From The Counterfeiters and Bent to Schindler’s List and Son of Saul, cinema has approached the Holocaust from almost all of its ghastly facets. This list collates a selection of the relative few that consider not the immediate act of genocide but its pernicious spectre. Some concern the overwhelming emotional impact on survivors, such as Sophie’s Choice and The Pawnbroker, while others, like Hannah Arendt, Labyrinth of Lies and Denial, concern comparative outsiders’ attempts to quantify the event and, in some cases, enact hard-nosed justice.
The premise of Remember stretches credibility to its limits, beyond it in some cases, yet Atom Egoyan’s film is compulsive viewing thanks to its energetic plotting and Christopher Plummer’s superb central performance as Zev Guttman, an elderly Auschwitz survivor, Alzheimer’s sufferer and recent widow who resides in an American nursing home.
Zev’s Alzheimer’s manifests itself in sudden bouts that can attack at any moment, yet fellow resident and Holocaust survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) reminds Zev of what he promised to do when his wife died. In a haze of confusion, Zev agrees to honour his promise, which is to hunt and kill Otto Wallisch, the SS Blockfuhrer who murdered their families before immigrating to America under the name of Rudy Kurlander.
Armed with a Glock handgun hidden in his wash bag, Zev’s mission takes him across North America in what film critic Richard Roeper described as a ‘mash-up of The Terminator, Marathon Man and Memento’. Roeper’s summary makes it seem more ludicrous than it is, though, because the immediate and overarching concern is not the confrontations Zev has to make but the jeopardy of his advanced age, which coils you with unease as he navigates a world that he can barely comprehend. Indeed, Plummer succeeds in distracting you from the implausibilities of the narrative by imbuing his performance with vulnerability and grandfatherly benevolence that invests one in his character and story.
Labyrinth of Lies
Labyrinth of Lies is not an emotionally involving film but as a dramatization of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials it is well considered and illuminating. It follows Johann Radmann, a young, quixotic lawyer whose righteous indignation sees him launch a pointed investigation into those who collaborated with the concentration camp system.
He points out that just 150 people were convicted at Nuremberg, yet this figure seems to be sufficient for the average citizen of Frankfurt for the knowledge of what happened in the camps is seemingly too much to bear. The film’s depiction of the Germans’ willful ignorance of their immediate history is shocking as it is compelling. It reflects the paradigm shift that occurred in Allied foreign policy, which sought to transform their former enemy into a bulwark against the new Red Threat. Once the immediate denazification process was complete, seeking justice for the Holocaust was not a key interest or indeed an interest at all amongst much of the German and NATO establishment. It is in this contentious atmosphere that Radmann pursues the almost insurmountable task of bringing the collaborators to justice, and we see both the nobility and toxic alienation that comes with hard-nosed perseverance against the maddeningly blinkered status quo.
The best exchanges are between Radmann, his journalist ally Thomas Gnielka and Auschwitz survivor Simon Kirsch, who develop some degree of comradeship. Again, though, Labyrinth of Lies does not leave an impression on an emotional level. It focuses instead on period detail, both aesthetically and politically, illustrating the wilful amnesia and eventual reckoning in the formative years of the German Republic.
When the capture of Adolf Eichmann stirred up the collective memory of the Holocaust in 1960, the reaction was one of disgust and incredulity, even amongst the learned circles that Hannah Arendt belonged to. Eichmann was caricatured as an evil monster that was to be confronted with his crimes in a dramatic show trial and then sent to his death once some sort of catharsis had been achieved.
Such emotionally driven responses were understandable but most often crass and unhelpful. Arendt had no time for such simplistic, knee-jerk thinking and instead sought to understand and explain Eichmann’s reasoning and ideology. Her conclusion was the now famous ‘banality of evil’, which posited that Eichmann was not a psychopath but a mere bureaucrat – a normal person with petty careerist aspirations. This thesis alone was a cause for concern amongst friends and colleagues in academic and media circles, but it was her claim that some Jewish leaders acted in a quasi-complicit manner during the Holocaust that triggered a vicious backlash. Arendt became the target of character assassination from the press, her peers and the public, who inundated the New Yorker with angry phone calls and threatening, abusive letters that made the risibly stupid accusation that Arendt was somehow a Nazi sympathiser. Hit pieces were also published in the New York Times and her faculty ‘recommended’ that she resign. It was a despicable act of feeble groupthink that is all too familiar in our age of no-platforming and safe spaces.
To her credit, Arendt remained absolutely steadfast, skewering her hysterical critics with considered argument and barbed wit. Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures Arendt’s conviction brilliantly, both her intellectual conviction as well as the intimate love she has for her husband Heinrich, which is keenly reciprocated. Of course, Arendt was not beyond reproach, no intellectual is, but the controversy depicted in Hannah Arendt was not a sensible dialogue but mob-thinking outrage. The ultimate message of this story is that the bulwark of reason, logic and dialogue should always be upheld, even when faced with the most horrendous circumstances.
In 2016 British director Mick Jackson returned to form with Denial, which depicts the Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt trial, a landmark event in postwar Holocaust denial. Early in the film, a student of Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) asks a question regarding Holocaust denial to which Lipstadt replies that she does not debate Holocaust deniers. This sentiment would be acceptable for your average Holocaust denier or troll, but David Irving, an historian whose early work has been praised by the likes of John Keegan and Hugh Trevor-Roper, wasn’t and isn’t that.
This is a problem, for the best way to defeat a warped, dishonest argument is with a reasoned, factual one – not indignant dismissal. Weisz’s Lipstadt displays this righteous indignation on several occasions and it is rather unbecoming of a professional historian, Jewish or not. The veracity of Weisz’s performance is unclear, but it felt as if these moments of emotional anger – especially during heated exchanges with her legal team – were written for the purpose of conflict and drama. It would have been better if these passages were replaced with wider dissections of Holocaust denial, chiefly the Leuchter Report. Despite the brevity of the trial scenes and Denial’s rather televisual style, though, it remains a robust drama that captures the stress and weight of the courtroom and serves as a stimulating gateway to the subject of Holocaust denial.
The Reader has been described by several critics as ‘middle-brow’, a term that can smack of snobbery yet is appropriately leveled here. Stephen Daldry’s film concerns a whirlwind affair between Michael (David Kross), a bright young man with a flair for reading, and Hannah (Kate Winslet), an intense, aloof woman in her thirties who, in a rather contrived fashion, is revealed to have been a guard at Auschwitz and a separate, smaller camp.
Now the best thing about this somewhat middling film is the erotic candidness of their relationship. Their strange dynamic has real intimacy and a mystique that’s warped and unnerving. More pertinent to this list, though, is how the film depicts Germany’s reaction to the unique ghastliness of their recent history. During Hannah’s trial, there is a strong sense of unwillingness amongst the jury and the gallery to consider the abhorrent details of the Holocaust. They do not want justice, they want catharsis, so they will just convict whoever is accused in an attempt to reach it. This mob-thinking attitude is evident in both the jury and Michael’s university classmate Dieter (Volker Bruch), whose emotionally driven rants are unbecoming of a law student. However, these themes of collective memory and shame are better explored in other entries in this list.
An oft-neglected entry in Sidney Lumet’s remarkable career, The Pawnbroker is a sombre performance piece led by Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, the titular pawnbroker. Nazerman is a learned man who, before the soldiers came, had a fulfilling life of family and intellectual curiosity. He managed to survive and flee to the United States, but the murder of his family has reduced his psyche to a barren, nihilist wasteland devoid of joy and personality. The burden of his terrible suffering has ground him down until he just cannot function emotionally, so he treats everyone and everything with a distant contempt. It is only when well-intentioned locals impose themselves on him that he is fired up, albeit with the purpose of trenchantly castigating their ingenuous, pedestrian lives.
The arrival of the warm, empathetic Geraldine, a neighborhood social worker, poses a test to the complexities of Nazerman’s granite exterior, but the film provides no easy answers to his trauma or the crime and hardship of the Manhattan slum in which he exists.
Sophie’s Choice may appear to have that stale ‘prestige drama’ aura that The Reader has, but the titular ‘choice’ of this unusual film is far ghastlier than one can imagine. I entered with foreknowledge of her ‘choice’, but it is preferable that one does not, so it will not be repeated here.
The novel thing about Sophie’s Choice, for better or worse, is how we are told Sophie’s story through the perspective of Stingo, a soft southern writer. Some may make ideologically charged claims of the ‘male gaze’ when discussing Stingo, but he is better described as simply a distraction, an unnecessary narrative device. After all, Sophie’s desperate struggle and Streep’s virtuosic performance are more than enough to steer the narrative.
A justification for Stingo’s character, however, is that he serves as an amiable, grounded perspective in the utterly maniacal relationship between Sophie and Nathan (Kevin Kline), her psychotic partner. We join Stingo in observing the tempestuous dynamic that Nathan steers, which can range from displays of passionate affection to theatrically nasty arguments over the course of just one day.
Kline is excellent, genuinely unhinged; it is a performance that you remember. He takes second place, though, to Meryl Streep, who, with a pitch-perfect accent and masterful dramatic range, utterly becomes the tragic figure of Sophie Zawistowski.
Ida is firmly within the Eastern European tradition of harsh realism; its brooding tone and stark aesthetic having much in common with films like A Short Film About Killing, Import/Export and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Where Ida differs is its overwhelming reliance on mood to tell it story. It is reserved, perhaps to a fault, but the glumness of the characters, their situation and their surroundings go some way in capturing the zeitgeist of post-war Poland, which had survived the apocalyptic brutality of one enemy only to be occupied by another for four and half decades.
Everything is Illuminated
Adapted from Jonathon Safran Fore’s precocious autobiographical debut novel, Everything is Illuminated is by some measure the most offbeat and unconventional film in this list. It has more than a whiff of Wes Anderson in the visual way it depicts the protagonist’s obsession with mementoes as well as the quirky characters that assist him in his Ukrainian odyssey. Despite this, it avoids poor taste for it eschews sentimentality and does not overbear you with its idiosyncrasies.
Some critics have noted the loss of substance in the transition from page to screen and it is, to be frank, one of the more frivolous entries in this list, more so than even Remember. While ‘frivolous’ is not a word many would like to be associated with this subject, Everything is Illuminated has enough offbeat charm and striking cinematography to find an audience.
The title of this French drama echoes that of Sophie’s Choice and its significance is similarly hateful. The film opens by thrusting the viewer into a cramped apartment in Nazi-occupied Paris; in it is a family of four, gripped with fear as the authorities bang at their door. For thousands of Jews across France, this was the beginning of the end. French complicity in the Holocaust killed some 77,000 people, and Sarah’s Key depicts the frenzy and maddening injustice of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and beyond with visceral energy.
These moments are relayed to us through flashbacks, for the bulk of the film concerns Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris. Having written about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in the past, she becomes deeply curious when her French husband inherits a Parisian flat that his grandparents moved into in August 1942. Convinced that Jews had been evicted the property, she doggedly investigates until the ghastly truth is unraveled for all concerned.
It is an absorbing film, no doubt, and Thomas’s performance has a subtle and affecting emotional range despite her default frostiness. However, the contrast in intensity between the flashbacks and the contemporary story causes one to wonder if Sarah’s Key would have been better if it was solely a period piece, a feeling that is somewhat reinforced by lashings of melodrama towards the end. And yet, despite the distractions of the narrative’s toing and froing, Sarah’s Key manages to thoroughly absorb, intrigue and invest you.
Judgment at Nuremberg
Much like Labyrinth of Lies would do 50 years later, Judgment at Nuremberg depicts the messy, overwhelming task of holding to account the bureaucrats and middle managers of the Nazi regime. Like all good legal dramas there are scathing zingers fired between the prosecution and the defence, but the film’s three-hour commitment to educating its audience despite being merely inspired by the Nuremberg Trials causes one to wish they were watching an actual documentary account of the event rather than a semi-fictional one.