Hollywood and the Holocaust

In 1940, Charlie Chaplin did what the Jewish moguls of Hollywood couldn’t — or wouldn’t: He made a film ridiculing Hitler and exposing the persecution of the Jews in Germany.

“The Great Dictator,” bankrolled by its creator/star, still stands as one of the gutsiest movies ever made. Daniel Anker’s impeccable documentary, “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust,” gives other principled moviemakers their due, too, but precious few studio execs.

A seamless blend of powerhouse clips and low-key talking heads, “Imaginary Witness” is an engrossing history lesson that devotes most of its attention to the decades just before and after World War II.

The film derives its substantial punch from scenes from subsequent landmarks such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the 1978 NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Schindler’s List.” (It’s too bad that neither Paul Mazursky nor his stellar adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Enemies, A Love Story” are included, but Anker focuses on works that reached large audiences.)

“Imaginary Witness” carefully considers the responsibility that filmmakers had and still have to address the Holocaust. Jewish directors such as Sidney Lumet (“The Pawnbroker”) and Steven Spielberg weigh in on the challenge of navigating the slim boundary separating visceral impact from sensationalism.

Although mainstream television viewers — the target audience for this documentary — might not be interested, Anker could have probed even deeper into the thicket of moral issues. For example, there’s no discussion of movies that exploit the Holocaust merely as a plot device.

Only in passing is the point made that no matter how accurate, detailed and horrific a screen portrayal of the Holocaust may be, moviegoers can never fully grasp the experience of being a Jew in Europe during the war. Even less time is given to the issue — bandied about in documentary circles, and perhaps outside the scope of this film — of “Holocaust fatigue,” or viewers becoming inured to archival footage of the camps and crematoria.

“Imaginary Witness” does note that as Hitler rose to power in the ’30s, Hollywood acknowledged the threat in only a few “B” movies. Neal Gabler (“An Empire of Their Own”) and others describe how Jewish studio heads — ever eager to assimilate, and to be accepted by mainstream America — feared being accused of anti-German bias by opportunistic congressmen and influential isolationists.

Immediately after the war, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower invited 16 Hollywood executives to Europe, and Dachau. Newsreels of Nazi atrocities soon appeared in theaters across America, bringing evidence of the Holocaust to all.

And then, silence. Intimidated by the McCarthy hearings of the ’50s, which linked Jews, Hollywood and communism in the public mind, studio honchos became obsessively cautious. The ice wasn’t broken until “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1959.

“Imaginary Witness” is guaranteed to generate debate, and an assuredly lively panel discussion will follow the July 27 screening in San Francisco. The festival also revives “The Pawnbroker” and Ernst Lubitsch’s sublime 1942 satire, “To Be or Not to Be,” two of Hollywood’s finest responses to Nazism and the Holocaust.

Weaving a contemporary European view into the mix, the festival will screen a restored print of Markus Imhoof’s wrenching “The Boat is Full.” This 1981 masterwork hones in on a motley handful of Jews seeking refuge in a Swiss village during the war. They must rely upon the kindness of a husband and wife so suspicious and malevolent that you’d swear the Jews were in Poland, not the neutral heart of Europe. But the couple gradually softens.

Underscored by a quiet, unrelenting tension, “The Boat is Full” denounces xenophobia and racism via a steady accretion of detail. Above all, though, it’s a heart-rending indictment of the application of law over mercy.

“Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” screens 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 27, at the Castro Theatre, S.F.; 6:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2, at the Century Cinema 16, Mountain View; 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5, at Wheeler Auditorium in Berkeley; 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael.

“The Boat is Full” plays 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 26, at the Castro; 8:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1, at Wheeler; 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, at the Century; 6:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 9, at the Rafael. Tickets: $5-$11. (925) 275-9490 or www.sfjff.org.


Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.