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 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)
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 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)
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 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)
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)
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.