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Movies about the Shoah, what to watch to learn about the Holocaust
A list of the best films and documentaries that retrace the history of the Holocaust, or Shoah, and make us remember and “see” what happened.
Representing the Shoah in movie theatres or the television from the 50s up to today has always been an enigma. Disturbing and real images naturally tend to push audiences away. But at the same time there’s nothing like an image to document – or rather immortalise – what happened, without the space for appeals or rebuttals. Movie directors, historians, artists have tried to balance on this piercing scale to try to tell the story of the cruelest massacre in modern history.
Day after day, the horror of concentration camps has been told by their victims in 120 sessions and listened to by people all over the world. American director Leo Hurwitz produced a documentary film based on Nazi official Adolf Eichmann – one of the major organisers of the Holocaust – that is the first TV trial to Nazis ever transmitted via radio. It was radio broadcast live in Israel. In the rest of the world the TV images came a few days later (it took time to ship the tapes). The Nazi party official under Hitler managed the logistics of mass deportations of Jews and was accused of being one of those who conceived the Final Solution. Mossad captured him in 1960 in Argentina, where he had lived under an assumed name.
Eichmann was taken to trial in 1961 in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. The story of the first global media event and the production team that had to overcome a number of obstacles to obtain the judges’ approval to transmit it is now told by Paul Andrew Williams’s movie. The film retraces what happened behind the scenes of the incredible work by producer Milton Fruchtman (Martin Freeman) and Hurwitz (Anthony LaPaglia) who, at the end of each day, edited the most important film clips of the hearings and sent them to television stations in 37 countries worldwide.
Night will fall (2015)
It was named “Alfred Hitchcock’s documentary about the Holocaust”. The shooting showing the liberation of concentration camps was initially shot by Alfred Hitchcock, who was sent to war on behalf of the British military authorities. It is a short film showing about 50 minutes of impressive black and white scenes that was entitled “Memory of the camps”. It has been locked in a drawer for more than 60 years and now rediscovered thanks to London’s Imperial War Museum. In 1945, soon after the war ended, producer Sidney Bernstein went to Bergen-Belsen, where he found some of the British and American Army’s cameramen who had been filming for weeks the atrocities they had seen after the liberation of concentration camps.
When the film was ready, however, Washington and London didn’t dare to accuse the cruelties committed in a nation that should be rebuilt and with which they were just starting to restore diplomatic relations. So the material ended up in a drawer, where it was locked until the 80s.
It took Claude Lanzmann eleven years starting from 1974 to collect and compile the testimonies included in this film. When this film whose running time exceeds nine hours and a half was released in theatres in 1985, it was soon hailed as a historic event, both from a historical and cinematographic point of view.
Night and fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955)
The director is Alain Resnais who also produced “Hiroshima mon amour”. This 30-minute film was commissioned by the Comité d’Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale for the tenth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Much of the film in fact contains archival images, including colour shots made at Auschwitz-Birkenau around 1954. The music was specifically composed by Hanns Eisler, who has Jewish origins.
Nuremberg trials (Le procès de Nuremberg, 1977)
Henri de Turenne, this film’s director, was a great journalist as well as the author of more than 100 documentaries. The AFP sent him to Berlin and Korea, and he was awarded the Albert Londres Prize in 1952 for his report for Le Figaro. Then he worked for France Soir and the ORTF. The Algerian war played an important role in his life since 1967, before he started producing with Pathé the documentary series about Great Battles which made him famous and where this one is included.
Primo Levi. If this is a man (Se questo è un uomo, 1995)
“You who live safe in your warm houses, you who find, returning in the evening, hot food and friendly faces: consider if this is a man”. These are the first verses of Primo Levi’s novel, written between December 1945 and January 1947, as a testimony of what the author himself experienced in the Auschwitz concentration camp. When writing these words that explain the title of the masterpiece, the author drew inspiration from an ancient prayer called Shema. These words are pronounced by Giancarlo Giannini at the beginning of this documentary (1 hour and twenty minutes) produced by the Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea (Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation) that includes the testimonies of those who survived deportation and concentration camps. To realise this documentary, 93 Italian Jews who survived deportation were interviewed.
Children’s Shoah (La Shoah dei bambini, 1992)
Rai Storia (an Italian TV channel) proposes this ten-minute documentary, among many interesting materials on the subject, that focuses on the plight of children in those terrible years. The horror experienced by Jewish children during Nazism is retraced with archival material starting from a page of the Diary of Anne Frank, who talks about the duties they were forced to carry out. After this, the story unfolds as drawings, testimonies, dramatic images, episodes of parental abandonment of children in the hope to save their kids’ lives are shown. The number of child victims of the Holocaust during World War II was very high both inside and outside the camps.
From Bologna to Stalino (Da Bologna a Stalino, 1942-2013)
An unreleased video about the deportation of Jews that was discovered and then revived by Home Movies. It’s a great movie by Enrico Chierici, an Italian second lieutenant who in 1942, while filming the Italian troops on their way to the front, bumped into the convoys of deportees who were travelling by train in the opposite direction. By judging their faces, they seemed unaware of their fate: they looked with smiling faces through the small openings of the wagons. The video, whose running time was originally 20 minutes, is unfortunately silent and online a 5-minute extract is available.
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