Hollywood cant convey real horror of the Holocaust, panelists say

From “Shindler” to “Sophie” to “The Great Dictator,” Hollywood has never shied away from the Holocaust. And that just might be a problem, according to some panelists at a recent public dialogue on Hollywood and the Holocaust.

“Hollywood and the Holocaust,” said panelist Neil Gabler, a critic and author, “is an oxymoron.”

Presented by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the July 27 panel discussion followed a screening of Daniel Anker’s 2004 documentary “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.”

Joining Gabler on the panel were film producer Martin Starger (“Sophie’s Choice,” “On Golden Pond”) and historian and Holocaust scholar Martin Berenbaum, along with filmmaker Anker and moderator Michael Renov of University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television.

Gabler critiqued American cinema for papering over controversial topics. “With the Holocaust,” he said, “you cannot paper it over.”

He also noted that American films often celebrate hope and individualism, both of which are concepts antithetical to proper portrayal of the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is not a matter of individual, but rather aggregate horror,” he said. “It’s about the 6 million who don’t triumph. All American Holocaust films end with a sense of hopefulness. It’s absolutely absurd.”

Though he produced one of the more celebrated American-made Holocaust films, “Sophie’s Choice,” Martin Starger also expressed doubts about Hollywood’s ability to correctly tell the story.

“You can never come close to showing the Holocaust in a Hollywood film,” he said. “Film can only tell about individual people.”

Historian Michael Berenbaum echoed the previous speakers. “The Holocaust is about atrocity, not tragedy,” he said. “In atrocity, there’s a radical imbalance between what can be learned and the price that is paid. Any [Holocaust] narrative of hope is by its nature false.”

During a question-and-answer session, panelists touched upon the subject of Holocaust survivors and their dwindling numbers.

“We’re moving into a transition,” said Berenbaum. “The survivors are aging rapidly. But the Holocaust will continue to challenge. The nature of our miserable world makes that paradigmatic event even more relevant today.”

All on the panel agreed that Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation, which filmed interviews with thousands of survivors, would prove over time to be one of the most significant contributions to Holocaust studies and even to filmmakers looking for stories to tell.

Said Berenbaum: “Fifty-two thousand stories, 32 languages and 120,000 hours, all being catalogued and transcribed. This will give future generations resources to encounter survivors when they are gone.”

One questioner wondered how far filmmakers should go in graphically depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. That seemed to strike a nerve with the panelists.

“How do you present dehumanization without re-dehumanizing the people?” wondered Berenbaum. “It’s a struggle between representation and presentation.”

Added filmmaker Anker, “We struggle with this. I found that the most graphic footage didn’t work. But even newsreel footage from the era was heavily edited, too.”

For such a dark topic, the discussion ended on a light note: the concept of humor and the Holocaust. Berenbaum explained that there actually is room for the idea, and is contemplating writing a book on the subject.

As an example, he recounted the story of a Holocaust-era Jewish boy in Europe asked what he would like most of all if he were Hitler’s son. “The boy thought for a moment,” said Berenbaum, “and then said, ‘I’d like to be an orphan.'”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.