In Imaginary Witness, a documentary about the shaky relationship between Hollywood and the 'Holocaust' movie, or stories dealing with the atrocities of the Nazis and the horrors of the years of the 1940's in Europe for Jews, we see mostly how it comes down to responsibility. This being how Hollywood treats its subject, what stories it chooses to tell, how it employs the dramatic means of re-representation through actors and sets and shot set ups, and the realism of it all. The main purpose of the director Daniel Aker's doc is to search through how Hollywood, the main exporter of imagery (the Medium is the Message sort of thing) around the world, has gone through its phases with Nazis and their extermination of the Jews, through the main works and some of the obscurer ones.
And what also is most fascinating, and something I wish could have been expounded on further than just a 90 minute documentary originally made for AMC TV, is how Aker is after what makes us watch and how information is presented and how we as a people, as Americans, as the world, digest these images. At the start America wasn't interested in what the Nazis were doing; rather it was cause of the Hayes Code that Americans couldn't really see anything "not approved" until the government said so, which was almost until WW2 (there were some exceptions like Confessions of a Nazi Spy). It's also infinitely interesting to see what was the attitude in the films that were put out there addressing the Nazi menace, such as the precise lack of the word 'Jew' in movies like The Mortal Storm. Only when Chaplin's The Great Dictator came out was there a work that addressed the real menace of Hitler: not simply "land-grabbing", but, you know, those pesky Jews- all of them.
|Hrmph, show off.|
Unfortunately there was no movie that seriously addressed the concentration camps until 1961 with Stanley Kramer's somewhat heavy-handed Judgment at Nuremberg which showed newsreel footage of the camps (unfortunately still no one else had ever seen Alain Renais great Night & Fog, but that's another matter altogether). Before this there were the odd-and-ended film that dealt with antisemitism, sometimes well-regarded like Gentlemen's Agreement. But it was in the B-movies, like ones made during and right after the war, where one could find movies that dealt directly with the Jewish experience and the holocaust. One of the real moments that is striking in Aker's film is footage of a talk-show from the 1950's, THIS IS YOUR LIFE (in caps), having on a guest who was a survivor and then being reunited on the show with a fellow survivor and a lost love. It's talk-show "surprise" stuff of the 50's variety, but what's important is that it was on live TV for a nationwide audience, and it's little moments like these where one sitting at home is forced, whether wanting or not, to confront with the media, that it connects.
Imaginary Witness gets to this very complex, gray-area connection between Hollywood and its subject matter. One of the interviewees says it best when he notes that in Hollywood movies, for the most part, we want to see good triumph over evil, and yet this is a story where evil did, for a moment, triumph (this is at the heart of the end of Diary of Anne Frank). Also there is the factor of even trying to dramatize such a thing; one piece of trivia that Aker sadly didn't get to was how one of the great filmmakers, Kubrick, backed off of making a holocaust movie due to a) Schindler's List, and b) just the enormity emotionally and psychologically of trying to make it "seem" real when it's just too hard a subject to approach.
And I liked that the documentary didn't side completely one way or the other. The segment on Schindler's List highlights this the best as it shows that Speilberg, usually the great commercial showman of Hollywood, took away his usual cinematic devices of cranes and special camera equipment and, as someone else observes, that the violence is so brutal because of its casual quality. And yet it's also the perennial story of hope due to its ending, one that, according to the documentary is almost "too happy". I might argue differently, that due to the kind of story that's being told that there has to be something close to redemption, and that anything coming close to a "happy" ending is made bittersweet by all of the horror around it. It's like the "happy" ending at the end of Dawn of the Dead, for example: sure two characters get away, but it was still in the midst of the apocalypse.
This is not quite the documentary like Not Quite Hollywood that is mostly good for movie recommendations and fun anecdotes. Some of the movies shown in by Aker I don't know if I want to seek out right away, or the ones that I have watched before I never quite rush out to watch. It's a subject that some film critics are right to say has been done a lot. I think simply the right stories haven't been told enough, or done quite right. When seeing the clips from Holocaust here, it looks too slick, too produced in a way to make a tearjerker, though for some in the audience this is just what is needed to get the message. (I'm also reminded of a recent film I'd rather forget, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - don't seek it out, it's not worth your time with a Holocaust-based product - instead seek out A Film Unfinished, which I wrote about a few months back on this blog).
It's a fine line with an entertainment for a mass audience of making something that would make one feel awful but with fantastic production value and good personal merit. Maybe that's why Spielberg and Chaplin are the only ones to be able to make it just right; Lumet and Polanski's The Pianist, while great films, aren't the ones everyone will see right away. And for some it's a subject that shouldn't be broached at all, as for some survivors its a bitter struggle to want to, or can, remember it. Aker's best skill here is to illuminate this constant gray-area, and how the vacuum of films that have come out of the immense tragedy have been large and small in scope, tacky and genuinely heart-felt, and a good impression on the 'Medium' theory at work.