“Holocaust Movies” and Holocaust Denial: Creating False Images

Yesterday I watched “The Counterfeiters,” which recently won the Oscar for best foreign film. It is a tale of a group of Jewish prisoners the Nazis forced to forge foreign currency. This past week was the annual memorial day of The Holocaust, an apt time to point out certain problems in some “Holocaust movies.”

Movies about the Holocaust are often thought important in battling Holocaust denial, teaching and introducing the Holocaust to many who otherwise would have never learned of it and are thus susceptible to revisionist falsehoods. To an extent this is true. However, at times these movies function as a two-edged sword, serving those accounts of the Holocaust that attempt to present it as an aberration in human history, existing out of time, having nothing to do with normal people, improbable, monstrous and inhuman yet still always filled with fantastic stories of perseverance. This might lead some to believe not only that it could never happen again but also that the false claims of its exaggeration, fabrication and even impossibility contain an element of truth. Not all Holocaust movies suffer from these ills, but many of the more famous ones do.

Examples: (1) The main theme of many popular Holocaust movies is one of survival. While survival may make for better drama and storytelling, survival is not the story of the Holocaust, it is the deviation. (2) German characters often appear in Holocaust movies in one of two pairs: the sadistic monstrous Nazi vs. the brave benevolent German, and the perverted evil Gestapo officer (often with a limp or one eye) vs. the German solider who is simply fighting for his country. In fact, the Holocaust has little to do with these archetypes; the story of the Holocaust is the story of the vast majority of Germans who occupied the space between these two caricatures. It was normal people like you and like me who carried out the crimes and allowed them to happen. Once again, both the sadistic monsters and the angelic saviors were the digression. (3) Some of these movies have dramatic shower scenes – the protagonists are led into a structure, told they are about to shower. The suspense is built on the audience’s expectation that the characters are in fact led into a gas chamber, but then, rather than deadly gas, water pours out of the ceiling. In fact, the Nazis would lead their victims into gas chambers under the pretext of having them shower. These movies reverse the facts – the lie is turned into the reality and the historic reality remains an unrealized fear. While perhaps good for dramatic suspense, these images, implanted in the minds of the viewers – many of whose only encounter with the Holocaust is through such widely distributed movies – are known historical falsities. In reality the gas chambers could not even function as showers at all. It is a fallacious image.

These narrative structures, images and character types, when presented to those who are ignorant of the Holocaust, fit much better with the narrative of denial than with the historical truth. For the great majority who learn most of their history from film, if the main images they are offered of the Holocaust are of inhuman acts, non-realistic monsters, gas chambers that turn out to be showers (rather than the other way around) and where the protagonists survive, for all the good intentions the more plausible story might turn out to be the false one, that of denial, exaggeration and fabrication. At the end people remember the drama, the images, the main narrative and characters, not the background.

Posted by Ori Herstein