Culpability is a notoriously thorny issue among Holocaust scholars, since the scale of the crime blurred the line between perpetrators and bystanders. But Hollywood started issuing verdicts directly after the war.
Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946) was the first American feature film to incorporate documentary footage of the camps, which, it claims, were "all the product of one mind"—the fictional Nazi genius Franz Kindler, who "conceived the theory of genocide." The consolidation of German guilt into a single villain makes retribution rather simple, since all the protagonist has to do is find and punish Kindler.
Justice is more elusive in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which stars Spencer Tracy as an American judge flown in to preside over the trial of four German judges. The main defendant is Ernst Janning, the German minister of justice, who takes the stand against his lawyer's wishes at the film's climax and confesses, "If there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it—whatever the pain and humiliation." So much for Janning, but Judgment also explores how the Cold War undermined America's determination to try rank-and-file Nazis. "There are no Nazis in Germany," an embittered American prosecutor tells Tracy at one point. "Didn't you know that, judge?"
The Reader likewise takes place at Nuremberg, where young law student Michael Berg witnesses the trial of his former lover Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). But the film is less concerned with Schmitz's crime than with her own personal tragedy. Embarrassed by the fact that she's illiterate, Hanna refuses to take a handwriting test to prove that she did not order the deaths of 300 Jews. Illiteracy, it would seem, is more shameful than the orchestration of mass murder and more dangerous, too: Hanna is sentenced to life, while her guilty-but-literate co-defendants get away with just a few years behind bars.
There are two basic survivor narratives. Redemption stories, like The Juggler (1953) and Exodus (1960), frequently present Israel as the key to their heroes' deliverance and star good-looking men like Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman. By contrast, films like Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964) suggest that the camp experience is inescapable and star homely actors like Rod Steiger.
Films that fall into the "no escape" group often unfold like mysteries, with the survivors' camp experiences functioning like clues to their present behavior. Sophie's Choice (1982)and Steven Soderbergh's The Good German (2006) fit the bill, as does this season's Adam Resurrected, which stars Jeff Goldblum as a mental patient who survived the Holocaust by playing the part of an S.S. commandant's dog.
Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1997) is an Italian film, but Americans were happy to surmount the language barrier—the film grossed $57 million at the box office and Benigni won an Oscar for best actor. This story about a Jewish father who convinces his son that their internment is a game proved that you can depict concentration camps so long as you pretend they're something else. Two years later, Jakob the Liar (1999) tried a similar trick: Jakob (Robin Williams) spreads hope through a camp by making up stories about Allied victories. This season's entry is a British film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which tells the story of the friendship between a Jewish boy and a German boy across a concentration-camp fence.
Though films across these five categories are rarely as outright cheery as, say, The Diary of Anne Frank, they almost all project the optimism that Lawrence Langer described in 1983: "[T]he American vision of the Holocaust … continues to insist that [the victims] have not [died in vain], trying to parlay hope, sacrifice, justice, and the future into a victory that will mitigate despair." As a Holocaust survivor puts it in the penultimate scene of The Reader: "Go to the theater if you want catharsis."
TODAY IN SLATE
The Irritating Confidante
John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.
My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s
Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band
Can it be again?
The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee
Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?
Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?
Driving in Circles
The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.