The mention of Holocaust brings to mind probably the greatest agony in history that mankind has ever faced. It is agonizing to even imagine the world being revisited by the horrendous events between 1938 and 1945. More than six million people (most of them Jews) were murdered in a state-sponsored spree led by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany during the World War 2. The event of the Holocaust have been captured in several books and films each trying to capture the horrific memories of the events in the best way they know how. In the film Night and Fog, the narrator explains of the emptiness of a prisoner’s camp after the executions took place, “the blocks are visited only by a camera. Weeds have grown where the prisoners used to walk. No footstep is heard but our own nothing is missing but the occupants!” (Resnais, 1955). Other films such as Schlindler’s List, Imaginary witness, Shoah and Archtecture of doom have also captured the events of the Holocaust in a manner to depict the extent of the horror that reigned then. This paper presents the Holocaust through the above named films.
The film Night and Fog is a short documentary (running for 45 minutes) that was released in 1955- ten years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The documentary was directed by Alain Resnais and it describes he lives of prisoners in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek. The film, composed of stock footage and contemporary shots is highly graphic in nature and was released with the sole aim of reminding people of the ‘horrors of war’ (Resnais, 1955). The film majorly contrasts the stillness of the abandoned concentration camps that are quiet and with empty buildings to footages of the gruesome holocaust.
In the film Night and Fog different cinematic techniques were used in an effort to delve in the memory of the Holocaust. The three main types of techniques were; use of color-the movie is produced in black and white. The second was the use of soundtracks and the third was the chilling remoteness of Jean Cayrol’s text as well as a distinct narrator’s voice (Resnais, 1955)
The film alternates between scenes depicting the past (in black and white) and the present (in color). The above cinematic techniques are used throughout the film in alternation to explain the suffering of the prisoners held in camps. Bouquet, the film’s narrator, explains the sadism that was inflicted upon the Jewish prisoners, the tortures, the executions, scientific and medical ‘experiments’ as well as the sexual exploitation of the prisoners. The film further makes use of photography where chilling black and white images of gas chambers and piles of bodies are shown. In the tail end of the film, the narrator shows the liberation of the Germany and the discovery of the torture camps. A series of interviews with survivors and ex-government Nazi government officials enhances the viewers’ understanding of the film. The interviews in particular, seek to answer questions on who was responsible for the gruesome genocide.
The film, Architecture of Doom, directed by Peter Cohen and narrated by Rolf Arsenius, was released in 1989. The film is a compilation documentary based on the theory that the ‘Third Reich” was a mere expression of its architects’ desires to create. Many of those people who teamed up with Adolf Hitler to implement the mass murders of the Jews were frustrated individuals who had tried and failed at one or more things in lives, hence the title of this film ‘Architecture of Doom’. Hitler himself was a frustrated water colorist while his minister for propaganda Josef Goebbels has unsuccessfully tried to publish some books. This documentary is an attempt to show that the involvement of Goebbels and others in the Holocaust was an attempt at having their creative sparks yield their own unique vision of what they deemed to be a perfect society (Arsenius, 1989).
These masterminds in the film were obsessed with the desire to re-design everything right from the clothes they wore, to houses and the environment. It is this obsession that drove them to ‘mold’ human society by choosing to rid the world of those human beings they deemed as diseased and degenerative-the Jews. The film is rife with stereotyping, where photography is used to depict of what Hitler and his cohort would approve of in terms of art, food, dressing, houses among others and that which the group detested. The film also shows footage of Adolf Hitler as an amateur architect who was obsessed with new buildings for Reich city. He is shown a having an insatiable desire for perfection with his designs by adding numerous paintings and sculptures. Cohen, the film director asserts that it is Hitler’s obsession with what he deemed to be perfect, that in a fit of fury drove him to order for the Holocaust.
The film Shoah, directed by Claude Lanzman was released in 1985. Running for a massive 613 minutes (10 hours 13 minutes) this film is probably the one that comes closest to explaining the horrors of the Holocaust. It consists of several interviews and a series of visits to key Holocaust sites. The interviews and collects testimonies of those directly involved in the Holocaust in three groups; survivors, perpetrators and witnesses (bystanders). Each of these categories of people explains some the events in the film as well as what is not graphically depicted thereby enhancing the viewers’ understanding of the entire Holocaust (Lanzman, 1985). In between the interview are a series of footages taken during the Holocaust or after.
This film covered four main topics or aspects of the Holocaust. The first is the Chelmno or the gas vans that were first used to kill Jews. The second and third are the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka while the fourth is the Warsaw Ghetto, rife with testimonies of perpetrators, survivors and witnesses. Among those interviewed in the film is Franz Suchomel who served as an ss (Schutzstaffel) officer. In the interview Franz reveals intricate details of gas chambers and how he was involved in the extermination of thousands of Jews. There is also an interview with a Henryk Gawkowski who drove trains laden with prisoners to concentration camps while he was highly intoxicated with Vodka. Gawkowski is the one whose photograph features on the poster for the film. There is also the chilling interview with Rudolf Vrba who worked under the Hitler regime. His work was to incinerate bodies that were removed from the gas chambers! Various local villagers also give testimonies in the film of how they used to see trains heading to concentration camps full of prisoners who were to be exterminated. The interviews with two Jews who survived Chelmno depicts of the humiliating moments they went through as they were forced to sing military songs to appease Nazi soldiers. The deplorable conditions under which Jewish prisoners lived under at the Warsaw Ghetto come towards the tail end of the documentary.
The film, Schindler's list directed by Steven Spielberg was released in 1993. It is an epic drama based on a novel titled Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. The film tells the story of a German business man named Oskar Schindler who saved the lives of more than one thousand polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. He is said to have done so by employing them in his factories.
The producers of the film Schindler's List wanted to make a film that was epic and so the film features numerous cinematic effects. Though the film was shot as a documentary it never used storyboards. In the film, the sets were made lighter or darker than the people in the scenes to prevent blending of the two features. Moreover, the costumes used by the actors had to be distinguished distinctly from the skin tones and colors that were used for the sets.
As opposed to documentaries, the reenactment of real events of the war brings to the fore a more detailed account of the Holocaust. Stories about the survivors whom Schindler saved help viewers gain a deeper and realistic understanding of the holocaust. Some scenes of the film were actually shot at the actual locations of the holocaust events. Some places had to be reconstructed after the devastation of the World War 2 and the post war changes rendered them unusable for film productions. These places include Plaszow camp which had to be reconstructed at a site next to the actual site. The filming of the film in black and white was borrowed from the stereotypic imaginations that depict holocaust as large, stark black and white images. This way he would give the horrendous accounts of ‘Schindler's survivors’ more weight upon the viewers. The black and white filming would also make the film timeless “make people lose a sense of when it was made”.
Imaginary witness is another documentary that presents the events of the Holocaust. The documentary, released in 2004, was directed by Daniel Anker and narrated by Gene Hackman. This documentary is a blanket examination of how Hollywood films have over the past sixty years treated the Holocaust and the impacts this has had on general thinking and public perception. Having had relatives killed during the holocaust, this documentary’s director, Daniel Anker, appreciates the role of film crews in documenting the Holocaust and therefore helping in the retention of the actual real life memories of the war.
This documentary gives a vivid account of film makers who rushed to the concentration camps “even before medical teams” after the Nazi regime declared liberation. In one instance screenwriter Melvin Wald who was among the first film makers to rush to former concentration camps confesses, “it was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seeninmates walking in black and white were like ghosts” (Anker, 2004). He admits to have left the projection room to vomit.
The accounts of the film makers or the “imaginary witnesses” give a fresh gist to the events of the Holocaust. Interviewing professional filmmakers on the Holocaust raises issues that have been undressed in the other films on the same subject.
The various films that depict the holocaust use different cinematic effects such as black and white filming, pictures, stock footage and interview. The documentaries or epic films present the graphic and vivid details of the Holocaust and sets a well documented account of the historic events.
Architecture of doom. Dir. Peter Cohen. Perf. Rolf Arsenius. [Distributed by] First Run Features, 1991. DVD.
Imaginary witness. Dir. Daniel Anker. Perf. Gene Hackman. Koch Lorber Films: 2009. DVD.
Night and fog. Dir. Olga Migot. Perf. Michel Bouquet. Alain Resnais, 1955. DVD.
Schindler's list. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Liam Neeson. Universal, 2004. DVD.
Shoah. Dir. Claude Lanzmann. Perf. Simon Srebnik. New York, NY: 2003. DVD.