WWII Film Guide: Holocaust / Atrocities - The Part-Time Critic

Monday, August 2, 2021

WWII Film Guide: Holocaust / Atrocities


*This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

Overview: War itself is an evil, but there’s a category of evil within all wars known as atrocities. "Isn't all war an atrocity?" you might ask. Well, I think the way the thinking goes is that there's necessary and unnecessary evils in wars. Having to kill a squad of young eighteen year old boys because they will kill you first is a necessary evil - as the thinking goes at least. Rounding up and murdering civilians simply because they are Jewish is an unnecessary evil. While we can argue there's a lot of grey area in deciding (I mean who gets to decide anyways?) what is "necessary" or not, there are some areas most of us happen to agree upon - we call these atrocities. In war, these unnecessary evils or atrocities usually revolve around the treatment of the civilian population or surrendered soldiers. All wars have their share of atrocities, but to say World War II just continued that principle would be to misunderstand the unique scale and depths of unnecessary evil that war brought. 

This category of film is devoted to showing the sobering atrocities of World War II. The holocaust (the systematic discrimination, ghettoization, deportation, and extermination of the Jews and other undesirables) takes center stage here but you'll also see a story of German death groups pillaging the Russian countryside (Come and See). These are depressing and overwhelming stories, but they are imperative to tell. At their most basic level they bear witness to what really happened. This is more important than you think. In the words of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, "For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time." From the depths of these stories ring out truths about our human nature, the capabilities of great evil and great good that every man is capable of doing. More than that, I think these films can often steer us in how we might respond to atrocity as well. To quote Johann Radmann from the film 2014 film Labyrinth of Lies, "...the only response to Auschwitz is to do the right thing yourself. 

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this genre? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 13 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.

The Basics: It is likely a cliché pick, but there's a good reason that Schindler's List has earned the reputation as THE holocaust film. It is a masterpiece. I believe it's one of the finest pieces of art any human has ever made. If you can only watch one film about the horrors of the holocaust make it 1993's Schindler's List. To paraphrase a character from the film, "This movie is an absolute good. This movie...is life. All around its reels lies the gulf." While I know this isn't a film choice, I'd be remiss if I also did not recommend Elie Wiesel's book Night as a companion. It is short and can be read easily in one sitting. Seek it out. The film and book together make an unrivaled one-two punch in understanding this category. 
  • Film: Schindler's List (1993)
  • Book: Elie Weisel's Night (1956)

Deep Dives: This category is packed with powerful experiences. As you'll see from my individual commentaries below, it is hard to go wrong with one the films here. However, let me try and narrow it down a little for you with some guidance. Start with an unorthodox beginning, the mindset of the Nazi leadership that led to the final solution. The 2001 HBO film Conspiracy recounts the secret conference of high-ranking Nazi officials where the final solution was ultimately determined. It's packed with chilling insight into their thinking. From there, I recommend 1959's The Diary of Anne Frank for the classic story of how the Frank's hid from the German's with the help of Gies family. If you can read the book, I'd do that instead though. From there let's journey into life in the Jewish ghetto. I think no film does this better than 2002's The Pianist. From there, I think to get a handle on the concentration camps then you are best trying to come at it from different entry perspectives. I recommend starting with 2015's Son of Saul for its harrowing "in the moment" perspective of the sheer evil of gas chambers. Then leave the "horror" behind for the holocaust told from the perspective of a "clown" (I mean that more philosophically than literally) by watching 1998's Life is Beautiful. Finish off from a different angle, that of the child of a death camp commander in 2008's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Finally, it's wise to branch out from the holocaust specifically and watch something that brings home the truth that atrocities were committed on other civilian populations as well. While I struggle recommending it fully (see my commentary) due to the hard to engage with first two acts, the last hour or so of 1985's Come and See devastatingly depicts the German atrocities committed in rural Russian villages. Taken all together, this is not a very "entertaining" bunch of films, but it's a necessary education if one cares about knowing the truth.
  • German Leadership Mindset: Conspiracy (2001)
  • Hiding & Helping the Jews: The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
  • The Ghetto: The Pianist (2002)
  • Perspectives on the Camps: Son of Saul (2015), Life is Beautiful (1998), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
  • Atrocities: Come and See (1985)

Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
  • A+ = All-time Classic
  • A   = Excellent Film
  • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
  • B+ = Very Good film
  • B   = Good Film
  • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
  • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
  • C   = Mediocre Film
  • C-  = Poor Film
  • D+ = Bad Film
  • I don't usually rate anything lower

1. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) IMDB
- Based on the 1955 play, which is based on the book The Diary of Anne Frank, this film tells the story of Anne Frank, her family, and others, hiding in Amsterdam during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Critiques can be had: the film isn’t fully accurate to the book and has certainly undergone dramatization for a 1950’s audience that is a bit dated. Still, the drama retains much of the power of the story and provides an accessible way for audiences to hear it. I didn’t rewatch it for this project, but I remember the 2001 TV movie Anne Frank: The Whole Story being a moving and more accurate recreation – though with faults of its own. This is a good film, but my recommendation is to read the book over this dramatization if you can. GRADE: B

2. Come and See (1985) IMDB
- I came across this film after reviewing several different internet lists outlining the "greatest WWII films" and I found it to be a pretty mixed bag. The premise is pretty simple: a young Russian boy finds a rifle and leaves his family to join a local Russian resistance group. After he is devastated at being left behind by the group, he joins up with another estranged teen girl, and they wander through their region as it is being devastated by German forces. The first half of this film plays out like a student art film to me: obvious what it is wanting to accomplish but executed in a way that is difficult to engage with and stay interested in. The last hour or so of the film turns much more conventional and its here in its depiction of the German pillaging of towns and countryside that the film hits its most moving and powerful stride. Overall, I recommend the film - though I think that there are other films now that are more accessible and just as moving and revealing of war atrocities on the list. GRADE: C+

3. Schindler’s List (1993) IMDB
- There's a scene near the final act of the lengthy Schindler's List where Oskar Schindler, a German factory owner, and his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern are creating a list of names - the titular "Schindler's List." The list of names are the Jews that Schindler is paying Amon Goeth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, enormous sums of money to bring over to his factory instead of shipping to their deaths at Auschwitz. After finalizing the list, Stern removes it from the typewriter and says to Oskar, "This list... is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf." It's a beautiful and moving sequence showing the journey Schindler has made so far in the film. I think it's one of the best sequences in all of cinema. To understand why, we have to start at the beginning of this film.

Schindler's List begins its narrative with Jews departing from a train and walking up to attendants who are making lists of their names as they enter the Jewish ghetto of Krakow. In this case, to be on the list is to be inferior and controlled by the state - less than human. This sequence is contrasted with Schindler's introduction at a German dinner club where he pays large sums to wine and dine Nazi top brass. He's doing it to network and get approval to start factories and get military contracts. In this sense, names on a list, signatures, are everything to Oskar because they are just a means to an ends - his wealth. Schindler arrives in the Jewish ghetto looking to take advantage of the situation, using Jewish cash as capital to fund his factories and using the Jews as workers because they cost less. 
Stern: “. . . The Jews themselves receive nothing. Poles you pay wages. Generally they get a little more. Are you listening? . . . The Jewish worker’s salary, you pay it directly to the SS, not to the worker. He gets nothing.”
Schindler: “But it’s less. It’s less than what I would pay a Pole. . . . Poles cost more. Why should I hire Poles?”
What's the value of a Jew to Schindler? Very little - they are just a quicker way of achieving his personal goals. As the story progresses and Schindler encounters Jews and observes their treatment at the hands of the Nazi authorities, he undergoes a slow change. It happens in subtle ways at first, but then it becomes more and more obvious until he arrives at the moment I described at the beginning of this commentary. You may be asking, how is the story of a German factory owner a good "holocaust" story? I think the key here is that Schindler's character journey both hyper focuses and personalizes the journey the viewer makes and allows us to observe a broader holocaust story than is often presented. 

By primarily following Schindler and the development of his factories, it allows us to take the journey of his Jewish workers from their quarantining in the Krakow ghettos, to the liquidation of the ghetto, and to their lives in the Plaszow concentration camp; while also observing the German view point of a businessman, and the commander of the concentration camp itself. The director, Steven Spielberg, masterfully portrays these events - with a directness, verisimilitude, and perspective that still has the power to stun me on repeated viewings. I often feel like an observer thrusted into real life events. The liquidation of the ghetto, the cruelty and random violence of life under Amon Goeth (a chilling Ralph Fiennes) in the camps, and the horrors of Auschwitz are now forever embedded in my mind.  

Like Schindler who observes the treatment of the Jews mostly from a distance, the viewer watches people on a screen. We too must grow to care for them. We have been told about the holocaust in our schools (hopefully!), but they are just words on the paper, maybe a few pictures. Schindler's character arc mirrors the arc this story is attempting to give to the viewer as well. After we view what Schindler views, know what he now knows, will we grow to see these people as humans with value or will they just remain names on a list in history? There's a reason the movie goes out of its way to repeatedly find situations where they can say the names of as many of the Jewish workers as possible. The creation of the list of names to be saved I described at the beginning is the moment that demonstrates Schindler has given up his previous views: to use the Jews as a means to his end - riches. The list demonstrates that Schindler has grown to know that a human life, each one, is sacred and not a means to an end. That he must sacrifice the thing that meant the most to him, his riches, to demonstrate this is poetic. This isn't the last time Spielberg has used the conceit of a list of names to depict whether we find value in a human life - think about it: in Catch Me If You Can Frank's ever-changing name showed his lack of integrity and peace with his self-worth, in Minority Report the pre-cogs produced a ball with a name of a victim and a perpetrator, in The Terminal Victor Navorski seeks to get his name on a list so he can enter the country, in an inversion of the list of life Munich starts with a list of names Avner must assassinate and he comes to realize it is dehumanizing, and in Lincoln the President demands the right amount of names to vote on a bill to end the de-humanizing practice of slavery. 

I could write much more and I fear that what I've already written is nowhere near worthy of this film. It's one of the greatest films of all-time and one you definitely should not miss. To paraphrase Stern's comment to Schindler in the film, "The movie is an absolute good. This movie is life... all around its reels lies the gulf." GRADE: A+

4. Life is Beautiful (1998) IMDB
- The movie begins in Italy before the war is set in motion. An Italian Jew named Guido, played by Roberto Benigni, arrives in the city and falls in love with a rich Italian woman whom he eventually woos through sheer determination, positivity, and a series of funny set pieces. Roberto Benigni is infectiously positive - like if you took Harpo Marx's physical comedy combined it with Chico Marx's quick verbal games and turned up the whimsey and optimism dials to 11. As time goes by Guido and Dora have a child and Italy advances in its persecution of the Jews. A little over halfway into the film the family is taken away to a concentration camp. Wanting to shield his son from the evil, Guido convinces his son that it's all part of a grand game where he must earn 1,000 points and the first to do is wins a tank. For the rest of the film Guido tries to maintain the game and keep up the ruse. Many sequences before and in the camp feel charged with a whimsical comedy where reality seems to bend to positivity...right up until it doesn't and reality must be embraced. 

For example, while Guido is working in the steel mill his son runs up on him and says they are forcing all the kids to shower (it was previously established that Joshua hates taking showers). Guido, pleads with Joshua to go take his shower, but he refuses. The catch is that the shower is actually the gassing of all old women and children - that's the joke - or at least the comedic irony. The message/impact is clear: the world is turned upside down and things don't mean what they really mean anymore - even the goodness of a shower is turned into an evil. How does one respond to a world like that? How does one live in a world like that? While I don't think the film is saying we must ignore evil and ignore reality, though many seem to think that's the message here. The perspective here is the clown's perspective of life - sure there's a lot to cry about, but let's embrace goodness wherever and whenever we can. It's a bit like coming across a few weed's growing up through a plaza filled with concrete and setting up a picnic. It's not a full philosophy of life, but it does allow for a different perspective on an event like the holocaust that can feel too familiar after you've seen many dramatizations of it. There are moments that are just immensely devastating here - like Benigni's risking his life to announce "Buon giorno, Principessa!!" over the camp speaker to his, and like the moment Dr. Lessing is revealed to be ignorant and caring more about riddles than the humanity of Guido. It's easy to pass this film off as a series of sentimental comedy set pieces that downplays the horror of evil, but that would be completely misunderstanding it. This is an immensely well-written film with jokes, characters, and moments are woven throughout the film in a way that they will often pop up again but this time with additional irony and meaning. I don't think this is the "holocaust" film you should watch if you can only watch one, but it certainly deserves a viewing as a masterful and unique take on a horrific event. GRADE: A-

5. Jakob the Liar (1999) IMDB
- Jakob, played by Robin Williams, in an inhabitant of a Jewish ghetto in occupied Poland. It's 1944 and the ghetto inhabitants continue to lose hope with each train load of Jews that comes and goes. Jakob, in an unfortunate series of events, ends up in a German office where he hears the radio tell news of the Russians advance. He shares this news with close friends and sees their lives change with the hope this news provides. The double-edged sword is this hope can often lead to risky behavior and dangerous disappointment/disillusionment. Jakob only overheard this one thing, but news gets out that he has a radio and the entire ghetto looks to him for news, for hope. Should Jakob lie and try to give hope? Is it the right thing to do? The movie is essentially a bunch of comedy of errors moments, Robin Williams riffing spots, and dramatic sequences built around this ethical dilemma. I like the idea here but the execution just never seems to fully maximize it. There's a lot of philosophical ramifications here - religious, political, and social - but the parallels are never really drawn, nor isn't the obvious parallel drawn - that the holocaust in general was built on a non-noble lie: that the Jews were dangerous inferiors. In other words, it doesn't seem interested in exploring the greater "The stories we tell ourselves" idea and this leaves us with the decent but rather inert ghetto dramatization. It's not enough to give the film a firm recommend. GRADE: C

6. Conspiracy (2001) IMDB
- This HBO film portrays the 1942 Wannsee Conference where senior Nazi officials met to discuss the “final solution” to the Jewish question. It’s a 'bottle episode' film (it all takes place in one simple setting) that portrays the different arguments and camps within the Nazi circles of power of how to deal with the Jewish problem. The cast is highlighted by a chilling Kenneth Branagh performance as the charismatic Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the final solution. Essentially, the meeting becomes Heydrich slowly getting everyone on board with the final solution, through whatever rhetorical means necessary. It’s not necessarily accessible for those who don’t understand the history or structure of the Nazi high command, but for those who do, this is a fascinating recreation that’s well worth the effort to find and watch. GRADE: B+

7. The Grey Zone (2001) IMDB
- Taking place at the infamous Auschwitz Birkenau camp, this film follows the story of a group of sonderkommandos, certain Jews given special privileges to help with the work of the death camp. We watch as they struggle with the work they do, plan a revolt, and even one who is drafted to help Dr. Mengele with grisly medical research. It’s a heavy subject with some memorable and moving moments, but the film meanders and struggles to bring together the narrative to be something more than individual sequences. GRADE: B-

8. The Pianist (2002) IMDB
- Based on a true story, The Pianist follows the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish radio pianist, as he and his family experience life under Nazi occupation in Warsaw, Poland. Covering 1939-1945, Wladyslaw's story intersects, witnesses, and survives many of the major events of the war in Warsaw: the Jewish persecution codes, life in the Warsaw ghetto, the liquidation, and the Uprising. The story of Warsaw in WWII is almost unbearably sad and this film, superbly and delicately directed by Roman Polanski who himself was a survivor of a different ghetto in Poland during the war, does its story great justice. GRADE: A-

9. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) IMDB
- You're an eight year old boy named Bruno and you love to explore. Your father is an important man in the army and that allows you to have a nice house and live without much worry. Other people applaud and salute your father. One day you have to move, your father's job has forced him to live out in the country. The house has a somewhat hobbled gardener/servant that is dressed in pajamas and everyone speaks ill of, if they speak to him at all. From your bedroom you can see what looks like a farm, maybe a mile or so away. Everyone on the farm is also dressed in pajamas, even the kids. You're not allowed to go and play with them. What is going on? This is how The Boy in the Striped Pajamas begins. If you haven't figured it out, Bruno's father is a member of the German SS party and his new job is as the commander of a concentration camp. 

Once one becomes familiar with the details of the holocaust, it is a fight not to become desensitized to the the dehumanization, violence, and evil on display. This is why so many of the best holocaust films take different angles into the story, like Benigni's Life is Beautiful taking a clown's perspective to the event. It is helpful to see the holocaust through a child's eyes and in this unique case, the eyes of the son of the camp commander. What will happen when Bruno discovers the truth? Will Bruno be shaped by his father's views of the Jews as non-people? Will he resist? There is a short sequence early in the film that epitomizes this central tension. Bruno falls off a garden swing and scrapes his knee. His mother is gone and so Pavel, the Jewish servant/gardener, picks the boy up and tends to his scrape with a first aid kit in the house. You see, Pavel used to be a doctor before the camp. The mother arrives home and is worried/frightened, "What happened?" she says with both a bit of anger, fear, and worry. Worry? Yes, you see it's clear the mother, played very well by Vera Farmiga, doesn't fully agree with the father's views. She wants to show the due anger that Pavel was with her boy but doesn't want to cross the line of her personal conscience. After Bruno explains what happened and Pavel confirms, the mother pauses a while, you can tell she wants to thank Pavel (I mean that's what you do as one human being to another), but on her face is all the reasons that are holding her back from doing so. It's a lengthy pause, but it's ended with a "Thank you." The mother has held strong - she has not been infected by the hate. Will Bruno and his sister do likewise?

Bruno eventually finds a way to sneak out of his home compound and explore the nearby woods. He approaches the camp wire and finds a young Jewish boy named Shmuel sitting on the other side. They talk and strike up a friendship. As thy converse, Bruno's naivete about what is happening is challenged - asking questions about the fence that "keeps the animals in and the horrid smell coming from the chimneys. Bruno's sister however is being wooed by Nazi culture, her tutor feeding her anti-Jewish propaganda, and especially by a handsome young Nazi driver for the family. When Bruno finally discovers the purpose of the camp and the thinking behind why they are there you can see the dissonance - the camp is horrible, but isn't his father a good man? I'm writing a lot so I'll wrap it up now. There are some faults I've not covered here, but I think they are more than made up with the central tension and scene after scene that wonderfully builds and builds. I'm a little mixed on the ending, but this is well worth a view. GRADE: B+

10. The Counterfeiters (2008) IMDB
- Germany used their imprisoned Jewish populations for many kinds of labor. This film tells the story of how they drafted specific skilled Jewish laborers to counterfeit Allied money in exchange for better conditions in the camp. The Germans initially thought they would dump the counterfeit British pounds over England and wreck their economy. Later they decided to use it for espionage instead. In one instance they used counterfeit bills to pay off the spy "Cicero" whose story is told in the film 5 Fingers that you'll find on my espionage guide. This film tells the story behind the counterfeiters, is well made, and adds more layers beyond the conventional death camp stories within the genre. GRADE: B+

11. Defiance (2008) IMDB
- Did Jewish people try to resist with arms against their imprisonment and destruction? This film tells the story of a pair of brothers who tried to organize armed resistance, alongside Russian resistance fighters, to their Nazi occupiers. From director Ed Zwick, the film is competent and engaging, but also a bit dry and traditional. Middle of the road stuff for me. GRADE: B-

12. Son of Saul (2015) IMDB
- Taking place in a little over a day, this film follows the experience of a sonderkommando , a Jewish death camp prisoner who has taken up the job of running the gas chambers and furnaces in exchange for some light privileges and a bit longer life. The sonderkommando is named Saul and as he is doing his work he comes across the body of a young boy that is his son or that he's convinced himself is his son. He becomes convinced that this boy deserves a proper Jewish burial and he's determined to get it done, despite the risks. Along his journey we glimpse the horrific process of the death camp, we glimpse the moment when the only known death chamber pictures were taken, and many other devastating moments. The film immediately stands out due to the decision to keep the camera always in the viewpoint of the main character Saul – we essentially only see what is within his range to see. For me it's a self-imposed constraint that is both a strength and weakness to me. On one hand, it gives a sense of confusion/chaos and mystery to the viewer as it would have likely been for the actual character. This adds a verisimilitude and intensity that is unparalleled in other holocaust films. However, I felt it also hindered my experience. I often wasn't in mystery but just struggled trying to figure out what was going, trying to understand and engage with what I saw. It might be a 'me' thing - but I just found the decision didn't quite work like I wanted it too. In that sense, it's a bit like 1985’s Come and See and 2019's A Hidden Life - powerful films that I enjoyed but due to some of the artistic choices it became rather inaccessible to me and I think a stumbling block for many other  viewers too. GRADE: B+

13. The Zookeeper's Wife (2017) IMDB
- Based on the true story of a couple who ran a zoo in Warsaw during World War II and used it as a front to move and shelter Jews looking to escape Nazi capture and expulsion to a concentration camp. Jessica Chastain plays the titular wife who must charm the head Nazi zoologist, played by Daniel Bruhl, to obfuscate the activities of the zoo and the resistance work of her husband. There are some moving sequences, particularly the sad and tragic depiction of the Warsaw ghetto, and the courage depicted in the rescue and sheltering. I wish the film had found a more effective final act as it dramatically peaks a bit early - making that last act feel a bit tired, scattered, and unconnected. GRADE: C+

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