“Imaginary Witness”: Hollywood’s Holocaust

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Hollywood’s singular obsession with the Holocaust, and World War 2 has never been something that I have given much thought. Strangely enough, it is America that has made the most films worldwide about these subjects. These American made images have had a large impact in shaping our ideas of the Holocaust. And I say shaped because it is precisely that. No film, documentary or fiction, could ever convey the sheer horror of living through such an event.

Daniel Anker’s award winning documentary Imaginary Witness (2004) explores this branch of Hollywood filmmaking. At the heart of the film is a moral quandary: if something can never be accurately portrayed, should an attempt to portray it even be made? This question is something that has dogged filmmakers ever since the war ended. Following the history of Hollywood’s portrayal of WWII, the Holocaust, and Nazi Germany, Imaginary Witness traces a fascinating narrative, revealing the ebb and flow of studio decisions and current events that helped shape narratives over time.

In the 1930’s, Germany was responsible for 20% of the international revenue of Hollywood films. This led to the studios treating the rise of Nazism very carefully, so as not to offend such a large market. Only a handful of films, such as Charlie Chaplin’s self-funded picture The Great Dictator (1940), dared to be openly anti-Nazi. Films such as this and The Mortal Storm (1940) fueled the misguided belief that there was a Jewish conspiracy in Hollywood to incite a war with Germany.

When the war ended, the true horrors of the Holocaust were revealed. Hollywood executives vowed to educate the public about Germany’s crimes, although exactly how they were to accomplish this task was not made clear. What happened next, for decades afterwards, was a push and pull between the wants of the American public vs. Hollywood’s evolving depictions of survivors’ experiences.

The interplay between film and society has always been something that has fascinated me. Neither is mutually exclusive, and each affects the other. Events such as the trial of Adolf Eichmann put survivors’ stories, told in their own words, right on the televisions of the American people. This, in turn, fostered an interest in seeing these stories on the big screen. Similarly, the success of television series such as Roots (1977), which looked at the history of the American slave trade, signaled to television and film executives, that perhaps the public was ready to take in stories of human suffering, not just in their own past, but in recent history as well. Roots thus paved the way for the 1978 Holocaust mini-series. This was an important step in the depiction of the Holocaust, and although reviewers criticized it for bringing melodrama to such a serious event, it succeeded in introducing a new generation to this chapter of history.

Films are curious for this very reason. They give people a glimpse into histories and experiences they could never hope to encounter themselves. Yet it is so easy to forget that cinema is but a shadow of true experience. When we go to see a film about the Holocaust, there is always the danger of thinking the film shows nothing but truth. Even the most accurate film is a manipulation based off of how the director, screenwriter, and cinematographer want you to see things. Losing oneself in the screen is all too easy. Imaginary Witness reminds us to be critical of the images we take in, and emphasizes that the importance lies not only in bearing witness, but how we do it.