The American film industry’s record regarding the Shoah is spotty at best. “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust,” a documentary by Daniel Anker that opened this week, is a frequently vivid reminder that despite the domination of the front offices of the major studios by men of Jewish ancestry, American filmmakers remained nearly silent about the murder of Jews by the Nazis until more than a decade after the events had taken place. And since that virtual silence was broken very late in the ‘50s, the depiction of the Shoah in American film has frequently been less than satisfactory.
Of course, there are many commentators who would say that the basic Hollywood model of storytelling is incompatible with the essential nature of the Holocaust.
To Anker’s credit, in his film’s summation, that possibility is given eloquent voice by Thane Rosenbaum and Michael Berenbaum. If they don’t have the last word, well, that’s the filmmaker’s prerogative.
Along the way to that divided conclusion, Anker and his researchers have tapped most of the important examples of the Holocaust film produced in this country. They even manage to include clips from some all-but-forgotten gems that challenge many of the commonplaces of this niche of film history. A most noticeable example is Andre De Toth’s brilliant “None Shall Escape,” a 1944 film that is the only American drama to directly confront Nazi anti-Semitism.
It happens that this is a subject I know something about, having spent a good deal of time in the past 10 years working on a book on it. So I approached “Imaginary Witness” with some trepidation. Of course, there are films that Anker has omitted; I particularly regret the absence of Leo McCarey’s “Once Upon a Honeymoon” and his failure to mention Samuel Fuller, a Jewish filmmaker who was present at the liberation of a Nazi camp in Czechoslovakia, and the director of several films that touch on the Holocaust in important ways.
One also could wish for more analysis of the socio-political trends that have shaped the film industry’s approach to the Holocaust. To his enormous credit, Anker has at least touched on this subject and, particularly in his depiction of the anti-Semitic attacks on Hollywood in the pre-war period, he does offer some trenchant comments.
As an introduction to Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust, “Imaginary Witness” is a useful piece of work. It would be more useful if it were longer. Of course, you could make a documentary on this subject that would be as long as all the films under consideration combined and still not exhaust it. “Imaginary Witness,” however, is perhaps the first and certainly the most comprehensive film to explore the questions Holocaust movies raise and it is admirably even-handed while not side-stepping the most basic issues at stake.
“Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust,” directed by Daniel Anker, is playing at the IFC Center (Sixth Avenue and W. Third St.). For information, call (212) 924-7771 or go to http://ifccenter.com.