When American Playhouse presented the teleplay Judgment at Nuremberg, in 1959, the sponsoring American Gas Company insisted the word “gas” be bleeped out in all references to concentration-camp deaths. Things have improved since then, but from the silence of the 1950s to the “Holocaust fatigue” of the past decade, things have also grown more complex.
There’s no doubt that Holocaust films have become progressively more prominent with distance from the actual events. In the first edition of Annette Insdorf’s authoritative Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, published in 1983, she counted about 80 Holocaust-related films in the postwar period, by her second edition (1989) there were 272 , with another 170 added to the filmography by 2003.
Do popular Holocaust dramas really ensure that people never forget the extermination of Jews in World War Two, or do they cloud history with sentimental distortions? Is it even appropriate to consider Holocaust films a genre? And if they are a genre, what is its future in a world with ever-fewer living survivors?
1950s-1970s: Hiding and exposing
In the post-war years, European dramas and documentaries ( Distant Journey, Passenger, Night and Fog) dealt directly with the deportation and extermination of Jews and French-Nazi collaboration ( The Sorrow and the Pity). In contrast, Hollywood films tended to focus on individual’s dramas, such as The Diary of Anne Frank (nominated for an Oscar in 1959) or The Pawnbroker (1964). Exposing war criminals was both the subject of legal dramas (1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg) and thrillers starring Laurence Oliver, including Marathon Man (1976) and The Boys from Brazil (1978)
1978-1990: The Holocaust in Popular Culture
The controversial NBC series Holocaust brought the facts of the Final Solution into popular consciousness, including to a generation of German students. Survivors began recording testimony at Yale University. President Jimmy Carter appoints the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. From melodramas like Sophie’s Choice (1982) to exhaustive documentary in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), the Holocaust became mainstream. Jewish film festivals began in major cities around the world.
1993-2002: Resistance and Rescue
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), about German businessman Oskar Schindler who saved the lives of more than 1,000 mostly Polish-Jewish refugees by employing them in his factories, won seven Oscars and was seen by 25 million people in U.S. and Canadian theatres and another 30 million on U.S. television. Spielberg establishes the Shoah Foundation in 1994 to videotape Holocaust survivors. Four years later, in 1997, Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust fable Life Is Beautiful wins best actor, best score and best foreign-language film. The best feature-length documentary Oscar goes to Anne Frank Remembered (1995), The Long Way Home (1997), The Last Days (1998), Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000). In 2002, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist won the Oscars for best director and best actor.
2003-2012: Good Germans, brave Jews and backlash
With more mainstream Holocaust movies than ever in the new millennium, the debate about exploitation became more pressing, in stories that pressed to break the victim-oppressor cliché by emphasizing Jewish heroism and Germans naiveté.
The issue of sentimental exploitation issue reached a climax in 2008 with a flood of dubious movies: Defiance, with James Bond star Daniel Craig as a heroic Jewish partisan; The Reader, with Kate Winslet as a pitiable death camp guard; Good, with Viggo Mortensen as a credulous German professor; Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise as a brave German officer who tried to kill Hitler; and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a fable about a child with a death camp next door. Critic Stuart Klawans of The Nation called for a moratorium on all Holocaust movies, arguing that they denied the past while purporting to memorialize it, and A.O. Scott in The New York Times pondered if these movies had become just another genre, like the western.
Then, in 2010, Quentin Tarantino offered an abrasive alternative to sanctimonious bad taste with the deliberately offensive, genre-riffing war fantasy with heroic Jews (including Brad Pitt) kicking Nazi butt.
Did Inglourious Basterds close the door on the Holocaust melodrama? In 2011, for the first time in 50 years, there were no Holocaust themed movies nominated for an Academy Award. Obviously, the genre continues, as best foreign-language film nominee In Darkness shows. But as a popular Hollywood subject, the Holocaust seems to be entering a lower-profile or dormant period. As director Paul Mazursky ( Enemies: A Love Story) suggested to the Los Angeles Times last year, “future Holocaust movies will be made on low budgets and by independents, not the major studios.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist won the Oscar for best picture. The film won the Oscars for best director and best actor.