Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust

After watching the 2004 documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust directed by  Daniel Anker, I was at a loss for words . It is a beautiful visual essay on Hollywood’s depiction of the Holocaust from before America became involved in WWII to the present and how their interpretation of this horrific event has changed the worlds perception on a tragedy that was and still is difficult to grasp.

What is so intriguing about this film is the incredible history it offers of the Hollywood studio system and the laws that prevented certain things from being shown. Many of the early films that attempted to address the Holocaust did not even mention the word and avoided showing graphic deaths, merely alluding to them. This was a result of a lack of information and America’s ignorance, to an extent. The documentary is rife with film clips that leave you wondering “What were they thinking when they made this?” because now there is so much information. The key to creating an authentic portrayal of this tragedy was getting personal stories from the survivors, however this took a long time because many did not wish to discuss it and preferred to move on with their lives. The question was how could it be possible for a director who did not experience or witness what really went on in the concentration camps to capture an authentic portrayal of this mass murder without insulting those who actually experienced it?

The Globe Scene in "The Great Dictator"

One brilliant interpretation of Hitler’s power is in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, where he does an enigmatic dance with a globe, tossing it in the air showing how Hitler literally held the world in his hands for an extended period of time, playing with it, as if the world was a toy for him to destroy. What is significant about this film is that it was shot before America’s involvement in the war and it was the first time where Hitler’s presence was not ignored. Chaplin again proves his genius in this film and opened up the door to other filmmakers to address this touchy subject.

There are some brilliant interviews with Holocaust survivors who provided information about certain details that should not be omitted from the depiction of their reality. Things like the Auschwitz walk, where prisoners walked through the muddy yard aiming for foot prints that were already imbedded in the muck because they did not have enough energy to kick up the mud. This sort of detail hits you just as hard as the smoke that rises up from the showers and showers the city in ash, which Steven Spielberg brilliantly depicts in his incredibly moving film Schindler’s List. Another poignant film clip that the documentary showed was one from Sophie’s Choice where an officer tells Meryl Streep’s character to choose one of her two children to live. This sort of authenticity devoid of gruesome graphics is where Hollywood really succeeds in capturing the emotional reality of this atrocity. You cannot help but feel completely gutted by these scenes where you doubt the goodness in humanity.

Meryl Streep being told to choose which child she wants to keep

This documentary is difficult to articulate in terms of its power and the way it allows you to see the breakdown of the “Hollywoodization” of a tragedy. After Spielberg, America could no longer ignore this event and it is now ingrained in the psyche of every living soul. I feel this is one of the most important films that has been made in a while because it breaks down how Hollywood’s depiction of this even has progressed from dancing around the topic to fully grappling with horror. Film is the one medium that can portray ‘reality’ in a way that will resonate with viewers forever, so it must be done in an authentic way that does not drift from the truth. We will soon reach a time where we will not have any more survivors of the Holocaust and what will live on are these moving visual images, so to it is important to be faithful to the suffering these people went through, which has essentially financially benefited Hollywood for over sixty years.


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