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Sunday 22 October 2017

Film: The true Horror of the Holocaust

Ever since Hitchcock was traumatised by shocking footage from Bergen-Belsen, the Holocaust as a subject has been vicariously handled by the movie industry

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock
Masterpiece: Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah
Liam Neeson (right), as Oskar Schindler, and Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth in ‘Schindler’s List’.

Paul Whitington

Hitchcock and the Holocaust are not words you'd expect to find in the same sentence. By the time the Nazi concentration camps were liberated by Allied troops in the early spring of 1945, Hitch was in Hollywood and knocking out the stylish thrillers for which he'd become so famous.

But later that year, Hitchcock's friend and mentor Sidney Bernstein asked the great director to return to Britain and edit a documentary from footage shot by British and Soviet army film units during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. The film was intended to inform the German people about the unspeakable atrocities that had been committed in their name, and Hitchcock went to work with his usual diligence and skill.

The army cameramen who shot the footage joked about Hitch's reaction when he first saw their work. The king of horror was apparently so traumatised by shots of piles of emaciated bodies that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios for a week.

By September of 1945, Hitchcock had pretty much completed his work when the film was shelved. The political mood in Germany had changed and the Allied military government felt that rubbing the German people's noses in the Holocaust wasn't going to get anyone anywhere.

The film sat in the Imperial War Museum for almost 30 years, and when it was eventually shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984 under the title Memory of the Camps, it was in poor condition and missing its last reel.

Now the entire film has been painstakingly restored by the Imperial War Museum, and will be shown on television in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. And while it would be a mistake to call Memory of the Camps a Hitchcock film, he was heavily involved in its production, and the shocking images he saw must have had a profound effect on himself and his work.

Memory of the Camps' troubled production history is symptomatic of the movie industry's vexed relationship with the Holocaust in general. For many years – and for obvious reasons – few directors wanted to come within a million miles of the subject.

For filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s, dramatising the Nazi death camps would have been both expensive and morally problematic, and who, they must have asked themselves, would want to watch such a production? Full-scale recreations of the Holocaust would come much later in the 1980s and 1990s, and with a few honourable exceptions, early attempts to deal with the subject were sheepish and tangential.

One such exception, and probably the first drama ever made about the Holocaust, was Wanda Jakubowska's The Last Stage, a Polish film released in 1948 and sometimes overlooked these days. Jakubowska was a former inmate of the Auschwitz death camp, and always promised herself that if she survived she'd document what she had seen. The Last Stage was partly shot in the camp and had a big influence on Steven Spielberg and others.

Honourable attempt though it was, The Last Stage did not capture the true horror of the camps, but it got a lot closer than most of the American films that would follow it. Edward Dmytryk's 1953 film The Juggler is typical of the timid and sometimes disingenuous way in which Hollywood approached the Holocaust.

The Juggler starred Kirk Douglas as Hans Muller, a travelling circus clown who arrives in Haifa in 1949. He's a camp survivor who lost his family to the Nazis and wanders Israel until he falls in love on a kibbutz. 'The perfect mating of star and story', boasted the theatrical trailer. I'm not so sure.

Fred Zinnemann's The Search (1948) was a bit better. Shot on location in the ruins of Berlin and other cities, it starred Montgomery Clift as an American GI who tries to help a boy find his mother who was separated from him in Auschwitz. It's a pretty good film, but was soft focus and sentimental when it came to the crunch.

Max Nosseck's little-known 1956 drama Singing in the Dark took a more unusual approach to the subject. Yiddish actor Moishe Oysher played Leo, a Holocaust survivor with total amnesia who has a beautiful singing voice. He becomes a big star but abandons the stage to become a cantor at the synagogue after his memory returns.

George Stevens's lush adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank was well made but seems rather tricky in retrospect, because it celebrated the bravery of Anne and her family but faded to grey once the Nazis discovered the Franks and it came time to ship them to the camps.

Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg was a more serious attempt to tackle the ugly reality of Nazi war crimes. It was essentially a pretty straight account of the Nuremberg Trials, and starred the excellent Spencer Tracy as a kind and cultured American judge who can't figure out what pushed ordinary German soldiers and people towards genocide.

Judgment at Nuremberg was the first mainstream film to use actual footage of the camps, and in a particularly powerful scene we watch the shocked faces of the judges and witnesses as the grim images are shown in court.

Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of a traumatised survivor in Alan J Pakula's 1982 adaptation of Wiliam Styron's novel Sophie's Choice. The film is set in 1940s Brooklyn and starred Streep as Sophie Zawistowski, a recent Polish immigrant who's desperately trying to reinvent herself but cannot get over her wartime experiences.

We later find out she was forced by a Nazi sadist to decide which of her two children would survive.

One of the most famous depictions of a Nazi war criminal was Dr Christian Szell in Marathon Man. Laurence Olivier gave it socks as the former camp doctor and torturer who comes to 1970s New York to collect a stash of stolen Jewish diamonds and finds a stubborn obstacle in Dustin Hoffman. Everyone remembers the famous dental scene, but Szell seems like a pantomime villain when compared with the character played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.

Schindler's List was based on a novel by Thomas Keneally and told the story of Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten-German businessman who became the unlikely saviour of more than a thousand Auschwitz inmates.

Only Spielberg, cynics sneered, could find a feelgood story in the death camps, and when the epic film was released in 1993 Jewish commentators leapt on a scene where female inmates are herded into the showers and water rather than Zyklon B comes out of the spout.

But Spielberg's film was scrupulously accurate in its depiction of the camps, so much so that at times it was hard to watch. It remains the most complete and compelling recreation of the Holocaust.

Schindler's List was a milestone in the depiction of the Holocaust, and in recent years it's been joined by some worthy successors, like Roman Polanski's semi-autobiographical Warsaw ghetto drama, The Pianist (2002), Stefan Ruzowitzky's 2007 German-language drama, The Counterfeiters, and Stephen Daltry's The Reader (2008).

But for me the best Holocaust films have been documentaries, and the best of those is Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

Into the heart of the Holocaust

While Hollywood dragged its heels about depicting the Nazi war crimes, European documentary-makers were more proactive. Alain Resnais's 1955 film Night and Fog mixed shocking archive footage with shots of the abandoned camps to haunting and poetic effect, and Max Ophuls's Sorrow and the Pity (1969) explored the murderous collaboration between Vichy France and the Nazis. But in Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann used his imagination to burrow to the very heart of the Holocaust.

Lanzmann, a French-Jewish journalist and filmmaker, spent 11 years making his nine-and-a-half-hour documentary, and faced danger, death threats and bankruptcy along the way.

Shoah used no archive footage of the camps and relied entirely on the emotional testimonies of guards and victims. And when former Nazis wouldn't talk, Lanzmann resorted to hidden cameras and Bond-like subterfuge. It's an exhausting, grim and overwhelming film, but also a kind of masterpiece.

Irish Independent

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