Or did he?
Films about the Holocaust have been made since the event itself, and are still being made in great numbers to this day. Admittedly the Holocaust, which happened over 70 years ago, was a horrific part of human history but it seems a general consensus that it should not be forgotten in order to prevent something like it happening again. Films about the Shoah, which is Hebrew for catastrophe, vary in terms of reliability and representation. No film can hope to deal with the entire event which lasted over 6 years and claimed the lives of over 6 million Jews, homosexuals and political prisoners, but some filmmakers seem outright intent on defiling the memory of the people who lost their lives at concentration camps like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka. Creating fictionalised visions of the Holocaust or else adapting what happens purely for entertainment is detrimental to the memory of the event which is fading from living memory.
Very few films about the Holocaust encompass the suffering of everyone who died, and instead only focus on a small group of people. While this may seem to create a sense of empathy for viewers, the reality is that it only creates emotion for the victims in the film and not for anyone else. One of the primary offences in terms of misrepresenting the Holocaust is the use of heroes within the films. These characters take the role of the protagonist and as such take up the most amount of screen time. This leaves less screen time available to explore the countless other victims of the Holocaust. In these fictionalised, often Hollywood funded, depictions of the Shoah, the hero and the select few followers he has tend to survive the film. If, as in some films, the protagonist does die, the sadness felt is for the death of the character and not for the death of the millions of others who are dying at the same time. While this may leave an audience happy, with a sense of elation or wellbeing, it should be considered that this is not representative of the truth. These films, which include Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (Johnson: 1985), Schindler’s List (Spielberg: 1993), Life is Beautiuful (Benigni: 1997), The Grey Zone (Nelson: 2001), The Pianist (Polanski: 2002), and Defiance (Zwick: 2008), have all done very well financially and in terms of awards. Schindler’s List won 7 Oscars, The Pianist and Life is Beautiful were awarded 3, and Defiance was nominated for the Academy Award for ‘best original score’, and yet in making these films that are seen by millions of people, the filmmakers are telling a story that is not true. Introducing a film by saying ‘based on a true story’ does not make the story true, but by saying that, audiences believe that they are witnessing what actually happened during the Holocaust, rather than something that has been created primarily for entertainment and not for education.
Steven Spielberg’s Oscar reaping Schindler’s List tells the allegedly true story of Oskar Schindler, an entrepreneurial member of the Nazi party who saves over 1100 Jews from the Krakow ghetto by employing them in his metal work and munitions factories, when he can no longer legally employ them as they have been sent to a concentration camp, he moves the factory to them in order to keep them safe. The famous penultimate scene in which Liam Neeson’s Schindler breaks down in the presence of all of the saved Jews at the end of the war is perhaps the most memorable due to Schindler’s insistence that he could have saved one more, not to mention the Jewish people’s presentation of gifts as a token of thanks for what he has done to save them. The issue here is that this scene is a complete fabrication, not only did it not happen, but the Oskar Schindler that actually existed was not the sort of person to display emotion in this way, however audiences all over the world now believe that this is what happened. By focusing on Schindler and ‘his’ 1100 Jews, audiences who have very little or no previous knowledge of the Holocaust may think that the very small sample of Holocaust victims that are depicted are representative of the whole event. This of course is not true and is detrimental for education and understanding.
In 1995, to coincide with the release the VHS, every school in the United Kingdom was given a copy of Schindler’s List to be used for educational purposes. As already illustrated, the film is not entirely representative of the Holocaust and could really be seen as a testament to the kindness of Oskar Schindler rather than a film about the suffering of the Jews at the hand of the Nazi’s. Regardless of this however, the film is still used as an educational tool today. Despite the fact that there are many documentaries concerning the Holocaust, including Night and Fog (Resnais: 1955) and Shoah (Lanzmann: 1985), that are almost as well known as the feature films, it is the inaccurate narrative films that are used to educate school children about the Holocaust. It is not surprising to learn then that when infamous film maker Uwe Boll interviewed school children about their knowledge of the Holocaust in his film Auschwitz (Boll: 2011), their answers were less than comprehensive. When asked when the Holocaust took place, students gave answers like “The 1800’s” or “in 1960”. None of the students had a lot of knowledge concerning the event that is so firmly rooted in our past. When asked how many people died during the Holocaust, one student answered “1000”, the same number of Jews that Oskar Schindler saved, which highlights the necessity to educate pupils with factual material as opposed to a fictional feature film that is merely based on true events.
There are feature films that do not pander to the ‘Hollywoodised’ formula of filmmaking and this article should not be read as an assault on the bastardisation of Holocaust cinema. It should be considered though, that high budget feature films have an enormous audience and by misrepresenting the Shoah, certain films and their filmmakers have misinformed huge amounts of people. Prominent among them are young people, students, who’s misunderstanding of the Holocaust may mean that they never fully understand the severity of what occurred during World War II. One film that does not trivialise the Holocaust is The Round Up (Bosch: 2010). Bosch’s story of the Vel D’Hiv tragedy in 1942 in which 13,000 Jews were taken from their homes in Paris and held in the Velodrom D’Hiver for a week before being taken to various concentration camps and ultimately being exterminated at Auschwitz Birkenau. The film was constructed under the influence of witness testimony and records form the actual event. The film does not have one clear protagonist and instead focuses on several characters that were present at the time. In doing this the audience is not coerced into feeling sympathy for anyone in particular, instead the viewer’s feel for the community as a whole. Also, Instead of focussing on a small number of Jews that were saved as is the case with Schindler’s List, the film centres around 13,000 Jews of which only a handful survived. This shifting of focus from the living to the deceased shares more truth with the viewer and allows for a more accurate representation of the Holocaust.
So while it is true that Holocaust films that are made and financed in Hollywood do very well at the box office and have a much larger audience than films regarding the Shoah from elsewhere, These films tend to be less representative than others and the fact that they have a much larger audience is detrimental to people’s remembrance of the Holocaust. Since World War II happened nearly 75 years ago and is fading from living memory, I would radically state that it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to only make films that are an accurate depiction of what happened. To alter the events or to create empathy for one person over all of the other victims is to alter audience’s perception of history. Finally it should be noted that using Schindler’s List as an educational tool when it would be just as simple to educate students using films that do not shift the focus from the dead to the living, or else use documentaries would greatly favour the students who’s perception of the Holocaust is being warped from historical fact to an unreliable portrayal of events. By Daniel Buckley