Monday, January 10, 2011


(Once again, late.  My bad.  Will try better, Lords)

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also is most fascinating, and something I wish could have been expounded on further than just a 90 minute documentary originally made for AMC TV, is how Aker is after what makes us watch and how information is presented and how we as a people, as Americans, as the world, digest these images.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.
The whole history of this tenuous grasp of how to give the stories of the Nazis and the holocaust is one that is filled with the damning and the paradoxical.  For one thing almost all of the studio heads were Jews, and yet they had to treat things with 'kit-gloves' as one interviewee observes, as there was some (if not rampant) antisemitism in America, specifically at the major studio heads and Hollywood in general (not too dissimilar to the every-so-often rumbling one can hear now when people say "Jews run everything in Hollywood" - yes, Mel Gibson, they sure do, what of it?... sorry I digress).  And yet the Jewish studio heads were also some of the (ironically) privileged to go see the death camps right after the war ended, not just with the intention of freaking them the fuck out, but to let them know what was what - in case any of them wanted to press ahead with movies on the subject.

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.

The real highlights of the documentary are 1965- starting with the masterpiece The Pawnbroker with Rod Steiger- through to the big culmination film, Schindler's List.  In this section we see how Hollywood does embrace the Holocaust movie or mini-series, but with the kind of commercial distance that comes with the kinds of stories Hollywood usually tells.  So then one gets the series immediately on the heels of Roots, Holocaust, that has a lot of Americans (mostly in NYC) glued to their TV screens, and even causes a (good) uproar in Germany, but also faces very fair criticism from Elie Wiesel.  This and other works like Sophie's Choice and War and Remembrance are worth watching, the documentary says, but with a slight grain of salt.

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.


  1. A perspective the film doesn't really take into account is how unrealistic some of the demands of realism are. Schindler's List constantly gets criticized for being the rare inspirational story in an era that had few, but it's based on events that really happened (would it have been better if they'd executed Schindler at the end?) and never shies from the dark realities it supposedly glosses over. A truly accurate depiction of the Holocaust would not only be unappealing, but it would be shallow exploitation.

    While I wouldn't go that far, something I noticed about A Film Unfinished is that the relentlessness of the stock footage without much dramatic context (and the eerie ethereal score) made it drift into abstraction. The people stopped seeming like people and became more like vague forms populating a nightmare. For better or worse, it *felt* less real than even some of the schlockiest Holocaust films I've seen. (I actually found this element much more interesting than the film's naive attempts to expose that -SPOILER ALERT- Nazi propaganda wasn't entirely honest.)

    "When you remove from reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself." In many ways, the best ways to tell these stories is to diffuse them.

  2. I think the comments the film made on Schindler's List were fair, even though it stands above all as the giant of holocaust-based films because Spielberg mastered combining the harsh realism with his deep-down hopeful-for-humanity aesthetic. It's telling, as you know too, that Billy Wilder was originally going to direct it, and he may have made Schindler even more of a wild character who partied so much.

  3. And thanks for your comment, by the way.

  4. By that logic though the Holocaust mini-series is the most truly accurate then?

  5. Definitely not. First of all, I'm not appraising their accuracy but addressing their artistic merits. A wholly accurate, accountant's truth version of the Holocaust is, first of all, impossible since any editorial decision affects the meaning. Second of all, it would basically be trash. Harmony Korine could probably come the closest, but I'd never want to watch it because there would be no point. Imagine The Passion of the Christ stretched to a decade and a half, and you might have an obscure glimpse of it.

    What would be the point? What insight does that really give us? Is that the best way to honor what the survivors went through, or should we look beyond the superficial for that spark of ecstatic truth to illuminate what those atrocities are reflecting?

    Back to Schindler's List, I don't imagine Wilder would've done much differently, at least in terms of tone. Wilder's trademark wit is there, as is the casualness of evil they describe. The Lubitsch Touch is abundant. That famous scene in which Schindler breaks down over all the efforts he didn't make are as strong an indictment of human nature as anything Wilder directed. If anything, I think he might've swung the other way, making the Jews less dewey-eyed victims and more rationally self-interested. Kingsley is a little manipulative, but never in any underhanded way. In a Wilder version, he might've gotten his hands a little dirty and not just be the Sam to Neeson's Rick.

    This is, of course, purely speculative. I have no idea if the material could ever have supported such a vision (not that it would stop Wilder), and like A Film Unfinished, I don't have the final product in front of me by which I can judge intent. I'd love to have seen it, though.