One way to measure the approach of the new year is to count the Holocaust films at your local multiplex. The holidays arrive just as studios begin wooing academy members with serious dramas, and there’s nothing more serious than genocide. Over the decades, this award-baiting subject has enticed directors Otto Preminger, Sydney Lumet, and Steven Spielberg and stars such as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Judy Garland, and Meryl Streep. This winter there’s a slew of new additions to the genre, including Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, Edward Zwick’s Defiance, and several smaller features like Good, Adam Resurrected, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Or maybe new isn’t quite the right word. If you watch several Holocaust films back to back, as I did recently (during the most wonderful time of the year, no less), you start to notice patterns. In fact, by my count, there are really only five basic Holocaust plots. Forthwith, Slate’s taxonomy of the genre:
Before the Marshall Plan had run its course, Hollywood combed through the rubble looking for tales of German goodness. One of the earliest results of this search was The Desert Fox (1951), which tells the story of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. As commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, Rommel supposedly ignored orders to execute captured Jewish soldiers.
The Young Lions (1958) starring Marlon Brando fits into this category, too. Although protagonist Christian Diestl was not a virtuous type in Irwin Shaw’s source novel, Brando insisted that his character be sympathetic. To accommodate the actor’s ego, the screenwriters turned Christian into an honorable German who is shocked by his countrymen’s atrocities.
Of course the most famous film about German decency is Schindler’s List (1993). The real-life Oskar Schindler was, undoubtedly, good—he is the only person known to have gotten Jews out of Auschwitz. Lest that seem too slight, director Steven Spielberg threw in a rousing speech for Schindler, in which he declares “I could have done more.” The latest good German is Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg in Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. Some might dispute the classification of Valkyrie as a Holocaust film, since it concerns the July ‘44 plot to assassinate Hitler and neither Jews nor concentration camps enter its frames. But the viewer is alerted to von Stauffenberg’s goodness when the first thing he says he’ll do “once we have control of the government” is “shut down all concentration camps.”
Von Stauffenberg and his ilk were historical anomalies, but Hollywood seems not to have taken notice. In the mid-’60s, critic Judith Crist quipped, “[A] screenwriter, with a revolutionary glint in his eye was telling me the other day he’s going all-the-way original; he’s writing a World War II movie with bad Nazis.”
Films about Jews during the war typically focus on resistance, which, unlike the camps, lends itself to moral uplift. Anne Frank never fired a rifle, but her survival for two years in an Amsterdam attic foiled the Nazis’ ambitions—that is, at least until they found her. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) is, in this sense, the first American film about Jewish resistance. It is not the darkest: Anne’s despair is twice relieved by spontaneous group song.
Later resistance films lose the music as they move out of the attic and into the ghettos. Yet they retain the spirit of the line that Anne utters twice, shortly before she is deported: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.” In the first American feature about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the television film The Wall (1982), a character similarly chimes, “[T]he only way to answer death is with more life.” Another television film, Jon Avnet’s Uprising (2001),also tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto, and it ends with a triumphant speech by Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the resistance’s surviving leaders: “The dream of my life has come true.”
Edward Zwick’s new film, Defiance,concerns the plucky Bielski Partisans, who fought against the Nazis in present-day Belarus, and focuses on Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), who prances around the Belarusian forest on a white horse. At the film’s end, a dying man tells Tuvia, “I almost lost my faith, but you were sent by God to save us.”
Culpability is a notoriously thorny issue among Holocaust scholars, since the scale of the crime blurred the line between perpetrators and bystanders. But Hollywood started issuing verdicts directly after the war.
Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) was the first American feature film to incorporate documentary footage of the camps, which, it claims, were “all the product of one mind”—the fictional Nazi genius Franz Kindler, who “conceived the theory of genocide.” The consolidation of German guilt into a single villain makes retribution rather simple, since all the protagonist has to do is find and punish Kindler.
Justice is more elusive in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which stars Spencer Tracy as an American judge flown in to preside over the trial of four German judges. The main defendant is Ernst Janning, the German minister of justice, who takes the stand against his lawyer’s wishes at the film’s climax and confesses, “If there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it—whatever the pain and humiliation.” So much for Janning, but Judgment also explores how the Cold War undermined America’s determination to try rank-and-file Nazis. “There are no Nazis in Germany,” an embittered American prosecutor tells Tracy at one point. “Didn’t you know that, judge?”
The Reader likewise takes place at Nuremberg, where young law student Michael Berg witnesses the trial of his former lover Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). But the film is less concerned with Schmitz’s crime than with her own personal tragedy. Embarrassed by the fact that she’s illiterate, Hanna refuses to take a handwriting test to prove that she did not order the deaths of 300 Jews. Illiteracy, it would seem, is more shameful than the orchestration of mass murder and more dangerous, too: Hanna is sentenced to life, while her guilty-but-literate co-defendants get away with just a few years behind bars.
There are two basic survivor narratives. Redemption stories, like The Juggler (1953) and Exodus (1960), frequently present Israel as the key to their heroes’ deliverance and star good-looking men like Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman. By contrast, films like Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) suggest that the camp experience is inescapable and star homely actors like Rod Steiger.
Films that fall into the “no escape” group often unfold like mysteries, with the survivors’ camp experiences functioning like clues to their present behavior. Sophie’s Choice (1982)and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006) fit the bill, as does this season’s Adam Resurrected, which stars Jeff Goldblum as a mental patient who survived the Holocaust by playing the part of an S.S. commandant’s dog.
Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) is an Italian film, but Americans were happy to surmount the language barrier—the film grossed $57 million at the box office and Benigni won an Oscar for best actor. This story about a Jewish father who convinces his son that their internment is a game proved that you can depict concentration camps so long as you pretend they’re something else. Two years later, Jakob the Liar (1999) tried a similar trick: Jakob (Robin Williams) spreads hope through a camp by making up stories about Allied victories. This season’s entry is a British film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which tells the story of the friendship between a Jewish boy and a German boy across a concentration-camp fence.
Though films across these five categories are rarely as outright cheery as, say, The Diary of Anne Frank, they almost all project the optimism that Lawrence Langer described in 1983: “[T]he American vision of the Holocaust … continues to insist that [the victims] have not [died in vain], trying to parlay hope, sacrifice, justice, and the future into a victory that will mitigate despair.” As a Holocaust survivor puts it in the penultimate scene of The Reader: “Go to the theater if you want catharsis.”