Dial H For Hebrew

Guilt Was Constant Theme in Alfred Hitchcock's Work

Guilty Non-Jew: Alfred Hitchcock showed little interest in Jewish matters. But guilt and blame certainly play major roles in his work.
Getty Images
Guilty Non-Jew: Alfred Hitchcock showed little interest in Jewish matters. But guilt and blame certainly play major roles in his work.

By Seth Rogovoy

Published November 15, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as one of the greatest film directors of all time is safely in the can, so all that’s left to deal with is the man himself. Two new films — “Hitchcock,” a biopic starring Anthony Hopkins, and the HBO film “The Girl,” about Hitch’s troubled relationship with actress Tippi Hedren — have attempted to do just that. These films attempt to humanize — or dehumanize or demonize — Hitchcock, depending on your point of view.

What neither of these films mentions, however, and what you probably won’t hear much about in the renewed discussion of Hitchcock, is the chapter of his career in which he lent his formidable directorial skills to the British army for what eventually became “Memory of the Camps,” a documentary consisting exclusively of footage of concentration camps in the days after their liberation by Allied forces.

Although Hitchcock, who at the time was living and working in Hollywood, didn’t travel to Europe for filming at such locations as Dachau, Belsen and Buchenwald, he did instruct the camera crews accompanying liberation armies to take as many uninterrupted long shots and unbroken panoramas as possible, knowing that these would serve best to contextualize and capture the horrible truth about what took place at the prison, labor and death camps. At the behest of his friend and sometime collaborator Sidney Bernstein, who produced the film for the British army, Hitchcock, who was credited as “treatment advisor” on the film, traveled to England and helped organize the footage post-production. This master of staging horror and suspense utilized his talents to make a film that captured real-life horror without staging or artifice.

Aside from that episode, however, Hitchcock showed little if any interest in Jewish matters before or after the making of the death-camp doc. About as close as he came to being influenced by Jewish culture was allowing unspecified guilt and blame to play the central role in his work — but that was largely a result of his strict Catholic upbringing.

Hitchcock did, however, have several close and long-standing Jewish collaborators, including costume designer Edith Head, screenwriter Ben Hecht — who worked on the scripts for “Spellbound” and “Notorious,” among others — and composer Bernard Herrmann, as well as close business relationships with Jewish Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and talent agent Lew Wasserman, who helped create the Hitchcock “brand” through the successful TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” In fact, Hitchcock got his start in film in 1920 in London as a title designer for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the Jewish-owned studio that was one of the largest of the silent film era, and which later became Paramount Pictures

When Hitchcock’s films did contain material that could be considered culturally Jewish, it mostly came in the form of his well-known “MacGuffins” — superficial window dressing, the better to serve the plot. “Spellbound” centered on psychoanalysis; “Notorious” featured a plot about Nazis, uranium and South America but had little to say about culture or politics. Hitchcock, after all, was purely a formalist, and his films mostly dealt with conflicts on a psychological, as opposed to a societal, level. In the world according to Alfred Hitchcock, guilt was the great equalizer, regardless of race, color or creed.

Seth Rogovoy is a cultural critic whose recent contributions to the Forward have included investigations of the Jewish aspects of Bob Dylan and James Bond.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.