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The 21 Best Movies About The Holocaust

03 June 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Melinda Gemesi

the-pianist

Film is a medium that is able to capture history as it happened and preserve the images of the past. Hence, since its invention, it has been an instrumental means of recording the most important events of human history, especially the atrocities of war. Besides documenting however, film also offers the opportunity to construct entirely or partly fictional stories.

On this occasion, we are not going to discuss the relationship between reconstruction and construction and subsequently, how ’real’ we consider the moving images of our history to be. Instead we are going to focus on the role movies play in remembrance.

By looking at the collection of documentaries and fictional films of a certain historic event, we are able to see how our memories of that event have changed over time.

After WWII, several films were produced on the Holocaust, and these pictures became important elements in the process of remembrance and as documents/testaments of the accounts of survivors. While some of these films are instrumental in rendering history and therefore turning the focus on the victims of the Holocaust, others bear witness to the conscience of a new generation trying to come to terms with the shadows of their past.

 

21. Sarah’s Key (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010)

Sarah’s Key

Sarah’s Key is one of the few entirely fictional films on the Holocaust, featuring a past and present layer of narrative. The past goes back to 1942, the year when the deportation of the French Jews began in Paris with the infamous Vel d’Hiv Roundup.

Following the Strazynski family, whose daughter Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) left her little brother locked up behind a secret door at their home; the film represents the humiliating terror of this event particularly well. The present thread of the narrative follows Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a journalist working on a story about the Roundup.

Where Sarah and Julia’s story meet is the flat: it turns out that Julie’s father in law was the member of the family that moved in to the place where Sarah is desperate to return to open a door.

Despite Kristin Scott Thomas’ great acting, the film’s main strength is Sarah’s story. Driven by the little girl’s desperate will to find her brother, as well as some great supporting roles (Niels Arestrup playing Sarah’s foster father is memorable), the past has a well-paced and gripping narrative that makes it a worthwhile watch.

 

20. Sunshine (Istvan Szabo, 1999)

Sunshine

Ralph Fiennes appears to be a favourite choice of actor for directors working on Holocaust films. In this family drama that aspires to represent a hundred years Hungarian Jewish history, he performs as a significant member of three generations each, in a rather convincing performance.

Szabo’s film is not a perfect one, yet it is an important piece in the corpus of Holocaust films. It points out what is rarely shown in a similar way on screen: that besides being Jewish, the victims of the Holocaust were of Polish, German, French or Hungarian nationality, some of them putting their trust into their nation until the very last moment.

The Sonnenscheins changed their names and religion, and were influenced by the contradictory political ideologies that existed in Hungary over the hundred years. When the time came, they did not earnestly believe that the Holocaust could affect them too.

It did however, and even the Catholic national hero, Adam Sors (Fiennes) was sent to the death camp along with other Jews of the country. The strength of Sunshine is the grandeur of the historic tableau it represents; however, it is a shame that even the three hours running time didn’t allow the director to linger on and give a more detailed character representation, which one would expect from a family drama.

 

19. The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007)

The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters is based on the story of the Operation Bernhard – a program that was meant to destabilise the British economy by flooding the market with counterfeit notes. This micro narrative focuses on Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a counterfeiter who is able to evade death in the concentration camp due to his drawing skills.

Later, as he is transferred to Sachsenhausen to oversee the counterfeit note production, the audience is only shown glimpses of the horrible images of the Holocaust. Death, terror and famine are mainly present through their absence. They exist on the other side of the wall which separates barracks 18 and 19 from the shocking reality of the rest of the camp.

For a viewer who is familiar with Holocaust films, the rare instances when the evidence of the genocide manages to cross the wall are more than enough to place the story in context though, underlining the characters’ moral dilemma that this film is really about.

 

18. Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987)

Au revoir les enfants

Louis Malle’s film is an extraordinary, beautiful and personal confession, even though in terms of mise-en-scene it is less innovative than the director’s previous works. Au Revoir Les Enfants is based on Malle’s experience as a child when he studied at a religious school and became friends with a Jewish boy – he only found out that the boy was Jewish when he was deported.

In the film Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a well-pampered boy from a rich family and a leader at school. When he returns to school after a holiday, Pere Jean introduces three new students. At first he is having an antagonistic relationship with the awkward Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), but they soon become friends and Julien finds out about his friend’s secret: the boy’s real name is Kippelstein and he is a Jew.

The Golden Lion-winner movie is a school drama and a moving film about childhood nostalgia from the point of view of an adult. However it is also a story about people who stood up for humane values at a time when there were not many brave enough to do this.

 

17. Fateless (Lajos Koltai, 2005)

Fateless

Fateless is a rare example of a Hungarian film achieving international success. Although it has not been nominated for an Oscar, it was clear from the very beginning that the adaptation of Imre Kertész’s Noble prize novel was going to be a big-budget production.

In Hungary, this usually entails a director with some experience in Hollywood (Lajos Koltai previously known as cinematographer of Malena and Sunshine), at least one well-known foreign actor (Daniel Craig in a cameo role) in the cast, as well as fairly traditional narrative and cinematography. Although this is a necessary compromise if producers want to secure a big budget for a film; it is bound to attract criticism among Hungarian film scholars and critics.

While in Hungary the film was criticised for being too mainstream and for not reflecting the novel’s innovative language in its visual style, it received more positive rating from foreign reviewers. It has been praised for Gyula Pados’ cinematography that represents well the bleak transition from everyday life to the camps, and for giving an unmerciful close-up of the lurid episodes of life in a camp while allowing no emotional catharsis for the audience.

 

16. Korczak (Andrzej Wajda 1990)

Korczak

Wajda became the prominent figure of Polish film as a rebellious political filmmaker. His early films, such as Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds and The Ashes were strongly critical about not just the Soviet ideology, but also about the past of Poland.

The story of Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish teacher, who set up an orphanage for Jewish kids and later accompanied them to the gas chambers, would have offered Wajda the opportunity to assess the issues of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Poland with the same critical voice, but he chose not to. Through its visuals, Korczak is a return to the director’s earlier work, but it is not a political film.

The black and white images here focus on the extraordinary moral strength of a person who discovers that when the length of life does not matter anymore, the quality still does. This late Wajda film is perhaps not innovative in terms of mise-en-scene, but it speaks about human heroism in a mature, professional way that only the most experienced, nobly aged storytellers have.

 

15. Rose’s Songs (Andor Szilagyi, 2003)

Rose’s Songs

In the act of remembering the crucial step towards preserving a memory is turning it into a myth. If in 1987 Shoah represented the passing down of one generation’s story to the next by the means of words, Rose’s Songs represents the stage when one more generation later, the history of their grandparents gradually becomes a fable or a myth.

Rose’s Songs has two heroes; the visible Geza Halasz (Franco Castellano), who supposed to be the representative of Imre Rose, and the invisible Imre Rose himself, the opera singer who hides the Halasz family in his house.

He is only present through his voice and in form of his beautiful singing that keeps the hope in the growing group of Jews that found shelter at his place. At the same time, Mr. Halasz’s presence is very evident in his love of women and in the petty tricks he plays in order to save all of them and his secrecy. Soon the audience starts suspecting that the real hero might not be the one that is invisible, but rather the wondrous Halasz, who is hiding a shocking truth about the heroic Mr. Rose.

Rose’s Songs is a fable, but not only that. It is also a truthful account on the persecution of Hungarian Jews.

 

 

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  • Immaculate Conception

    Kudos for including Amen, it is too often overlooked, despite being very convincingly written. However, what bothered me was the decision to use English, instead of German and Italian. It always cheapens the film, for me at least. Still a good picture.

  • Allister Cooper

    Surprised that Schindler’s List was at number 7; I was expecting it to be at the top. I was even more surprised to see Shoah on number 2; I thought that would be number one as well. But, ah, The Pianist emerging victorious? Not bad.

    • ReBecca Gozion

      well…i loved the pianist. absolutely loved it….in a different way than loving Shoah, which i did, & wish i could see again. number 7 is not bad for shindler’s list…it did not deserve to be at the top…its not better than shoah, or the pianist.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    I cheered in absolute euphoria when I saw Come And See. Well, it was not just because I think it’s one of the most underrated films and underrated films in general. I honestly didn’t expect it to be on this list. It’s one of those few war films that doesn’t feel like a propaganda

    • ReBecca Gozion

      i’ve not seen Come & See…i havent heard of it, even! perhaps i can find a clip or something on youtube.

  • Alexandro Sifuentes Díaz

    A big list to see this weekend!, I’d like to mention Bent (1997), maybe isn’t an awesome movie, but its a worth watching it

    • ReBecca Gozion

      very much worth watching.

  • charlyaz

    Sophie’s Choice?

  • asalways

    I can’t help thinking if there should be a list of films about WWII in Asia, especially China. It’s a shame I have no idea if the Koreans and other Asians have made those films, most likely they have. But in terms of China, that terrible wound is drastically painful, but it’s not frequently been cinematically represented, which might imply that China seems to have been more forgetful or forgiving…

    • ReBecca Gozion

      forgiving>? not on yr life!
      yes,,there should be a list about that war in asia…there ARE some, but i dont think made by them. but by us.
      but yu can read, the rape of nanking.

  • Still D.R.E.

    Schindler’s List is the best period.

    • HLLH

      It’s not even about the jewish holocaust. It’s just set in it.

      • ReBecca Gozion

        yes it IS about the holocaust….one of the many aspects of it…the women DID end up at auschwitz, by mistake, & were headed for the gas chamber. there are books, as well as movies, that explored the many ways people saved themselves, as well as how they were saved by others.
        what yu said is like saying “the boy in the striped pajamas” was not about the holocaust.

        • HLLH

          To quote Stanley Kubrick, a Jewish man himself, “[on Schindler’s List] Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t.” His comment is on point.

          • ReBecca Gozion

            i certainly agreee with yu….but that shindler’s list…is also about the holocaust…the slave labour for big businesses ,& the military, & the economy…taking their things, their hair, everything…for “success”…for germany.
            of course its–in ways–propaganda…about not all nazis being bad…even if they take advantage of slave labour, etx.
            & i always say “6 million>?…..in the camps…but more like 12 million…if yu count the ghettos & the forests….the partisans in serbia & greece & other countries.”

          • ReBecca Gozion

            & i dont mean to argue with you.

    • ReBecca Gozion

      i disagree, & obviously, so do they. i liked it a lot, but number 7 is a good place for it.

  • Chandradeep

    lol seriously? The Reader, Ida ahead of Come and See? Come and See is arguably the no.1 war film. Good to see Fateless in there.

  • intelegant

    Good list. Can I add? The Pawnbroker is a must (one of the only films to really deal with the PTSD and Rod Steiger’s finest performance), and I’d like to see Billy Wilder and Hanuš Burger’s Die Todesmühlen, (1945, English title: Death Mills), Memory of Justice (Ophüls, 1976), or even Die Befreiung von Auschwitz (Mühlen, 1985), all documentaries but v. important testaments. The two narrative films that really should be here are Ostatni Etap (Jakubowska,1947), as it’s the first narrative film (and it’s a great film), and Kapò (Ponecorvo, 1959), again just a v. good film. If you’re interested in Holocaust Cinema at a deeper level I’d recommend Kerner, A. 2011. Film and the Holocaust. Continuum, and, Weissmann, Gary. 2004. Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Attempts to Experience the Holocaust. Cornell University Press: New York. They both ask how cinema represents mass murder (how can such films offer the Hollywood Lift or hope, when for nearly all, there simply wasn’t any?), and do our images of the Holocaust come from movies, etc;

    • ReBecca Gozion

      oh yeah. the pawnbroker….i agree with everything yu said about it.
      i saw it a long time ago, & would so love to see it again. steiger is sooo great in everything he does, but that one…>? so vital.
      thank you for this list. i have only seen 9 of the films on this list, & wouldnt know where to begin to see the others.
      i watch everything that comes along (on the teevee) about the holocaust, everything. some of the movies are of course not in the
      best of the best…like “escape from sobibor”, but it started alan arking, who i just love, & he is great in everything, no matter what it is.
      & by the way, to answer yr final question here…..no. i got my
      “images” of the holocaust from books, long before i saw any movies about it. i would say though, that most people (who were not there) HaVE gotten their images from the movies about it….the same way all of us have gotten our images of the vietnam war from the movies….
      i love those war movies…but i know vets who say, about every one of them….it wasnt like that.

    • ReBecca Gozion

      oh dear. i wrote you a very long response to this, & it just leaped off the page. gone. i hate trying to rewrite something! i agree with yu about the pawnbroker, & everything yu said about it. i wish i could see it again.,daaaam, i had so much to say!
      i cant rewrite it all now. but in response to yr final “question”…..no. i did not get my “images” of the holocaust from the movies….i got it from books, which i was reading loooong before i saw any movie about the holocaust. (well,i started reading the books at 10 yrs old, & was not exposed to the early films, or many of these foreign ones)
      i have seen only nine of the movies on their list…..i wouldnt know where to begin to find them & see them now. maybe youtube.
      thank yu for this list, inteligant.

      • intelegant

        thanks Rebecca – there is a lot of current research suggest that memory is constructed from culture – so for many when they see grey pajamas and barbed wire with electrical volt thingies on top – they do construct that memory from movies, and not from books or documentaries – I agree that the documentaries and the books matter – especially Shoah as it contains first-hand witness statements.

        • ReBecca Gozion

          now that you mention it, i suppose you’re right about certain visual images we have…& how they do come from films, often moreso than from books. but as i said, i started reading about the holocaust so young, & that 1st book remains the most explicit testimony i’ve ever read, after reading so very many…the title is “i will survive”, & is a very long book. i forget the author’s name…all my books are still in boxes after a fairly recent move, & its listed in the back, in the index, of one of my books on the holocaust.
          .

        • ReBecca Gozion

          for a while i could say that i had read every testimonial written…but in these last years, more of the remaining survivors have been writing theirs, before its too late…& they die. The Cap is especially powerful. (again, my books are still in boxes…i dont remember the author’s name.)

  • Andrew Kemp

    I feel like The Grey Zone was overlooked here.

    • Lars Franssen

      Me, too!

    • ReBecca Gozion

      your’re right about that. a very good one, which i just saw for the 1st time a few months ago.

  • Michael Colleary

    The Grey Zone is an incredible film – sadly underappreciated and rarely included in lists like this. Also worth a mention – Les Miserables (’95), Hotel Terminus, Conspiracy (2001) & The Wannsee Conference (1984).

  • Várhelyi Adrián

    Saul fia (son of saul)?

    • lauramoreaux

      yes I thought of it too.

  • Carlos Silva

    The Book Thief deserved to be here

    • ReBecca Gozion

      meh. it was okay. not great. not deserving to be on the list.

    • ReBecca Gozion

      meh.i liked it alright, but thought it was simply okay.

  • victor v

    Where did Alain Resnais for Night and Fog find so many mal-nourished extras to pose as concentration campers? His footage was very convincing. He is a great filmmaker. Making stage look almost real.

  • Brian Gregory

    SON ODF SAUL-out recently

  • Ted Wolf

    Much like Come and See, The Seven Beauties belongs on this list.

  • Yolanda Anne Brown

    Too bad that “Holocaust” could not be added since its a T.V. Miniseries, but for a 1978 made-for-tv with future Hollywood icon Meryl Streep, James Woods, Rosemary Harris (Aunt May in the first 3 Spiderman movies) and David Warner among many others, it’s a heartbreaking story. And it is brutal.

    • ReBecca Gozion

      i saw that one & thought it was quite good…but one of the 21 best.
      there is one i love, & cant remember the name of it, but it stars willem defoe, who is a boxer, & has to fight to the death, over & over again, to stay alive..& to help keep his father alive, as he gets a loaf of bread as a prize, each time. its horrifying though, for him…that he has to “murder” other jews to stay alive…& its horrifying to us…to know how far one shall go, when it comes to survival…& one can only hope that we maintain our humanity….but one never really knows.

      • Yolanda Anne Brown

        Triumph of the Spirit (1989). Love it. Forgotten about that one. Thank You.

  • Carlo Beer

    Hold on, you make a list that includes Come and See and you do not put it on the number one spot?! It is possibly one of the best movies ever made. And what about Shoah? It is the single most painful cinematic experience I’ve ever had. It should be on the top!

  • Arnaldo Fernandez

    “Ida” is a yawn factory.

  • ReBecca Gozion

    a lot of my comments here, to the people below have just flown off the page. disappeared. gone. i cant go back & rewrite them all now. i hate when that happens.