In This Article Holocaust Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Films about Films

Cinema and Media Studies Holocaust Cinema
by
Olga Gershenson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0262

Introduction

The study of Holocaust representation in cinema is located at the intersection of film studies and Holocaust studies. The scope of issues dealt with in the field is defined by two sets of tensions: first, tensions between history and narrative, and second between Eastern and Western understanding of the Holocaust. The tension between history and narrative emerges in response to the famous dictum by Adorno that there is no poetry after Auschwitz. The filmmakers—and the scholars studying their films—must engage with the thorny questions about the representability of atrocities on screens. Consequently, a body of scholarship, grounded in the theories of visual culture and psychanalytical theory focuses on the challenges of portraying tragic history authentically and in ways that honors the victims. The question is to what extent can historical facts be fictionalized, and which genres of fiction and documentary are appropriate. Specifically debated is the representation of the Holocaust in comedy, fantasy, and other popular genres. Scholarship also deals with questions of memory—how do the cinematic representations reflect and shape our understanding of history and transmission of memory. The second set of tensions emerges as a result of complex history both during World War II and the Cold War, which divided the world into the “West”—including the United States, Western Europe, and Israel, vis-a-vis the “East,” that is, the Soviet bloc. Under Soviet rule, the story of the Holocaust was largely subsumed into that of the “Great Patriotic War,” silencing the fact that its victims were Jews. Consequently, representation of the Holocaust in Soviet and other East European national cinemas was censored. Alternatively, the Western narrative of the Holocaust was mainly concerned with stories of Nazi concentration and death camps, obfuscating the history of the Holocaust in the Soviet territories. Only recently has the Western historical narrative of the Holocaust started turning to the East and film scholarship expanded its focus to include Soviet and Soviet-bloc national cinemas. This scholarship also asks questions of representation, but mainly in the context of censorship and suppression, as well as of comparative analysis of the visual culture of the Holocaust in national cinemas. Such scholarship uncovers hitherto unknown films and also analyzes the Eastern and Western narratives of the Holocaust in the post–Cold War era. Finally, some scholarship on Holocaust films is also concerned with periodization, that is, discussing films in the context of the historical period in which they were produced and circulated, whether in a particular national context or comparatively. This bibliography makes note of periods, from early Holocaust cinema to current films.

General Overviews

The study of Holocaust representation in cinema is a relatively new field with a still evolving corpus of titles. Insdorf 2003 remains the most comprehensive survey of the Holocaust films. Baron 2005 is also comprehensive, with a focus on more recent productions. Both volumes are readable and accessible, and can be used as initial introductions for both scholars and undergraduate students. Kerner 2011 is the most up-to-date such survey. Avisar 1988 is an earlier study, more limited in scope, but with in-depth analyses of several significant films. All these volumes focus largely on the Western cinematic narrative of the Holocaust and include only a few Soviet-bloc films. Bartov 2005 provides a useful context for understanding how Jews are represented on screen, beyond the Holocaust cinema. Theoretical essays in Frodon 2010, under Reference Works can also serve as an overview of the subject.

  • Avisar, Ilan. Screening the Holocaust: Cinema’s Images of the Unimaginable. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

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    The theoretical focus is on issues of representation, specifically the difficulties in dealing with the Holocaust artistically. The analysis includes a closer look at several significant European and American films, including documentaries, resulting in a less comprehensive but more in-depth focus.

  • Baron, Lawrence. Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

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    An introduction provides an excellent overview of theoretical issues, including representational strategies, challenges of historical cinema, and thematic shifts in films over time. The chapters focus mainly on films from the l990s, which made the Holocaust relevant for contemporary audiences. Includes an annotated filmography of recent works, arranged thematically.

  • Bartov, Omer. The” Jew” in Cinema: From The Golem to Don’t Touch My Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

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    An extensive comparative analysis of more than seventy international films from 1920 to the 1990s, with Jewish representations. The main argument is that cinematic images of the Jews have been reflexively connected to age-old stereotypes, including that of a perpetrator (in anti-Semitic films) and of a victim (in films about the Holocaust).

  • Insdorf, Annette. Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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    An updated edition of a pioneering study, first published in 1983; provides brief but sensitive readings of individual films (mainly American and Western European) and analyzes theoretical issues surrounding them, including narrative strategies, challenges of representing atrocity, questions of style and genre. Includes an extensive annotated filmography of international Holocaust films, arranged by country.

  • Kerner, Aaron. Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. New York: Continuum, 2011.

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    Kerner’s volume goes beyond examining the classics and the canon of the Holocaust cinema, and extends its focus to include also naziploitation, experimental, and horror films. The discussion is organized by theme, format, and genre.

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