Lights, camera, action… Holocaust? If the idea of going to the theater and settling in with a tub of popcorn to watch a dramatization of one of the vilest atrocities in the history of humanity strikes you as odd, you are not alone. There is a swath of critics, historians, professors, and filmmakers such as Claude Lanzmann (creator of the epic documentary Shoah) who argue that giving this subject matter the Hollywood treatment is repugnant, and that “any attempt to represent the Holocaust is a betrayal.” (Insdorf, 259) A Hollywood film is designed to entice and entertain… with the primary goal of making money: big production = big egos who want big paychecks. And if the goal is to make money, then the movie has to hook a mass audience. So how does a film get ticket sales with a subject as horrifying and tragic as the Holocaust?
First and foremost, the director must “distance viewers from the full horror of the Holocaust through myriad strategies of sentimental distortion.” (Gonshak, 5) And nobody does sentiment or distortion better than Hollywood. Think extreme close-ups and dizzying panning, sweeping musical scores or evocative notes at precise times, and pitch-perfect dialogue delivered by larger-than-life (and physically attractive) stars. All of these elements were the formulaic framework of The Diary of Anne Frank, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Schindler’s List – a few of the most well-known, award-winning Hollywood films about the Holocaust.
Don’t forget the romance too – yes, these filmmakers found a way to inject titillation into the subject matter. Shrewd script-writers and directors know that they will “lose the average viewer [or] mass audience” (Gonshak, 5) if their film is too real… after all, they’re making a Hollywood film; not a documentary. It’s interesting that Steven Spielberg said “I made Schindler’s List thinking that if it did entertain, then I would have failed.” (Gonshak, 193) – and yet included in the film a scene of Schindler having a playful, impassioned romp in bed with his mistress. This humble viewer is failing to see what that scene had to do with the Holocaust… unless, of course, its true purpose was to use nudity and sex to entertain the audience.
Perhaps the greatest offender of the three aforementioned films is The Diary of Anne Frank which is laden with Hollywood conventions (comedy relief, effusive optimism, and coming-of-age romance) that are engineered to divert, distance, and entertain. This feel-good melodrama concluded with a saccharine ending that leaves viewers wondering if it was truly ever about the Holocaust at all. This is clarified by Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century Fox, who asserted “This isn’t a Jewish picture, this is a picture for the world.” (Gonshak, 86) So The Diary of Anne Frank, based on the private journal of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis, who is an eventual victim of the Holocaust, is not intended to be a Jewish film… baffling.
Shifting to docudrama Judgment at Nuremberg, we have director Stanley Kramer who is forthright about his approach: “I studded it with people to get it made as a film… that… would reach out to a mass audience.” (Gonshak, 101) Indeed, the intention was never to create a documentary or ensure that there was historical accuracy in the script. Rather, this film beefed up the dramatization and punctuated the lengthy courtroom scenes with interludes injected with comedy and romance… perhaps to offer respite for the viewer?
Schindler’s List is based on a “highly anomalous Holocaust narrative” (Gonshak, 202) that contrasts feel-good Hollywood tropes with lurid dramatizations of the horrors of the event. The focus of the film is really on Viktor Schindler, entrepreneur and savior of his Jewish factory workers. Here we have, according to historian Richard Wolin, “a figure with whom a mass audience could readily… sympathize.” (Gonshak, 202) Schindler symbolized the “Good Nazi” trope, in harsh contrast with the ruthless Göth, and this good vs evil morality play is the lifeblood of the film.
There are some qualities that set these three Oscar-winning films apart from traditional Hollywood fare. First is the length, as each film clocks in at around three hours, and the average film is around 100 minutes. This might explain the peppering of comedy and romance, to keep the viewer engaged and in their seat. These films also take on heavy historical subject matter, and most audiences go to the movies to be entertained and not educated. And while The Diary of Anne Frank keeps things surface-level (and de-Judaized), Judgment at Nuremberg and Schindler’s List take the viewer deeper into the horrors of the Holocaust. For the first time ever in Hollywood, Judgment at Nuremberg employed graphic archival footage of concentration camps, mass graves, and the Jewish victims of these Nazi atrocities. Lawrence Baron, Professor of Modern Jewish History, notes that in Schindler’s List, “Spielberg heightens the revulsion of the audience by turning his lens on the most vulnerable victims” (Gonshak, 194) in blood-chilling scenes of ghetto deportation and what the audience at first thinks is a gas chamber but turns out to be a water shower.
In the BBC sitcom Extras, comedian Ricky Gervais portrays Andy Millman, an extra who works on films with parodied versions of real Hollywood stars. In the first episode, Andy’s background role is a German soldier in a Holocaust film starring Kate Winslet as a Catholic nun resisting the Nazis. Andy butters up Kate behind the scenes, saying “You doing this is so commendable – using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.” Kate scoffs and retorts, “I’m doing it because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar.” Andy is clearly uncomfortable about this admission, but oddly enough this exaggerated scene actually proves to be a prediction, as the real Kate Winslet won her first Academy Award for her portrayal of a Nazi concentration camp guard in the 2008 Holocaust drama The Reader.
This irreverent exchange prompts important questions about why Holocaust films are award-winners and how achieving the Oscar impacts the viewer’s relationship and response to the films. The Oscar is considered to be the most prestigious award in global entertainment, a symbol of cinematic excellence awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But who makes up this elite cabal? Do they represent the average viewer? Do they have an internal agenda that influences their decision-making? Has the Holocaust, as the parodied version of Kate Winslet suggested, been exploited as a Hollywood trope to guarantee the Academy Award?
It seems that the viewer is presumed to accept at face value that any film about the Holocaust is, by nature of the subject, inarguably worthy of distinction, and to criticize the quality of the film would be to dishonor the Holocaust itself. I refute and reject this notion. My overall impression of these films is that they were manipulating and pandering to the audience and to the Academy by exploiting the Holocaust as a historical event and as an emotional trigger.
Producer-director Dan Curtis reflects that “To put on film the true horror was impossible.” (Insdorf, 24) Perhaps that is why when the Holocaust is portrayed in Hollywood films, it is buffered with triviality, sentimentality, and romanticism. It is Americanized, or made a universal experience, casting a wide net that encompasses basic moral arguments of good and evil; accountability and justice. Stanley Kramer, director of Judgment at Nuremberg, asked “Who among us is so innocent that we are… sure of the guilty?” (Gonshak, 107) The answer is obvious: the millions of murdered Jewish people were innocent and the Nazis were guilty. When Hollywood gets its gold-dusted hands on the Holocaust, the depth and gravity of the Shoah is distorted through manipulation that seeks to attract and entertain audiences, and this calculated melodramatic treatment “has betrayed the event.” (Gonshak, 188)
Gonshak, Henry. Hollywood and the Holocaust. Rownan & Littlefield, 2015.
Insdorf, Annette. Indelible Shadows. Cambridge University Press, 2003.