Of recent historical events, few events have been so searing, and thus so difficult to depict faithfully both in nature and scope in film, than the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. This film tells the story of Hollywood's approach to the subject, starting with its initial pre-war reluctance to alienate the lucrative German market. With World War II, and the discovery of the Nazi horrors, we follow Hollywood's reaction over the decades to the atrocity. Challenged with a tragedy that beggared the imagination of artists and audiences, Hollywood grew from trying to keep it in the abstract to striving to depict it head-on in ways that would be both truthful and respectful with the proper humanity.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For over a half a century Hollywood films have dealt with Nazism and the Holocaust in complex and often contradictory ways. Marked by outrage and indifference, compassion and ignorance, the need to understand and the desire to forget. And yet while this most horrific chapter in modern world history happened far from America's shores, it has been American movies, perhaps more than any other medium, that have shaped how we understand and remember these events.
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The 2004 documentary film "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust," explains a lot about why the United States was so reluctant to enter World War II. The disturbing fact is that anti-Semitism, isolationism , and fascist leanings were so strong in America that Hollywood producers and directors were reluctant to make anti-Nazi films because they would be branded un-American. Even one of Hollywood's strongest warnings against the evils of Hitler, "Mortal Storm" starring big box office draws James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, managed to tackle anti-Semitism without ever using the word "Jew." Nevertheless, Germany banned all MGM films after its release.
According to this film, pre-World War II Hollywood avoided confronting Nazism in part because of powerful forces in Congress and in business (Joseph P. Kennedy among them) who touted isolationism as the best tactic for America. It really was not until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and truly created a "World War" that the United States was compelled to enter. It is also interesting to noted that the most effective anti-Hitler film of the pre-war years was Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," a film made possible only because of Chaplin's great wealth and personal determination. Chaplin was chided by many for the film and branded a typical Hollywood Jew, even though he was not Jewish!
At one point, one of the film's commentators says of the Holocaust, "We had information and we had information early; we did not act on that information." We know now that Polish gentile Jan Karski was one of those who risked their lives to bring that information to the West. His sacrifices were futile in the face of a stubborn refusal of many Americans to believe or to care. In many ways, "Imaginary Witness" is almost as guilty of omitting mention of Poland and Polish resistance as Hollywood was in its omissions. Nevertheless, this is an eye-opening documentary, containing testimony from many who lived through the war. I found the pre-war sections more enlightening than the post-war segments simply because I saw the post-war era firsthand. The documentary also gave me a list of films to see, some of which I never knew existed. Among them, "Heroes for Sale" (1937), "Black Legion" (1937), "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939), "I Married a Nazi" (1940), "To Be or Not to Be" (1942), "None Shall Escape" (1944), "Crossfire" (1947), "Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947), "The Search" (1948), "Singing in the Dark" (1956), and "The Pawnbroker" (1964). It will be interesting to see how Poland is represented, if at all, in these movies about the Holocaust.
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