14. The Train of Life (Radau Mihaileanu, 1998)
Perhaps Life is Beautiful had the greatest international success, but it is not the first tragicomedy ever made on the Holocaust. Benigni’s film was preceded by Radau Mighaileanu’s Train of Life; it is a magical tale on the inhabitants of a Jewish village who are hoping to escape the Holocaust aboard a fake deportation train. The mastermind behind the impossible project is the village idiot, Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski), who is also the active agent of the film.
Although some critics are of the opinion that recounting the Holocaust as a comic tale is not appropriate, The Train of Life seems to prove the opposite. It is a fabulous tale from the first moment until almost the very last – but then a brilliant finale puts it into a rather different framework, bringing a bit of realism into the magical.
13. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman, 2008)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas depicts the image of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child. Extraordinarily, the main focus is on the family members of a German officer, and stays with them on their side of the fence for almost the entire length of the movie. The Jews are represented as they meet them: stumbling, dirty and painfully tired domestic workers, introduced to the children as farmers.
Despite Bruno (Asa Butterfield) questioning why farmers wear striped pajamas, his mother (Vera Farmiga) does everything in her power to maintain his innocent ignorance. The naïve child makes friends with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy from the camp, but does not make the connection that the ever-hungry kid behind the wire has technically been sentenced to death by Bruno’s own father and colleagues.
However, as smoke begins to rise from the tall chimneys nearby Bruno and his mother cannot deny the presence of the dark truth any longer. Bruno experiences the ‘otherness’ of his friend, betrayal and then guilt felt over his own disloyalty that drives him back to Shmuel for one last tragic adventure.
Mark Herman’s film gives a heartbreaking answer to the question: what happens with the average German when ignorance can no longer blur the true image of the death camps?
12. The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos, 1965)
This Czech-Slovak black comedy records the story of a Brtko (Jozef Kroner), a carpenter who is given proprietorship of a shop on the Main Street of a small town as the part of the Aryanisation programme.
However, Brtko is not a role model of the system: instead of evicting Mrs Lautmann (Ida Kaminska), the old owner of the button-store, he takes her under his protection. Mrs Lautman, her sight and perception weakened by age, is not quite aware of her circumstances and she believes that Brtko is a clumsy shopkeeper whom she did a big favour by employing him.
The subtlety of its humour differentiates The Shop on Main Street from Life is Beautiful, although both films explore the Holocaust from the point of view of a naïve, innocent character who was told a white lie in order to be saved from the terror of the reality. Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’s film is an excellent example of Czech black comedy, hence it is no wonder it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1965.
11. Europa Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1990)
Based on the true story of Salomon Perel, Agnieszka Holland’s film is a curious mixture of surrealistic, sarcastic, comic and realistic episodes. Salomon (Marco Hofschneider), a Jewish boy from Germany, first hides in a Komsomol-run orphanage in Grodno then escapes by convincing German soldiers that he is German. He quickly becomes an acclaimed member of the troop through benefiting from his fluent Russian.
However, fighting with the Germans makes him feel guilty and he starts to question his identity. Therefore he tries to flee but emerges out of the situation as a German hero. Josef, as the Germans know him, is then sent to study as a Hitler Youth, where falling in love with Leni (Julie Delpy) and him being circumcised are his biggest troubles.
Agnieszka Holland’s black comedy shows that the Holocaust was not only about genocide and famine. For those who had to give up their identity in order to flee, it was a fierce inner battle and a longing for finding peace.
Europa Europa is a coming of age movie; only that the hero here has other problems than just his awakening sexual drive. It is not unintentional coincidence that the proof of Salomon’s burning secret is located in his pants: his circumcised penis is the evidence of an identity that prevents him to find happiness.
10. Come and See (Elem Klimov 1985)
Although it is not often addressed in film, Jews were not the only victims of genocide during WWII. German soldiers performed several acts of mass murder in Soviet villages after similarly proclaiming communist and Bolshevik nations as inferior– this is what Florya (Alexey Glavchenko) is forced to experience on multiple occasions in Come and See.
Elem Klimov’s film received a limited release in Western countries; however, it is a key piece in the corpus of anti-war films. It is often compared to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for its way of depicting the ghastly nature of war. The distorted images in Klimov’s film constitute a fragmented and episodic narrative. It does not simply serve the visualisation of the individual’s horror embedded into an otherwise action-focused storytelling, as is the case in the Omaha beach scene in Saving Private Ryan.
Come and See gives a harrowing image of how violence distorts the human soul, but it does not let its audience empathise with the characters. The fragmented narrative, the striking close-ups of the mud and blood-covered figures and the occasional surrealistic elements (an old lady left lying in bed in the middle of a battlefield) have an alienating effect.
The feeling is conjures is very similar to the revolting reality of war as it was experienced by those who lived through it and who felt the smell of gunpowder on their own skins.
9. Night Will Fall (Andre Singer, 2014)
The film tells the story of a documentary, which was produced in 1945 and overseen by Alfred Hitchcock. It recorded the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen lager and included footages of other camps across Germany and Poland. The documentary was commissioned by the British Army but it has never been screened.
The reason: after winning the war Britain’s interests changed and the renovation of Germany became a priority over revealing the disturbing truth about the concentration camps. Its restoration started in 2008 at the Imperial War Museum in London, lasting until 2014 when the footage was shown at several film festivals.
Night Will Fall, based on the original footage and extended with survivors’ accounts, was directed by Andre Singer, the producer of The Act of Killing. The result is a similarly shocking and revealing picture that everyone interested in the memory of the Holocaust should see.
8. The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)
Nominated for the Academy Awards in five categories in 2009 (one award won by Kate Winslet), The Reader can surely be named as an essential Holocaust film. Its significance lies within its focus on a new generation of Germans born after the war, and illustrating how they get confronted with their past. Michael Berg, 15 (played by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes), embarks on this journey as he meets and falls in love with Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 38 year-old ticket inspector.
Their Oedipal-like love ends with the summer, but the relationship proves to be more significant than that. As Hannah comes back into the picture when Michael attends trials as a law student, it becomes evident that their antagonistic love symbolises the relationship of the two generations.
When Holocaust survivor Ilana Mather (Lena Olin) asks Michael: “Did Hannah Schmitz acknowledge the effect she’s had on your life?”, the real question is whether the old generation ever practiced remorse over their acts in the past. In the end, The Reader conveys a strong message that stays true to this day: history cannot be rewritten, but it is never too late to learn to write a different future.