Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

A post-war newsreel screening
Photo: Shadow Distribution

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Directed by Daniel Anker
Produced by Anker & Ellin Baumel
Director of Photography, Tom Hurwitz & Nancy Schreiber
Edited by Bruce Shaw
Music by Andrew Barrett
Released by Shadow Distribution
Country of Origin: USA. 92 min. Not Rated
Narrated by Gene Hackman

First seen on cable television in 2004, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust is getting a brief theatrical screening before its DVD release. Focusing chronologically on how Hollywood films have portrayed the rise of the Nazism and the Final Solution, contemporaneously and since, it is noteworthy for clips from less familiar films and newsreels and interviews with creative participants in groundbreaking films.

Film historian Neal Gabler summarizes points from his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood about how the Jewish studio moguls wanted to deflect public and political attention from their origins, both before and after World War II. But Imaginary Witness goes considerably beyond his book, including an examination of two 1940 films, MGM’s The Mortal Storm, and, in an extensive analysis, Charlie Chaplin’s self-financed The Great Dictator. Director Sidney Lumet memorably recalls that Chaplin, in his comic lampoon, was the first in an American film to portray Hitler and to hone in on his attack on Jews.

Director Daniel Anker shifts from fiction to the real thing as seen through the footage of the U.S. Army Signal Corps by such notable directors as John Ford, George Stevens, and Billy Wilder, who were on the front lines as actual witnesses with their cameras. Interviews are included with the first people in Hollywood to screen the footage of concentration camp liberations, which was quickly released in shocking newsreels, but was not viewed widely again until the TV documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin in 1994.

The point is made that the new medium of television dealt with these revelations earlier and more explicitly than did movies, despite interference from advertisers. Particularly interesting are clips from the original television production of Judgment at Nuremberg with comparisons to the later film adaptation, including its recreation of the John Ford-shot footage of accused war criminals watching concentration camp footage, which can be seen in Christian Delage’s documentary Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes.

Imaginary Witness then gets bogged down in a discussion of which TV movie or feature film most accurately recreated the full horrors of the concentration camps, illustrated with extensive clips, particularly from the TV mini-series Holocaust and War and Remembrance vs. the films The Pawnbroker, Sophie’s Choice, and Schindler’s List. Just barely managing not to treat Spielberg’s epic as the apotheosis, historians comment on the Elie Wiesel-instigated debate of soap opera elements in fictionalized films and the irony that the most popular movies center on non-Jewish protagonists. Issues of authenticity are put in frank perspective by producer Branko Lustig, an Auschwitz survivor.

However, Imaginary Witness provides no context as to what other countries’ filmmakers were producing. While a Hearst newsreel is shown with cavalier narration covering early Nazi book burning, and historian Michael Berenbaum notes that the Nazis’ “visual imagery captivated Hollywood” with their parades, no mention is made of how Leni Riefenstahl’s films set the propaganda tone, or that European documentaries, such as Alan Resnais’ 1955 Night and Fog, were providing post-war reminders to audiences outside the U.S. While the 1979 TV mini-series Holocaust is lauded for spurring survivors around the world to testify before cameras, the few examples quickly cited don’t demonstrate how European films for many years surpassed Hollywood’s efforts, particularly through documentaries such as Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah.

But Imaginary Witness effectively establishes that once is not enough for this history to be told in order to keep reaching new audiences every decade or so. Otherwise even genocide can be forgotten. Nora Lee Mandel
December 28, 2007



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