It seems more than a little disturbing to talk about the Holocaust and good movies in one sentence, but the former has certainly inspired many of the latter. In fact, there is an embarrassment of riches. This is a good thing, because any effort to educate the world about the horrors of genocide is important.
There are so many choices that any list of Holocaust-related films will be incomplete. To leave some room for less-known movies, some obvious choices have purposely been left out. Among them, “The Diary of Anne Frank” (there are so many productions of the movie and play to name it here seems redundant) and “Life is Beautiful” (a little too light in its approach for my taste).
Here are those who made the list, starting with:
1. Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)
This is not only the best Holocaust film, but among the best movies I’ve ever seen. Images of the little girl in the red coat still haunt me. Nowhere have I seen the precarious nature of life better portrayed than in the scene where camp commander Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) randomly uses prisoners for target practice. John Williams’ score, played by Itzhak Perlman, is appropriately affective. Simply put: there is not a comma out of place anywhere.
I spoke to Spielberg at the time of the film’s release. He told me the rights to the book it was based on, Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark,” had been purchased for him years earlier, but he did not feel he was mature enough to handle its emotional intensity. When he decided to make the film, he refused his normal fee. He said it would be “blood money.” All his earnings were used to fund the Spielberg Foundation, now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.
2. Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzman)
This is a monumental documentary, over eight hours in its U.S. version, longer in the original French. It is the defining non-fiction film on the subject and includes testimonies from survivors as well as visits to three camps. Nazi soldiers, often filmed surreptitiously, are also shown. Interviews are in German, French, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and English.
3. Au revoir les enfants (1987, Louis Malle)
It’s difficult and perhaps unfair to compare these films; all are so rich and emotionally moving. But “Au revoir” deserves special notice because it was clearly a passion project. It is based on screenwriter/director Malle’s own experiences. The story takes place in the winter of 1943-44 at a Carmelite boarding school, where the headmaster surreptitiously takes in three Jewish students to hide them from Nazis. Unsuccessfully.
4. Sophie’s Choice (1982, Alan J. Pakula)
A powerful film based on the William Styron novel of the same name. The title character, a camp survivor brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep, must cope with the after-effects of the war and the decisions made during it. It is a fertile area for filmmakers and includes movies such as “Enemies: A Love Story,” based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, and Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” adapted from the Edward Lewis Wallant novel.
5. The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles)
Nazi Hunter Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is on the track of fugitive Franz Kindler (Welles), who has assumed a new identity in the U.S. The film is notable not only for its director, but because it was probably the first feature film to use concentration camp footage. A similar theme is at the center of director Costa-Gavras’s “Music Box,” loosely based both on the case of John Demjanjuk and the life of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. The writer (“Basic Instinct,” “Show Girls”) discovered his father was ant-Semitic member of Hungary’s Arrow Cross party, and subsequently severed all ties with him.
6. Europa, Europa (1990, Agnieszka Holland)
A film based on the autobiography of Solomon Perel, a German Jew who passed as an Aryan to survive. Similarly, the French film “The Round Up” (“La Rafle”) tells the true story of a young Jewish French boy rounded up along with his family by the Nazis and their collaborators.
7. The Shop on Main Street (1965, Ján Kadár and Elmar Kloss)
As part of Nazi Aryanization of a small Czech town, a local carpenter is assigned to take over an elderly Jewish woman’s unprofitable button shop. The owner is virtually deaf and confused about what’s going on. The local Jewish community steps in and offers the carpenter a salary if he doesn’t inform the authorities of the shop’s sad financial plight. Instead he poses as her nephew come to help her out and the build a positive relationship. Until…
8. Judgement at Nuremberg (1961, Stanley Kramer)
A bit overwrought, the film is about a portion of the war crimes trial at Nuremberg, concentrating on crimes committed within German borders. It’s worth watching if only for its spectacular cast: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer and Montgomery Clift.
9. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970, Vittorio de Sica)
Winner of a Best Foreign Film Oscar, the movie is about the rise of fascism in Italy, a concern of all Jews, with the possible exception of the Finzi-Contini family. They are wealthy and oblivious until reality sets in.
10. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008, Mark Herman)
A moving film about the relationship of two eight-year-old boys, one the son of a death camp commander, the other a prisoner he believes is wearing striped pajamas.