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Holocaust in Film. Authenticity of the representation of the historical event "Holocaust"

Hausarbeit 2013 22 Seiten

Medien / Kommunikation - Film und Fernsehen



1 Introduction

2 Conceptual Basics
2.1 Holocaust
2.1.1 Term
2.1.2 Historical Review
2.2 Film and film genre
2.2.1 Definition
2.2.3 Documentary Film
2.2.4 Fictional Film

3 Representation of History in Film

4 Authenticity of the Holocaust in film based on two film genres and each important examples
4.1 Authenticity of the Holocaust in the documentary film „Shoah“
4.2 Authenticity of the Holocaust in the fictional film „Schindler‘s List“

5 Conclusion


List of Figures

List of Abbreviations

List of Literature

1 Introduction

‘No one can describe it. No one can recreate what happened here. Impossible. And no one can understand it. Even I, here, now can not understand it’.1 These words are said by Simon Srebnik, a survivor of the Holocaust in the first nine minutes of Claude Lanzmanns documentary about the Holocaust ‘Shoah’. A survivor of the Holocaust goes back to his point of cruelty, the extermination camp, where he was captivated during World War II, simply because he was a Jew. There he is overwhelmed by emotions and experiences, finds it difficult to find words to describe what has happenend and can not even understand, why it happenend. A survivor of the Holocaust, who experienced the cruelty can not find a describtion to the Holocaust. Yet, historians, the film industry, men of letters, in short the second and third generation after the events of the Holocaust try to find an explenation. In consideration of film and TV productions of the past six decades, it is apparent that especially since the 1990s many films concerning the Holocaust were produced, such as ‘Life is Beautiful’ by Roberto Benigni (1997), ‘The Pianist’ by Roman Polanski (2002) , ‘Train of Life’ by Radu Mihaileanu (1998) and ‘Schindler’s List’ by Steven Spielberg (1993), to list a few examples. All of these films are fictional films, among which Schindler’s List received the most attention. There are also many documentary films thematizing the Holocaust, the most significant example therefor being ‘Shoah’ by Claude Lanzmann (1985).

All these films, whether fictional or documental have in common that they want to represent the happenings of the Holocaust. They try to bring historical events closer to the audience of these days, make history comprehensible. In order to understand history, the presented history has to match with the reality of historical events. It has to be faithful and authentic to achieve a veritable recreation of history.

But the Holocaust seems like something, that not even survivors and eyewitnesses can understand, nor describe. The Holocaust is unreal even to those, who lived through it. This leads to the following questions, this paper is going to answer:

- How can the representation of the Holocaust in films be authentic, if its describtion is even incredible for its eyewitnesses?
- Can the representation at all be authentical? And if so, which genre provides more authenticity, a documentary or a fictional film?

To answer these questions, this paper will first provide the conseptual basics on the Holocaust, the defintion of film and two important genres, documentary films and fictional films. Then it will outline the representation of history in films. In the last chapter, the question of authenticity of the Holocaust in films will be answered on the basis of two important film examples for each genre: Shoah for documentary films and Schindler’s List for fictional films.

2 Conceptual Basics

2.1 Holocaust

The Holocaust is so familiar, that it has become unnecessary to hear the word spoken. In the Western World, the topic has been transformed from a position of relative ignorance of the non-survivors and relative silence of the survivors to the most talked about and often represented event in the twentieth century.2 Holocaust is a term, a notion and a historical event. It is important to clarify that when the events were taking place, the term did not exist. While the Germans used an euphemism, victims and later experts of theology, literature and history and the media industry established different notions, among which ‘Holocaust’ catched on.

2.1.1 Term

Giving an event an explanation is a hermeneutic step. ‘Holocaust’ is a term to describe the extermination of 6 million Jews during the Second World War. However, there exist many others notions for this time of history, such as ‘Shoah’, ‘Churban’, and the Nazi- euphemism ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Both ‘Churban’ and ‘Shoah’ are Hebrew connotations and interpret the events in a religious context. ‘Churban references to the destruction of the First in Second Temple, while the notion ‘Shoah’, which means ‘big catastrophe’, points to a biblical law and indicates that the genocide is a part of Jewish (religious) history. Yet, many Israeli historians and writers connote ‘Shoah’ with despair and metaphysic disbelief, less with its religious meaning, which are sin and punishment. In Israel, ‘Shoah is the term that is being used for the genocide of Jews during the Second World War. The day of commemoration for the victims of the persecution of the Jews, in English known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, is called ‘Yom HaShoah’ in Israel.3 Although the term ‘Shoa’ is generally accepted in Israel, there still exist doubts over this notion. Since it was characterized by the victims, by Jewish people, critics might say that it only reflects the victims’ perspective and not the general4 while others, especially German intellectuals use this term to show their critical awareness and their understanding of the victims’ sentiments.5

The term ‘Holocaust’ was spread among society mainly by Marvin J. Chomskys’ four- part and nine-and-a-half-hour television miniseries “Holocaust” in 1978 about the historical event. The series were distributed all over the world and gained high attention. In other words, the media sensation, that was watched by a total of more than 120 million Americans, turned the term ‘Holocaust’ into a common term to describe the historical events of the Second World War. The film introduced the topic – the genocide of the Jews – to the West German audience, when it was screened in 1979 and reached an audience of 14 million viewers. With this film the widespread awareness of the Holocaust began to emerge. Before, in 1973 the world ‘Holocaust’ was publicized in ‘The Barnhart Dictionary of New English Since 1963’, as a term to referring to ‘the destruction of European Jewry in World War II’.6 The word itself comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament and literally means ‘sacrifice wholly consumed by fire, a whole burnt offering’7. It was not used to describe the events when they were taking place.8 Just like ‘Shoah’ and ‘Churban’, the term ‘Holocaust’ has a religious meaning. It is derived from the Greek holokauston, which is literally translated as ‘completely burned’. In a letter to the editors of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from the 26.06.1978, Theo Stemmler explains that the term Holocaust combines four major elements – entire/fire/victim/animal. The expression was used in a religious manner but was later secularized. The element animal was substituted by human and the element entire was modified to ‘many in number’, which in combination of all elements implies the entire extermination of many people. In Stemmler’s view, this particular term accurately describes the unique historical events of the years 1933 to 1945.9

2.1.2 Historical Review

Describing the whole dimension of the National Socialism and the Holocaust briefly is almost impossible. This is why this paper will give important facts of the terrible events in order to understand the problem with authenticity of the representation of the Holocaust in movies. Also, though the events were given a term to describe them, many historians find it difficult to both describe and comprehend the Holocaust. The Holocaust is the example of an unique event that stands for inexplicable cruelty and the absolute evil that has ever occurred in history and is the biggest extent of Antisemitism.10 The Holocaust is a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, throughout German-occupied territory. When Adolf Hitler became Leader and Reich Chancellor in 1933, he passed new laws, one of them concerning eugenics, known as the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, that are known to be the beginning of the percecution and the genocide. The Nazis used a euphemistic phrase, the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (German: Endlösung der Judenfrage). Nazis used the phrase "lebensunwertes Leben" (Life unworthy of life) in reference to their victims in an attempt to justify the killings.11

Historians, who follow a structuralistic approach to summarize the events, claim, that Hitler’s hatred of Jews and his fanatic obsession could only lead to the success of the anti-jewish regime and in the end to the Holocaust. First, Jews were boycotted by society, not allowed to carry on their businesses and discriminated in public, then forced to wear a Jewish Badge, that would reveal them in public. With the Nuremberg Laws, Jews’ rights were yet another time reduced. The radicalization of the Final Solution began in 1939, when the Germans attacked Poland and thus started World War II. In the same year, the deportation of the Jews began. They were confined in overcrowded ghettos, such as in Lodz or Warsaw, before before being transported by freight train to concentration camps. There, the inmates were subjected to slave labor until they died of exhaustion or disease. In the years between 1942 and 1945, finally the Nazi-Regime imposed the Final Solution, and in many extermination camps, of which Auschwitz-Birkenau was the biggest of them all, Jews were systematically killed in gas chambers. Others were murdered during mass shootings by a specialied unit of the SS, the Einsatzgruppen (also known as the SS paramilitary death squads), still others were killed through abuse, malnutrition and medical experiments. During this time period six million Jews were exterminated.12 13 The name Auschwitz and the extermination camp became the symbol of the Holocaust, its entire absurditiy and cruelty and a sign for the univerlization of fright and powerlessness.14

2.2 Film and film genre

2.2.1 Definition

A film is a stringing together of pictures, fixed on celluloid, a multiply coded and encoded material of pictures, texts and sounds.15 Film gives the opportunity to create a realistic and unaltered reflection of reality, because it has the technical features, by using audivisuals, to reproduct reality. Nevertheless the reproduction of reality can not be mistaken with reality.16 Hans Markus Enzensberger pick up on the debates on the ‘aspiration of truth’, though he concerned the entire media industry and refered to a picture by René Magritte called ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe). Enzensberger explained that this picture intended to show the difference between an actual pipe and a picture of a pipe. By writing on his picture ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, Magritte stressed out it was not an actual pipe, but a picture of one.17 It’s the same with films, which consist of pictures: what is shown is not particularly reality, it is a picture of reality, a recreated reality. Another idea of film is contrary: film is not a copy of reality but its aesthetic transcendency: a mise-en-scène of a dream. Then the film would be, following Freud’s theory of dreams, the fulfillment of a wish. The dimensions of wish- fulfillment are reflected in happy endings of movies.18

The mediation of messages via films is strong because visual information are linked to sounds, that support and effectively emphasize the message. In addition, the specific created tension, that is the result of chronology and contextual inclusion of plot units, film editing, composition of picuteres and sounds and what the camera actually shows influences the perception of the audience. Accordingly, one can say, that every film contains a ‘filmic purpose’ that is transferred through a filmic reality.19 Yet, the presented reality often lets the audience forget that what they see is fictional. Films transfer an illusion, that lead the audience to forget that the created reality in actual fact is not what it seems to be. It is for the purpose of conveying the impression to symphatize with the figures of the films and their fates. 20

2.2.2 Documentary Film

A documentary film, as described by John Grierson, is a realistic genre, that resides with social functions: to make, inform and educate the public, to make documetary films is a ‘creative treatment of the actuality’.21 These films have a certain view of reality, they basically refer to reality. The aspect of entertainment is secondary, much more important is to raise social awareness and to show what and how events have taken place. Therefore a documentary film is a social responsible genre. It provides society with information in order to find a solution outside the film, which gives the documentary film an open form, while the fictional film is a closed entity. Something, that has happened or is happening can be presented in a documentary. Elucidation is provieded by documentaries. That is why documentarists insist on historical veracity and authenticity in their films and emphasize on the base on facts. Still, even documentarists arrange pictures after ther personal view and work subjectively. Klaus Wiedenhan, who works for the NDR22 since 1959, states a documentaty does not exclusively mean that it is a realistic and faithful interpretation of reality.23


1 Srebnik, S. in Shoah, film by Claude Lanzmann.

2 cf. Cole, Tim: Selling the Holocaust, 1999, pp. 2 et. sqq.

3 cf. Thiele, M.: Publizistische Kontroversen über den Holocaust im Film, 2000, pp. 14 et sqq. 4 cf. ‘Der Holocaust’,, (02.01.2013) 5 cf. Thiele, M.: Publizistische Kontroversen über den Holocaust im Film, 2000, pp. 17 et sqq. 6 cf. Cole, Tim: Selling the Holocaust, 1999, p. 13.

4 cf. ‘Der Holocaust’,, (02.01.2013)

5 cf. Thiele, M.: Publizistische Kontroversen über den Holocaust im Film, 2000, pp. 17 et sqq.

6 cf. Cole, Tim: Selling the Holocaust, 1999, p. 13.

7 Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989

8 cf. Cole, Tim: Selling the Holocaust, 1999, p. 7.

9 cf. Thiele, M.: Publizistische Kontroversen über den Holocaust im Film, 2000, pp. 14 et sqq.

10 cf. Kershaw, I.: Der NS-Staat: Geschichtsinterpretationen und Kontroversen im Überblick, 1994, pp.149 et. sqq.

11 cf. Berenbaum, M.: The World Must Know, 2005, pp. 103 et sqq.

12 cf. Kershaw, I.: Der NS-Staat: Geschichtsinterpretationen und Kontroversen im Überblick, 1994, p. 163.

13 cf. Berenbaum, M.: The World Must Know, 2005, pp. 103 et. sqq.

14 cf. Schulz, G.: Docu-dramas – oder: Die Sehnsucht nach der ‚Authentizität‘, in Der Holocaust im Film, 2007, p. 156.

15 cf. Wende, W.: Medienbilder und Geschichte – Zur Medialisierung des Holocaust, in Der Holocaust im Film, 2007, p. 10.

16 cf.Schneider, C.: Sehen, Hören, Glauben, in Das Böse im Blick, Die Gegenwart des Nationalsozialismus im Film, 2007, p. 25.

17 cf. Enzenberger, H.M.: Das digitale Evangelium, in Der Spiegel, 2/2000, (03.01.2013)

18 cf.Schneider, C.: Sehen, Hören, Glauben, in Das Böse im Blick, Die Gegenwart des Nationalsozialismus im Film, 2007, pp. 16 et. sqq.

19 Korte, H.: Einführung in die systematische Filmanalyse, 2010, p. 19.

20 cf. Ingarden, R.: Der Film, in Philosophie des Films, 2006, pp. 50 et. sqq.

21 Thiele, M.: Publizistische Kontroversen über den Holocaust im Film, 2000, pp. 31 et. sqq.

22 Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) (North German Broadcasting) is a public radio and television broadcaster, based in Hamburg via

23 cf. Thiele, M.: Publizistische Kontroversen über den Holocaust im Film, 2000, pp. 46 et. sqq.


ISBN (Buch)
556 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Rheinische Fachhochschule Köln
holocaust film authenticity



Titel: Holocaust in Film. Authenticity of the representation of the historical event "Holocaust"