"A devastating, impressively reflective documentary"
- The New York Times
- WINNER Audience Award
Hamptons International Film Festival
- WINNER Best Documentary
Festival de Cinema Judaico de San Paulo
- WINNER Special Jury Award
Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival
Hollywood was initially reluctant to directly condemn Nazi anti-Semitism, and it wasn't until years after the war ended that American filmmakers began offering a realistic, honest portrayal of the full consequences of the Holocaust. Narrated by Gene Hackman. Featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet and other prominent filmmakers and historians, Imaginary Witness examines Hollywood's attitude towards one of the most horrific events in world history. Using rare newsreel footage as well as gripping clips from over forty films, this award-winning documentary explores how filmmakers and popular culture have portrayed the Holocaust over the past 60 years.
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Daniel Anker's 90-minute documentary takes on over 60 years of a very complex subject: Hollywood’s complicated, often contradictory relationship with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The questions it raises go right the very nature of how film functions in our culture, and while hardly exhaustive, Anker’s film makes for a good, thought provoking starting point.
Anker's history divides itself into four distinct phases. The first reveals Hollywood’s reluctance to critique the rise of Nazism during the 1930s, even though the majority of its powerful moguls were Jewish. Germany accounted for 10 percent of the world market, and few wanted to risk alienating such a sizeable consumer base. Besides, Hollywood's self-policing Production Code expressly forbade any unfair depictions of other nations, particularly when economic interests were at stake. Thus newsreels of book burnings focused on the new German government’s peculiar nationalism instead of its dangerous anti-Jewish hatred. After Kristallnacht in late 1939, some Hollywood execs took action -- studios hired as many German-Jewish refugees as they could while a vocal anti-Nazi league urged boycotts -- but most of it occurred off-screen. High-profile, topical films like CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1938) and THE MORTAL STORM (1940) never mentioned the word "Jew," though the elision didn't prevent the studios that made them from coming under attack by homegrown anti-Semitic groups and the pro-Nazi German-American Bund. The sole exception was Charles Chaplin's independently produced THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), in which Chaplin not only played a Jew but blackly joked about the coming genocide.
Anker then looks at films made during the war years, movies that mostly focused on the Pacific arena. Films that dealt directly with Nazi Germany (1944's TOMMOROW, THE WORLD!) preferred to show how good old American democracy would inevitably trounce Fascism. As is so often the case in American cinema, it was the smaller B-pictures – low budget entries like Austrian expat Andre de Toth's NONE SHALL ESCAPE (1944), which tended to fall below the radar of the Production Code -- that dared to directly address the Final Solution. However, the graphic documentary films shot by the Army Signal Corps Motion Picture Unit directly following the liberation of the camps, as well as the horrified reaction of the 12 Hollywood moguls who toured places like Dachau, would steel the industry's determination to incorporate these terrible events into the films they made during the post-war years. But only two major studio films directly dealt with anti-Semitism -- CROSSFIRE and GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (both 1947) -- and as Anker's points out in his treatment of the silence that soon descended during the late '40s and '50s, neither spoke of the Holocaust, and soon even the Signal Corps footage was put away in favor of courting the new post-Nazi German market. Interestingly, it was television that found a way of packaging the Holocaust for mass consumption: In 1953, a segment of the popular program This Is Your Life featured Hannah Block Kohner, an Auschwitz survivor whose ordeal, true to the show's format, was fitted with a romance and a happy ending. Hollywood's silence would begin to lift at the end of the decade. George Stevens, who was among the Signal Corps directors who filmed the camps, brought the stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank to the big screen in 1959, but made good on his promise that audiences would not be subjected to any Nazi horrors. Playhouse 90's televised production of Judgment at Nuremburg, meanwhile, made explicit references to the genocide, although the show's sponsor -- the American Gas Company -- successfully pressured the network to drop the word "gas" from the soundtrack. The 1961 Hollywood version of the teleplay, which opened in theaters the same year as the televised Eichmann trial took place in Jerusalem, would go even further, incorporating actual Nazi atrocity footage into the staged courtroom proceedings.
The fourth phase Anker considers would be once again ushered in by television, with the airing of the 9-hour miniseries HOLOCAUST (1987). Reviled by many critics as a soap-opera trivialization of an unimaginable horror, the show was a huge success, exposing a whole new generation of Americans -- and, perhaps more importantly, Germans -- to the reality of the Final Solution. It also encouraged a wave of documentaries like KITTY: RETURN TO AUSCHWITZ (1979) which, by featuring survivor testimonies, inspired other survivors to come forward with their stories. The details those survivors could provide would inform the big Hollywood productions to come, beginning with SOPHIE'S CHOICE (1982) and continuing on through Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993), perhaps the highest profile Hollywood treatment to date. And it's the very popularity of films like this that raises the big questions Anker's documentary asks us to consider, and which is addressed by the experts he interviews, from academics like Annette Insdorf and Michael Berenbaum, to filmmakers Spielberg and Sydney Lumet, whose eloquent PAWNBROKER (1961) reflects the way in which individual and collective memory deals with something as powerful as the Holocaust. Can something so beyond the realm of ordinary representation as the Holocaust ever be accurately represented in a Hollywood film? How graphic should it be, and what story should it tell? The story of a young girl who somehow continued to believe in the goodness of people, a lesson which Berenbaum argues is the last lesson to be learned from the Holocaust? Or the story of someone like Oskar Schindler, a Nazi whose attempt to save over a thousand Jews ends in typical Hollywood fashion -- happily and hopeful and so unrepresentative of the reality of the Holocaust? Unfortunately, as each remaining survivor dies, most people become more and more reliant on Hollywood's depiction of these events for our memory and understanding of what may be in essence incomprehensible. Despite the omission of interesting movies like THE GREY ZONE (2001), Anker's film serves an important function. Going forward it's crucial that we understand the nature of the relationship between Hollywood and the Holocaust, and that Hollywood gets the stories it chooses to tell exactly right.
Partial List of Films Mentioned
. CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1938)
. THE MORTAL STORM (1940)
. GREAT DICTATOR (1940)
. Underground (1940)
. Hitler's Madmen (1943)
. TOMMOROW, THE WORLD! (1944)
. NONE SHALL ESCAPE (1944)
. CROSSFIRE (1947)
. GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947)
. The Search (1948)
. This Is Your Life, 1953 segment featuring Hannah Block Kohner
. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
. PAWNBROKER (1965)
. KITTY: RETURN TO AUSCHWITZ (1979)
. SOPHIE'S CHOICE (1982)
. HOLOCAUST (1987)
. War and Rememberence (1988)
. SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993)
. The Pianist (2002)
Film Information and Links
Video: XviD MPEG4, 68x352, 23.976 fps, 953 Kbps
Audio: MP3, Stereo, 48 KHz, 107 Kbps
Tagline: Hollywood’s complicated, often contradictory relationship with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
Keywords: documentary,Gene Hackman,Steven Spielberg,Sidney Lumet,antiSemitism,filmmaking,scapegoat,film-industry,Nazi