The true and the fake: A review of Holocaust films

Life is Beautiful jump started the 'feel-good Holocaust movie' phenomenon, but people prefer films based on true stories.

Hungarian Lajos Koltai directs during the shooting of the film "Fateless," based on the novel by 2002 Nobel Literature Prize winner Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz. (photo credit: REUTERS/BUDA GULYAS)
Hungarian Lajos Koltai directs during the shooting of the film "Fateless," based on the novel by 2002 Nobel Literature Prize winner Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BUDA GULYAS)
Looking back on Holocaust feature films on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it’s clear that they can be divided into two basic eras: before Life is Beautiful, the 1997 Italian movie by Roberto Benigni about a father hiding his son in a concentration camp, and after.
That movie, which won popular and critical acclaim as well as three Oscars, was widely disparaged by historians and other clear-headed viewers for its inaccuracy — cute kids couldn’t actually be hidden in death camps.
Rich Brownstein, a lecturer for the Yad Vashem Department of Education and the author of the soon-to-be-published book, The Holocaust Film Bible: 75 Years of Narrative Holocaust Film (1945 – 2020), said in an interview, “Life is Beautiful sucked the life out of fictional Holocaust movies. It totally trivialized the Holocaust. After that, nobody wanted to see a kid prancing around Auschwitz like Opie [a character on the Andy Griffith Show].”
Today, people prefer to see Holocaust movies based on true stories. “A gas chamber story has to be based on truth. Why take people into a film about a fictitious gas chambers? What’s the point when there are so many real stories about real people who suffered?” said Brownstein.
Unfortunately, Life is Beautiful did jump start the concept of the feel-good Holocaust movie, in which the story of a single survivor or righteous gentile is meant to be heartwarming.
“In Holocaust films, you have a 1 in 8 chance of finding a righteous gentile film. These films give you the impression that if you walked on the street in Warsaw or Berlin [during the Nazi era], regardless of if you turned right or left, you probably would find someone who would be sympathetic and would help. In fact, only about 600 Germans out of a population of 60 million were righteous gentiles,” said Brownstein.
Jojo Rabbit, the new film by Taika Waititi about a German boy in the Nazi era, which is nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, is what Brownstein characterizes as a righteous gentile movie, giving a false impression that help was easily available for Jews during the Holocaust.
Another trend in recent Holocaust films is that, in addition to being based on true stories, they depict the horrors more realistically and in graphic detail. Son of Saul, a film by László Nemes that won the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, about a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, is a case in point.
The new film, The Painted Bird, an adaptation of a novel by Jerzy Kosiński (which was supposedly based on a true story but which was exposed as fabricated), is so violent it inspired multiple walkouts at its screenings at the Venice and Toronto film festivals.
Brownstein attributes its failure to get distribution to the fact that it is not based on a true story. “In The Painted Bird, you have the eyeball thrown on the floor and the cat eats the eyeball. If that actually happened, it might be worth depicting on screen. But if it didn’t, why do I need it? I can go to Wes Craven for that,” he said.
One dispiriting development is eva.stories, a real Holocaust diary told through Instagram posts, in 2019. In a Jerusalem Post article, Brownstein wrote, “without context or follow-up, the lesson only lasts until the next shiny object jumps to the top of a child’s memory stack.”
Perhaps that is the lasting lesson of Holocaust films, that the real stories should be allowed to speak for themselves with no short cuts, fictionalization or gimmicks.