example, Oskar Schindler has gotten the attention of a few biographers who say that Schindler did not even start the list that is mentioned in the title, but that the list with names of Jewish workers in his factory who he wanted to be sent to Czechoslovakia where they would be safe from the Nazis was the work of his assistant (McD). Oskar is portrayed as a hero in this movie, when it is argued if his intentions were to help those living in fear safe from harm or to benefit his own business.

Another aspect of this film that implies its historical accuracy is its length. Longer Hollywood films are associated with real life events to most audiences. People watching films assume that the longer it is, the more likely it is to be based off of facts (hence why it continues to go on and on). In the movie, Schindler is a member of the Nazi party who recognizes the evil that the concentration camps hold, and realizes that he has the power to save lives through his factory. But while watching this film it is clear that the place of the Jewish people is to fill a role of incompetent people who can only be helped by others. Perhaps the film, while accurately showing the horrific concentration camps better than most Hollywood films, follows the life of Schindler too closely while forgetting to go into the same detail about the Jewish experience.

The Pianist

Spilzman walking through streets of Warsaw ghetto
Spilzman walking through streets of Warsaw ghetto in the film The Pianist

Originating as a memoir, The Pianist follows the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman who is a Jewish young man living in Poland during the Nazi takeover. He is a pianist who found his escape in music and was ultimately saved by his talent when a Nazi hears him play the piano. This film is much more autobiographical and therefore has some fact that it can be compared to. When researching the facts behind Szipilman’s real-life situation, most of the movie is in fact accurate (WWII Films). The director of the film, Roman Polanski, is “a survivor (from Krakow) of the horrific events of that time” (Watson) which contributes to its historical accuracy.

The Pianist defies the negative critiques that Hollywood has received for its Hollywood movies; it accurately shows the brutal life of the Warsaw ghettos and Szipilman is a character that is not glorified or someone in the shadows, but a “witness who was there, saw, and remembers” (Ebert). It is these images of the living conditions of the Jews in the ghettos that provide a gut-wrenching truth for the viewer. Audience members become very attached to Szpilan throughout the film, making it even more difficult to watch the dehumanization of him and his family. When Spilzman leaves the Warsaw ghetto and is managing to stay alive, eating out of garbage cans and living literally on the streets, we are saddened and embarrassed for his conditions.

The Pianist depicts the loneliness and fear of the Holocaust through the eyes of one individual. This is an effective and accurate display, allowing audiences to see a part of the Holocaust that is not always discussed. The lives of Jewish families when Nazis were just beginning to infiltrate is shadowed by memories of gas chambers and concentration camps; however, this film brings audiences back to the root of terror for the Jewish population.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Bruno and Shmuel building their friendship through the barbed wire during the film.
Bruno and Shmuel building their friendship through the barbed wire during the film. (Scene from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas)

This Hollywood movie, which is also more recent and based on a novel, takes a much different approach to showing the impact of the Holocaust. The story follows two young boys and how they form an unexpected friendship, considering that one of them is the son of a Nazi party member (Bruno) and the other one is living in a concentration camp (Shmuel). The young boys represent innocence in a time of hate and ultimately they are both killed in a gas chamber when Bruno disguises himself as a Jew and wears the “striped pajamas” to see what the inside of the camp looks like. His family tries to come save him but it is too late.

This film is clearly more emotional and is not supposed to be based on fact, but rather meant to show a side of the Holocaust that people do not get to often see. The critiques of this film are that it is overly dramatized and that two little boys would not be able to form a friendship through the barbed wire considering the amount of security guards they had at the camps. Another criticism is that young boys who were not capable of working were put into the gas chambers when they first arrived to the camps, not later on (Schickel). Also, the characters all speak with British accents when they are supposed to be in Nazi Germany which can throw you off at first (Bergler Blog). This movie requires the audience member to dismiss their knowledge of the Holocaust and immerse themselves into the minds of the young boys who are unaware of their own situations.

This film pulls at the heartstrings of audience members that some of the Holocaust movies do not. Having a story about children, whether its historically accurate or not, promotes innocence and you cannot help but feel deep sadness for them. Even if there is not much history or fact in the storyline, this “story” is an important piece to weave into the history of the Holocaust.

Hollywood has used the Holocaust as a means of entertainment and it is highly debated whether it has been done appropriately. Is this an event that is off limits for movie producers or is it something that has gained more respect and education through the films it is portrayed in?

Works Cited

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Historical Accuracy.” : The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The Bergler, n.d. Web. 26 June 2014.

“Historical Accuracy of WWII Films.” Historical Accuracy of WWII Films. The Pianist, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.

McD, David. “Historical Accuracy of Schindler’s List.” Yahoo Contributor Network. Yahoo Voices, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.

“Movie Reviews and Ratings by Film Critic Roger Ebert | Roger Ebert.” All Content. Sun Times, n.d. Web. 26 June 2014.

Raven, Gregory. “Schindler’s List: A Review.” ‘Schindler’s List:’ A Review. Institute for Historical Review, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.

Schickel, Richard. “: A Failed Holocaust Fable.” Time. Time Inc., 07 Nov. 2008. Web. 26 June 2014.

Watson, Chris. “The Pianist as a Historical Document.” The Pianist as a Historical Document. The Bicycling Guitarist, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Chisholm

    The Pianist absolutely beats Schindler’s List in my op.

  2. Film is a wonderful and effective way to reach people’s heads and hearts and can help us all recognize and acknowledge the similarities in our stories, and when any one group of us suffers, we all fail.

  3. Herb Noe

    You can so easily just make a Holocaust film, and guaranteed it will spur a lot of Oscar buzz.

  4. The Grey Zone should be on this list. The ending to that movie left me speechless.

    • bzukovich657

      When originally writing this paper I had used a few more movies as support and the Grey Zone was one of them. I completely agree with you about the ending! There are so many films about the Holocaust it was difficult to narrow down my analysis.

  5. Excellent! I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. My son is studying about the Holocaust in school right now, so this is perfect for him (and me). Nicely done.

  6. My personal favorite Holocaust movie (originating as a book) is the Book Thief because I think the Book Thief highlights how young adult audiences can be targeted and used in the story itself. I think that’s what makes me appreciate The Boy In The Striped Pajamas from your list. I do like your list and the premise overall.

  7. Liz Kellam

    I think any film about WWII, Nazis, or the Holocaust are always going to be box office gold. It is a period in history that we still learn from and don’t want to forget the things that happened. It also brought about so many changes in our way or life, especially for women who had to step up during war time. There are even movies about Nazi-zombies now! It is an event that we, hopefully, will continue to teach about and learn from.

  8. Jemarc Axinto

    I feel awful for not having seen these movies and need to severely reevaluate my life choices.

    That being said, what are your thoughts on Hollywoods use of Nazis as fallback villains? Or how this then transitioned into middle Eastern terrorism in post 9/11?

    • bzukovich657

      That is a GREAT point/question and although I haven’t done too much research on that I would argue that the new “enemy” in films is the Middle East. I am thinking of pretty much all military movies that have recently come out and been big in theaters that are located in the Middle East, making them look easily dominated and perpetuating the stereotypes. That is just my opinion and I realize it probably sounds cynical but I truly think that films depict the current enemy and right now that is terrorists from the Middle East.

    • bzukovich657

      Sorry, I meant to post this directly to you!

      That is a GREAT point/question and although I haven’t done too much research on that I would argue that the new “enemy” in films is the Middle East. I am thinking of pretty much all military movies that have recently come out and been big in theaters that are located in the Middle East, making them look easily dominated and perpetuating the stereotypes. That is just my opinion and I realize it probably sounds cynical but I truly think that films depict the current enemy and right now that is terrorists from the Middle East.

      • Perhaps Nazis are fallback villains because they are white. Filmmakers can use them as villains, have them be universally recognizable as evil, and not be called out for being racist. The Middle Eastern terrorist-as-villain is recognizable, but vulnerable to the critique of racist stereotyping.

  9. Schindler’s List was an outstanding adaptation of Thomas Kenealy’s powerful and beautifully penned novel based on meticulous research. The book and film have done much to publicize the horrors of the Holocaust, and keep alive the memory of its 6 million innocent victims.

  10. Kory Shin

    These movies are so powerful. Great list!

  11. There is another very good movie on the topic with a little boy and his father taken to a concentration camp and the father was joking all the time so that the child would believe it’s all a big joke and wouldn’t get terrified. The father will die shortly before their liberation but the boy escapes — all along he believed that they were playing a funny game.It is a pity I can not remember the title. I bless this lens.

  12. Stegall

    The Boy in the Striped pajamas is a great movie.

  13. peebles

    So many movies that i never saw. Now with your article i can start and watch these movies one by one, i’m so exited.

  14. Impressive piece. The Pianist is my personal favorite. Will watch the others mentioned in the article,

  15. Idiot Wind

    Bzukovich657, I love how you narrowed down your choices in this analysis. I have not seen The Boy in the Striped Pajamas yet, but I have read the book, and I can attest to the criticism that boys who were not suitable for working were disposed of immediately. I often question who the real evil is here. Is it Hollywood, for inaccurately depicting the horrors of the Holocaust purely for entertainment purposes?

  16. Fantastic subject which should never be forgotten. The Holocaust has affected everyone on this planet in some way, shape or form.

  17. The Pianist by Polanski is an excellent Holocaust film

  18. Get rid of ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ unless you happen to think murdering Jews is a good idea, and only a bad one if you don’t build the barriers high enough to allow nice people to wander through and get exterminated instead. Obscene.

    • Of course “murdering Jews” is not a good idea, yet many holocaust films deal with not only this, but Jews turning in Jews for money, like Paul Verhoeven’s excellent 2006 film Black Book, about a Jewish double agent posing as a blond gentile to try to crack the ‘mole’ in their midst who is turning over escaping Jews to the Nazis for part of the wealth they are taking with them.. based on a true story…

  19. It’s interesting that I had been thinking on this recently about the idea if Hollywood has been too “in love” with the Holocaust. I can’t help but wonder if it is good to constantly remind people of what happened during WW2, but since I wonder about the desensitization of the general public. I worry about the time when the movie depiction and the understanding of the Holocaust will just be considered as “unpleasant” as violence in media or news, rather than an understood tragedy and horror.

  20. i’ve seen 3 of them and they are all great movies

  21. S.A. Takacs

    Interesting arguments here. Nice article!

  22. Interesting read. “The Book Thief” is really the only Holocaust movie that intrigued me, and that came from reading the book. The Holocaust will always spur debate and passionate opinions given its complexity and multiple viewpoints, but also the peek into one very dark side of humanity.

  23. It’s difficult to talk about Hollywood films and the Holocaust without mentioning exploitation. Spielberg is infamous for his manipulative techniques, and I think Schindler’s List is among his films that fall prey to his emotive tactics. I often hear people say “Schindler’s List is a must see,” as if it’s some sort of canonical film, one that any self-respecting human needs to see to know about the Holocaust. I beg to differ. Night and Fog is what you need to see. Fiction struggles to comprehend the immensity of these atrocities, and manipulative Hollywood techniques do a disservice to the raw, brutal inhumanity of the Holocaust. Make these films, sure, but don’t make them your basis of knowledge for the Holocaust.

  24. Sophie’s Choice is one of my favorites because of the representation on the life after concentration camps as well as the time spent within. It represented a desperation that never left the victims after they left the camp.

  25. The Holocaust instantly triggers strong emotions and that’s all Hollywood needs to know to write its own stories and make its own films and, yes, create its own histories. As such, this article, in and of itself, becomes a part of the story as well and assists Hollywood in framing the Holocaust tales, fact or fiction, so that audiences can participate. I, for one, am fascinated with any retelling of the Holocaust episode and wish that those most affected would tell the story of the Middle Passage: we could witness the same kind of enslavement, torture, persecution, triumph, heroism, wonder, amazement…. Then we could critiques again.

  26. While the only movie I have seen on this list currently is the Boy In The Striped Pajamas, in a class I took in high school there was a unit on the Holocaust and we talked about movies that were made and their impact on what people know about the actual events that took place. I think this article is an apt point to consider when it comes to viewing these movies and remembering not to simply take everything at face-value for being 100 percent accurate, because it is likely not.

  27. I’m so happy that someone has taken the time to research all of this. As a Jew, it means a lot that Hollywood should depict the Holocaust with some kind of respect for the actual event because of how intense it was. It does surprise me that people only refer to the movies instead of the actual event though. Sure the movie may be based on a true event but the circumstances are completely different.

  28. I really find interest in movies about the Holocaust. It was such a devastating time, but it does draw some fantastic story lines for movies. This was a very good topic. My only critique is that I wish you would have swayed a little to one side rather than tell it as a third party. However, great article!

  29. The first thing that popped into my head when reading this article was “The Book Thief,” and its corresponding movie…I wonder how interesting a comparison between portrayals of the Holocaust in print and film would be? Obviously there is a mountain of literature on the Holocaust, and much of it has been made into film. Also, that raises the question as to why there are debates over the appropriateness of depictions of the Holocaust in movies as opposed to books?

  30. A very interesting read. I’ve only seen one Holocaust movie, The Boy in Striped Pajamas, because it was required by my school. But, I have read a lot of books and seen a lot of documentaries on the history channel. And I did always wonder how anyone could make a movie out of something so tragic and brutal, but you’re right, it is a way to educate and inform people and appeal to their emotions in ways that often ‘sterile’ documentaries can’t. This definitely gave me something to think about.

  31. alustick

    I thought it was great to point out that a lot of Holocaust films try to be factually based. While others, promote emotional triggers. It seems to be a challenge to have both, when one is so familiar and the other is too harsh to bear.

  32. I think a lot of the reason why Hollywood keeps making these movies is, rather cynically, because they are most often considered Academy Award contenders (provided that they are released at the right time of year for consideration). Regardless of actual motive (most likely financial and/or for the accolades), the Holocaust is an important subject matter worthy of study and analysis. Film can show younger generations who did not live through this kind of atrocity the visceral horror through striking visuals.

  33. I don’t think it is necessarily “inappropriate” to create Holocaust movies. This is a major way to reach modern audiences, and even if some fictionalization occurs, the emotions and historical context can come through. Personally, I think it is important to keep these kinds of films around as a way to remember WWII and everything that transpired, especially in a world that gets a great deal of its information and understandings from sources like this.

  34. I think the next step here is to look at the way that the iconography of the Shoah, and of the Nazi regime more broadly, seeps into other cultural representations of evil or totalitarian power – the furor over the most recent Nicki Minaj video seems like a starting place.

  35. Daniel

    Your examples serve you very well, but I think (and don’t take this the wrong way) it may have been an interesting idea to look at a film that takes the Nazist perspective on the subject of the Holocaust. It would be interesting to see the dichotomy between what the Nazis claimed was happening at the time and what we know happened now and make films on.

  36. Very interesting and insightful. Three years ago, I accompanied a group of high school seniors to Poland. I was disturbed by the fact that so many of the historic places we went had “As seen in Schindler’s List” or “Schindler’s List filmed here” signs on display. Even our tourguide at Auschwitz commented, “As you may recall from Schindler’s List…” It disturbed me deeply that we were standing at the site where the actual tragedy took place, and we were being encouraged to think of the events in Hollywood terms.

  37. Diego Santoyo

    Very intriguing article, nice work.

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