Portraying the unimaginable

'Imaginary Witness' asks whether Hollywood should even tackle the subject of the Holocaust.

shoah cinema 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
shoah cinema 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hollywood movies and television have shaped the way most of the world perceives the Final Solution, narrator Gene Hackman observes at the beginning of Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust. It is a statement that may not sit too well with generations of historians and authors, but the evidence validates the conclusion. When the NBC miniseries Holocaust aired in 1978, one of every two Americans watched. The effect was even stronger in Germany, where the film, with an assist from the Wiesenthal Center, persuaded the German government to cancel the time limit on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Elie Wiesel might heatedly object that the TV series, and indeed all dramatic representations, "trivialized" the extermination of the Six Million, and that only those who actually survived the concentration camps had a right to speak. He was answered, indirectly, by the sardonic German joke of the time that the television Holocaust had more of an impact on German awareness than had the original. As a documentary, Imaginary Witness does a remarkable job in presenting the history and moral ambiguities in Hollywood's treatment of the Holocaust, from the early Nazi days to The Pianist, and the chapter is far from closed. The studios, headed mostly by Jewish immigrants conflicted about their identity, generally treated the new Nazi rulers of Germany with kid gloves. In this, they were driven as much by the bottom line (in the 1920s, Germany accounted for 10 percent of Hollywood's foreign profits) as by the Hays Code. This self-censorship code protected audiences not only from excessive cleavage but also mandated that movies could not demean the people or rulers of a foreign country. One exception to the general timidity was MGM's The Mortal Storm (1940), about the persecution of a Jewish family. Though the word "Jew" was never uttered, with "non-Aryan" serving as a substitute, Goebbels banned all future MGM films from Germany and occupied Europe. "Jew" was first spoken on the screen, later in 1940, in The Great Dictator, which could be made only because Charlie Chaplin financed and produced the brilliant satire by himself. Hollywood's appeasement didn't save it from retribution. The US Senate's Nye Committee investigated the "Jewish conspiracy" to slander Germany, and Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, warned the nervous Jewish moguls that they would be held responsible if America were drawn into war. All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood was harnessed to the war effort, with Disney leading the way with the cartoon The Ducktators. The first real inkling the American public had of the Holocaust was through newsreel footage of the liberation of the death camps, but the Cold War courtship of Germany and the heavy hand of the McCarthy era, discouraged any follow-ups. While Crossfire and Gentleman's Agreement broke new ground in probing anti-Semitism in America, neither film alluded to the Holocaust. Finally, in 1959, a sanitized version of The Diary of Anne Frank began to deal directly with the fate of European Jewry, followed in the same year by the Playhouse 90 TV production of Judgment in Nuremberg (in which this reviewer launched and closed out his acting career). By the 1980s and early '90s, movies reached a new level of realism and depth with Sophie's Choice and ABC's 30-hour War and Remembrance, crowned by Schindler's List. Director Daniel Anker of Imaginary Witness, the son of German-Jewish refugees, augments clips from 20 films by introducing some astute analysts, foremost Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and author Neal Gabler, and leading filmmakers, to discuss the moral complexities of dealing with Holocaust themes. Both Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker) and Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) acknowledge their fear of seeming to exploit the immense tragedy. Berenbaum notes that in many such films, the viewer is guided to identify neither with the Jewish victim not the Nazi perpetrator, but rather with the good gentile who helps the Jews. Despite Hollywood's shortcomings, Berenbaum concludes, "in a relative world, these films have set for the world a standard of absolute evil." 'Imaginary Witness' is currently showing in select theaters in the US. For more background on the film, go to www.shadowdistribution.com.