The Holocaust has been a popular topic for cinema from the immediate postwar period: it has been represented through camp liberation footage, documentaries, feature films, and Hollywood blockbusters. Some of the first films to touch upon the topic were produced in the Soviet Union, such as Mark Donskoi’s The Unvanquished in 1945. However, in the aftermath of the war, primary focus on the Jewish heritage of the Nazi’s victims was diminished, in films such as The Unvanquished, Night and Fog (1956), and the allied liberation footage of concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rather, these works focused on the role of the perpetrators, the structure and figures of mass killing, and the Holocaust within the wider context of the Second World War. Following the widely televised trial of SS Adolf Eichmann in 1961, a key figure in implementing the Nazi’s 'Final Solution', greater attention began to be paid to the enormity of Jewish suffering, and the importance of personalised victim narratives. Although the subject was briefly covered in British docuseries The World at War, the turning point in Holocaust film is often cited as the 1978 American four-part miniseries, Holocaust, which is also credited with increasing the popularity of the term.
Adolf Eichmann listens to the proceedings through a glass booth during his trial in Jerusalem (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eli M. Rosenbaum ©).
Hollywood blockbusters about the Holocaust have since been a common trend in cinema of the 1990s-2010s. Notable among them are Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List, and Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. Both have incited controversy for their confrontation of the topic of Jewish passivity: some have argued that the Jews in Spielberg’s production are portrayed as passive individuals who accept their fate at the hands of Nazis, whereas others note that the Jews in Tarantino’s production are depicted as extreme and particularly violent agents of revenge on their captors, although it has been well-documented that Jews did show various forms of resistance during the Holocaust, as we see in the case of Sobibór. In this way, neither film acknowledges the actual contribution played by Jews towards resisting the Nazis. So, the question naturally arises: to what extent must these sorts of feature films accurately represent history? What creative license do directors have? These questions have recently been reignited following the 2019 release of the Amazon Prime Series, Hunters.
As aforementioned, Holocaust documentary as its own form of cinema started during the war itself, with cameramen documenting the liberation of camps by the Allies (for example, Alexander Vorontsov’s famous footage documenting the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau). Arguably, the most ground-breaking documentary in the aftermath of the war is Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 nine-hour documentary, Shoah. Through presenting first-hand testimony of witnesses, the spectator learns about the tragedy of the Holocaust in such a way that they would never manage to achieve in a feature film format.
Jan Piwonski, one of the interviewees in Shoah. (Credit: Screenshot taken from clip created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem ©)
For a long time historians and film critics have disputed the 'right' way to represent the Holocaust on the screen, and the community is yet to come to an agreement. However, what remains to be said is that all Holocaust films are moulded by the national, cultural, political and social context in which they are created. In many cases, they have succeeded in integrating memory of lesser known aspects of the Holocaust into wider public discourse. Yet, they all develop previously-established tropes of representation of the topic, and therefore need to be examined in this broader setting.