Historical Dictionary of Holocaust Cinema Review

Authors: Robert C. & Carol J. Reimer.

The latest publication in the 58 strong Scarecrow Historical Dictionary series of books on art and culture studies the cinema focuses on Holocaust cinema; by its very subject a controversial book. I myself have a background in working in what has derisedly been called the ‘Holocaust industry’, more specifically in what has equally negatively been called war tourism or black history tourism. For several years I was a tour guide in Munich and Bavaria delivering involved and lengthy tours on Hitler’s Third Reich and at the former concentration camp at Dachau. I have to say that this was the best and most rewarding job I have ever done. It was interesting meeting people who came on the tours armed with their own knowledge and perspective on the Holocaust and different people’s points of reference. Most popular of these of course was Schindler’s List (1993) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2009) and of course the story of Anne Frank. For other more literary visitors it might be Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi. Whichever of these points of reference it is could be seen by some as divisive or even insulting. This argument is not lost on the editors of this book who begin by the oft stated Theodor Adorno quote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” which is countered by Wiesel’s counter-argument that worse still would be to forget. Many other people I have come across and those with specific knowledge and expertise have found Spielberg’s film on Oskar Schindler to be an irritant as through the popular director’s own partially sentimental take on the Holocaust has become the image in the public imagination; worse still that it has come via the popular entertaining medium of cinema. Speaking for myself I like Schindler’s List and think, apart from a few areas of schmaltzy dialogue it is a fairly accurate recreation of experiences of the Holocaust for Polish Jews, the Krakow ghetto and the Krakow-Plasow and Auschwitz concentration camps.


The Reimers book explores some of these ideas and gives examples through this A-Z dictionary of the subject ranging from the aforementioned popular films through to documentaries and less well known films and even TV movies and series. As an A-Z there is much it includes as well as much it leaves out. There are many films which are new to me that I wish to seek out such as the Polish film Distant Journey (1950) and found I learnt much that I was previously unaware of. Of course there have been other books on this subject and in that sense the book is not original, but it is easy to read and doesn’t go into too much detail on the story or background of the Holocaust but does enlighten readers on other films to root out as well as the well known ones, particularly films from Germany, Austria and Poland. An introductory chapter gives a chronological history of the subject and films since 1940 (and to my disappointment misses an early fave of mine, Night Train to Munich, 1940 which can be criticized as being too light hearted) and what becomes apparent is how after the post-war period only a handful of very good films were made, particularly in Central Europe until many more documentaries and films were made after the 1980s and has continued to be made in increasing numbers since.


Sadly of course there are a few glaring omissions as is always the case with books of this kind. It is not so much that whole films are omitted as much as a few salient points of interest such as the fact that Kurt Gerron, the enforced director of the fake Nazi documentary The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews about a so-called paradise life for Jews in the ghetto of Theresienstadt (Gerron was a prisoner there and was later transported to Auschwitz where he died); he had previously starred alongside Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930) but he is later mentioned and these details are included on the documentary about him, Prisoner of Paradise (2002), or that George Stevens the director of the kitsch The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) had also shot the colour footage of the liberation of Dachau as a part of a film unit when he was with a US Airborne Division during the liberation where he witnessed the piles of putrefying corpses at a railroad siding and a camp full of typhus infected prisoners. These I think are interesting facts that have some relevance and create an aura around their works. Other films were omitted such as the Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island (2010) which deals with a GI’s trauma following the liberation of Dachau while the jokey Inglorious Basterds (2010) is included (and bizarrely features on the book’s jacket), the excellent Austrian documentary about tour guides at the former Mauthausen concentration camp, KZ (2008) and the documentary Journey to Justice (2008) about a German Jewish émigré’s escape to America before coming back with US forces to search for his family in the camps and becoming an interpreter during the War Crimes tribunal in Nuremberg. While writing on The Counterfeiters (2006) the authors begin by stating that “the film is a fictional account about an audacious plan to drop counterfeit British bank notes over England hoping to collapse the British economy” when in fact this film was based on an absolutely true story at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. But these points aside I found this a very welcome addition to the series and to cinema studies as well as Holocaust studies in general and broadens the argument to both cinema and Holocaust studies, thereby further rendering Adorno’s argument to nil.


Chris Hick

Share this!