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How Tinseltown shaped the world’s view of the Holocaust

by Tom Tugend

April 3, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Scene outside a movie theater in the 1940s

Scene outside a movie theater in the 1940s

Hollywood movies and television have shaped the way most of the world perceives the Final Solution, narrator Gene Hackman observes at the beginning of "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust."

It is a statement that may not sit too well with generations of historians and authors, but the evidence validates the conclusion.

When the NBC mini-series "Holocaust" aired in 1978, one of every two Americans watched. The effect was even stronger in Germany, where the film, with an assist from the Wiesenthal Center, persuaded the German government to cancel the time limit on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

Elie Wiesel might heatedly object that the TV series, and indeed all dramatic representations, "trivialized" the extermination of the Six Million, and that only those who actually survived the concentration camps had a right to speak.

He was answered, indirectly, by the sardonic German joke of the time that the television "Holocaust" had more of an impact on the German mind than had the original.

As a documentary, "Imaginary Witness" does a remarkable job of presenting the history and moral ambiguities in Hollywood's treatment of the Holocaust, from the early Nazi days to "The Pianist," and the chapter is far from closed.

The studios, headed mostly by Jewish immigrants conflicted about their identity, generally treated the new Nazi rulers of Germany with kid gloves. In this, they were driven as much by the bottom line (in the 1920s, Germany accounted for 10 percent of Hollywood's foreign profits) as by the Hays Code. This self-censorship code protected audiences not only from excessive cleavage but also mandated that movies could not demean the people or rulers of a foreign country.

One exception to the general timidity was MGM's "The Mortal Storm" (1940), about the persecution of a Jewish family. Though the word "Jew" was never uttered, with "non-Aryan" serving as a substitute, Goebbels banned all future MGM films from both Germany and occupied Europe.


'Jewish' excerpt, Charlie Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator'


"Jew" was first spoken on the screen later, in 1940, in "The Great Dictator," which could be made only because Charlie Chaplin financed and produced the brilliant satire by himself.

Hollywood's appeasement didn't save it from retribution. The U.S. Senate's Nye Committee investigated the "Jewish conspiracy" to slander Germany, and Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, warned the nervous Jewish moguls that they would be held responsible if America were drawn into war.

All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood was harnessed to the war effort, with Warner Bros. leading the way with the Looney Tunes cartoon "The Ducktators."

The first real inkling the American public had of the Holocaust was through newsreel footage of the liberation of the death camps, but the Cold War courtship of Germany and the heavy hand of the McCarthy era discouraged any follow-ups.

While "Crossfire" and "Gentleman's Agreement" broke new ground in probing anti-Semitism in America, neither film alluded to the Holocaust.

Finally, in 1959, a sanitized version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" began to deal directly with the fate of European Jewry, followed in the same year by the Playhouse 90 TV production of "Judgment in Nuremberg" (in which this reviewer launched and closed out his acting career).

By the 1980s and early '90s, movies reached a new level of realism and depth with "Sophie's Choice" and ABC's 30-hour "War and Remembrance," crowned by "Schindler's List."

Director Daniel Anker of "Imaginary Witness," the son of German Jewish refugees, augments clips from 20 films by introducing some astute analysts, foremost among them Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and author Neal Gabler, and leading filmmakers, to discuss the moral complexities of dealing with Holocaust themes.

Both Sidney Lumet ("The Pawnbroker") and Steven Spielberg ("Schindler's List") acknowledge their fear of seeming to exploit the immense tragedy.

Berenbaum notes that in many such films, the viewer is guided to identify neither with the Jewish victim nor the Nazi perpetrator, but rather with the good gentile who helps the Jews.

Despite Hollywood's shortcomings, Berenbaum concludes, "in a relative world, these films have set for the world a standard of absolute evil."

"Imaginary Witness" opens April 4 at Laemmle's Town Center 5 in Encino and Grande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://www.shadowdistribution.com and http://www.laemmle.com

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