7. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Schindler’s List is not just an example of a quality genre film, which is evidenced by the seven Academy Awards it has won, but it had a far greater impact on society itself. It had a key role in raising public awareness of the Holocaust, and greatly influenced Holocaust education in the US. Before Schindler’s List, the Holocaust was mainly depicted as a historic event without touching on the real impact it had on the victims and on the survivors.
Spielberg’s film had the power to change how we look at the Holocaust by combining two typical narratives: the documentation of historic events and a personal storytelling that focuses on the individual experiencing the terror of the genocide. The central character is Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist who initially employed Jewish workforce simply to lower his costs.
However, as the real extent of the Nazi wickedness unfolds, Schindler’s reasons change and he ends up spending his fortune to save the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in a factory that was the model of non-production. The sordid businessman’s character improvement is rather moving in Liam Neeson’s performance, although Ralph Fiennes is close to steal the show in the role of the vicious Amon Goth.
6. Amen (Costa Gavras, 2002)
This film of Costa Gavras is based on the play of Rolf Hochhuth. The Representative, the 1963 play accuses Pius pope of the silent approval of the Holocaust since he never stood up and spoke against the genocide. The end of the 60s, leading to the 1968 student protests, was a short period when critical thinking emerged and claimed space in culture and politics.
The Representative is a result of this phenomenon, evidencing a reassessment of the Germans’ own history, and as such is an extraordinarily brave work. Nearly 40 years later Amen is perhaps a somewhat delayed adaptation, but Costa Gavras’ film proves that the issues it approaches are more relevant than ever.
5. Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997)
Roberto Benigni’s bittersweet comedy has been hailed by some critics as one of the most beautiful, heartwrenching films on Holocaust. Others have criticised it for being derogatory by making a comedy out of the historic events. But is Life is Beautiful really a comedy?
The film starts as such, driven by Roberto Benigni’s always-brilliant, witty acting in the role of Guido, a giddy Jew that falls in love with the young schoolteacher (Nicoletta Braschi as Dora). The first half of the film is focused on how Guido wins his ‘principessa’, largely building on slapstick comedy that is Benigni’s greatest expertise.
However, there is a sharp twist in the narrative when Guido and his son (Giorgio Cantarini as Joshua) get deported to a concentration camp. Guido keeps cracking his jokes for the sake of his son, trying to protect him from the horrible truth by telling him that they are all taking part in a game where the final prize is a tank.
The harsh comedy that has previously been refreshingly funny serves here to underline the unspeakable terror of reality. Benigni depicts the Holocaust in a different way than Spielberg or Polanski. He is not trying to be faithful to the historic events or document what happened to the victims. What he offers is a slightly comic tragedy speaking of the terrible sadness of this inhuman episode of human history.
4. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)
Ida is another film on this list where the shadows of the Holocaust serve as a backdrop to a coming of age story and a character’s search for their identity (the other such film being Europa Europa by the fellow Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland). By using black and white images, 4:3 aspect ratio and slow narrative, Pawlikowski evokes the style of modernist auteurs such as Antonioni or Bergman, quite unlike the mise-en-scene of his previous movies.
Anna/Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice nun who is just about to take her vows. Before she would be allowed to do so, the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) sends her on a journey to discover her past. That is how Anna meets her only living relative Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who tells her that she is Jewish and her real name is Ida.
This is how the image of Jewish identity and the shadows of the Holocaust get introduced in the film, existing in the past, outside of the frame. Ida however decides to go on a hunt and find out what happened in the past, and as the undeniable claims more space and breaks into the frame, both Wanda and Ida have to re-evaluate their life.
3. Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)
As it takes the audience on a tour behind the fence of a fully operative camp, Night and Fog will give the shivers to even the most stoical person. This is just an imaginary tour however, since, at the time of filming, there were no operational camps in existence any longer; only the empty barracks remained as gloomy evidence of the appalling events that took place. Resnais’ documentary provides perfect evidence of moving images’ power to reconstruct, and often construct reality.
The haunting atmosphere of Night and Fog is created by original footage from Auschwitz shot after the war, mixed with survivors’ accounts and footages from German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, a British documentary on the camps, but which was ultimately shelved.
It is important to observe that some of Night and Fog’s shots were staged – a technique often employed by documentarians – which, whilst raising pertinent questions about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, here serves our empathy, by helping re-enact what happened to the victims of the Holocaust. As such, Night and Fog is one of the most impressive early Holocaust films.
2. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
Since writing, photography and filmmaking exists, the oldest way of preserving memories is becoming less and less prominent. Telling stories, conveying our memories by words, has almost been forgotten. Although it is a moving image, and a monstrous project at that with its nine hours running time, yet Shoah is a return to this human ritual. It is the revival of the act when one generation passes down their history to the next by the means of words.
Lanzmann is a patient and objective interviewer who searched for survivors, participants and those who tried to looked the other way when the genocide happened. He chose the perfect moment to do this: 40 years after the events took place while many of the witnesses were still alive, but enough time had passed by to make it easier for them to speak.
Easier, but not always possible. The reluctance expressed by some of the interviewees evidences the horrible nature of the events even better than their words. Lanzmann manages to bring his audience back in time to when the Holocaust occurred without utilizing a single historic footage.
1. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
Polanski, who himself survived WWII as a Polish Jew, said in an interview that it was necessary to allow a certain time to pass before he could get involved in a project discussing the Holocaust. Hence he had refused to direct Schindler’s list, but almost a decade later he accepted the offer to sit in the director’s chair of The Pianist. The result is an unmerciful account of the Holocaust in Poland.
Instead of a historic tableau, Polanski’s Holocaust film choses the personal point of view of an escapist. Szpilman (Adrian Brody) is a passive figure, contrary to the proactive characters he is surrounded with. He is hiding in dark and empty flats, moving on always right before the war catches up with him. He does not witness the terror of those dying in camps or in combat.
Consequently the viewer is refused the well-known images of the Holocaust usually reiterated by other films; the uneasy terror cast upon the audience is of a different sort. This is the horror of survival; the shock of the moment when Szpilman has to turn his back on his family that is being crammed into the wagon and deported to Treblinka. He has to go into hiding as an invisible shadow on the margins of the much bigger picture of war.
Author Bio: Melinda Gemesi has been a freelance film critic since her second year as a Film Studies Student. She holds an MA in Film Studies and Online Journalism and is currently living in London. In her free time she is working on a literary project about which you can find out more on thestoryhunt.tumblr.com.