Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Holocaust: Three Films

How European film-makers dealt with the Holocaust by looking at three films from three different decades:

Rosen für den den Staatsanwalt, Wolfgang Staudte, West-Germany 1959
La Passante de Sans-Souci, Jacques Rouffio, France/ West-Germany 1981
Amen, Costa-Gavras, France/ Germany/ UK/ Romania 2002

The Holocaust was one of the defining events of the 20th century as the magnitude of the crimes committed was unprecedented in world history. The question of how it was possible has preoccupied a multitude of historians and scholars, particularly considering that the country of the perpetrators, Germany, was a highly civilized and enlightened nation. Hence, a myriad of books were -and still are- written about the Holocaust and it continues to be the topic of talk-shows, debates, TV films and discussions among friends. The Holocaust has also been the subject of numerous films, but its treatment varies heavily. Vantage point, the country the film was produced by, as well as the year it was made in, are all factors that are central to its treatment. For instance, although Germany dealt with the horrors of WWII in its first post-war film (Die Mörder sind unter uns, Germany 1946), the approach was such that the issue of the persecution of the Jews was avoided rather than addressed, an indication that the country that committed the Holocaust was not yet ready to come to terms with its past. In fact, it would take Germany almost twenty years to openly address the Holocaust, whereby East-Germany preceded West-Germany by four years (Jakob, der Lügner, East-Germany 1975; David, West-Germany 1979). It seems to me that Jakob, der Lügner seems to have inspired both, Roberto Benigni as well as Radu Mihaileanu, for their films La vita è bella (Italy 1997) and Le train de vie (France, Netherlands, Romania, Israel, Belgium 1998), respectively. Shot more than twenty years later, they push the tragic comedy approach of Beyer’s film even further, thus breaking a taboo by injecting a film about the Holocaust with comic relief.

France was the first country to openly deal with the Holocaust when in 1955 Alain Resnais shot his epoch-making documentary Nuit et brouillard (France 1955), however, Marcel Ophuls faced staunch criticism upon the completion of his documentary about the French collaboration (Le chagrin et la pitié, France 1969), with ‘the French Television (ORTV), whom it was produced for, refusing to show it’ (Insdorf 1989: 242). The French public seemed to feel more at ease with a melodramatic treatment of the Holocaust where their own, albeit considerably smaller, participation was glossed over and the depiction of villains was limited to the Germans (Le train, France 1973; Le vieux fusil, France 1975). In Europe, the majority of films dealing with the Holocaust are made by France, Italy and Germany, which is of course explained by the fact that those countries were -and are- most affected by it, or in the case of Germany, originated it. Nevertheless, the problem all film-makers face, are 'what are the formal as well as moral responsibilities if we are to understand and communicate the complexities of the Holocaust through its filmic representation?'(Insdorf 1989: 15). That may be the reason why some of the most powerful examples of films tackling the Holocaust are documentaries (Nuit et brouillard, France 1955; Le chagrin et la pitié, France 1969; Shoah, France 1985; Jetzt – nach so vielen Jahren, West-Germany 1981), thus avoiding of falling into the trap of distorting or reducing its unspeakable horrors. However, the films I am concerned with in this essay are three melodramas from three different decades, and I intend to look at how their respective directors dealt with the Holocaust by taking into account the time they were made in and their country of origin.

Wolfgang Staudte’s film Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (West-Germany 1959) deals not so much with the Holocaust itself as with the remnants of fascism in West-Germany’s post-war society, and as such forges a link with his film of 1946, Die Mörder sind unter uns . In Rosen für den Staatsanwalt we are confronted with a former Nazi-judge -Dr. Wilhelm Schramm- who, by way of lying to the denazification officials, effortlessly made his way into post-war West-German society, regaining a position that is equally powerful as the one he held during the war where he sentenced a soldier -Kleinschmidt- to death over the theft of two bars of chocolate. Unbeknownst to Schramm, the soldier survives due to an enemy-air-raid. With his film Staudte addressed an issue that was as central to post-war West-Germany as its much hailed economic miracle. Says Fulbrook, ‘Whatever else denazification in the American zone was achieving, it was clearly not achieving any kind of adequate reckoning with the past’ (Fulbrook 1999: 53), and Engelmann also claims that ‘the bulk of SS leaders got off lightly’ (Engelmann 1980: 107). In that respect Staudte’s film was like a precursor to many political scandals that would shake the post-war societies in West-Germany and Austria, evoking, for instance, the scandal surrounding Hans Filbinger, who also was a notorious Nazi judge, but subsequently became the Premier of Baden-Württemberg until his WWII activities were brought to light, forcing him to step down in 1978. The film leaves no doubt about Schramm’s failure of coming to terms with his past and his lack of remorse when we see him accepting a bouquet of roses, sent to him as a signal that a man he was supposed to prosecute for anti-Semitic remarks has successfully fled the country. Denazification and, subsequently, West-Germany’s new constitution, have made anti-Semitism illegal; something Schramm evidently has a hard time getting used to. It is also telling that while Schramm is leading an extremely comfortable and privileged life, Kleinschmidt is eking out a living as a street-vendor, peddling first card-games, and later, after his licence is revoked by Schramm, ties. Nothing, the film seems to say, has changed: the big shots of WWII are still calling the shots today. Not only does Kleinschmidt have trouble adjusting to this petty bourgeoisie, gripped by a collective urge to shop and accumulate, but it also revolts him. He feels out of place. His face seems to betray a certain disappointment at the turn this supposedly New Germany has taken; a Germany, that really is not that dissimilar to the old one that was left behind in the concentration camps and on the battle-fields. In that respect, he resembles some of the émigrés, like for instance Döblin, who anxiously returned to their homeland after the war – only to desert it once more upon realizing that their hopes in the New Germany had not been fulfilled, for instead of openly addressing the past, the Germans’ chief preoccupation was money and how to get it.

This depiction and razor-sharp observation of post-war West-Germany, which then was at the height of its economic miracle, is what makes Staudte’s film stand out among the (German) films of the time. Kleinschmidt, while taking his girlfriend, Lissy, out to dinner, notices that Lissy is more intrigued by the completely noise-less ceiling fan, which might be an asset to the bar she runs, than she is in his company. In another scene we hear Kleinschmidt recounting the events that led to his death sentence during the last days of the war, to some of Lissy’s customers, prompting them to express their disgust at the likes of Schramm. However, in a subsequent scene we realize that they are only paying lip-service and that when push comes to shove, they will not stand up for their alleged beliefs for fear of losing a valuable customer. In post-war West-Germany, money talks! Not until Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun (Germany 1977) was post-war West-German society again so aptly captured in its effort to drown the guilt over the horrors of the past under a new-found wealth, instilling in West-Germans a feeling of ‘Wir sind wieder Wer!’, which loosely translates into ‘Again, we are Somebody!’.

As mentioned above, Rosen für den Staatsanwalt is not a Holocaust film as such. However, I consider it an important film as it marks (West-) Germany’s early, albeit half-harted, efforts to come to terms with its past. A more serious, more direct reckoning with its history only started about twenty years later, ‘sparked, perhaps, by the televising of Holocaust ‘(USA 1978; Insdorf 1989: 188). However, it should be noted that apart from a few exceptions -among them the aforementioned Nuit et brouillard (France 1955)- even outside of Germany the Holocaust did not figure as a major topic in films until well into the 1970s. The reason for that may be that the crimes committed by the Germans were so immeasurable that it took the international community a considerable amount of time to fathom it, and, furthermore, with Germany having perhaps too quickly risen from foe to friend, its erstwhile enemies -notably France, the UK and the US- did not dare to deal with the Holocaust in film so as not to offend Germany in its new role of an important ally in the Cold War. That may explain why there are more films directly dealing with the Holocaust after the fall of Communism than there were before, which is why I decided to include in this essay films from three different eras, with approximately twenty years between them.

Thus, Jaques Rouffio offers an entirely different take on the Holocaust in his film La passante de Sans-Souci (France 1981). Although I agree with Maslin that the events in the film ‘are melodramatic but compelling’ (Maslin 1983: 47), La passante de Sans-Souci is not entirely without problems. Based on Josph Kessel’s novel, the film has two time-levels, thus making it a show-case for Romy Schneider, who gets to play two roles – that of Elsa, a woman who has preceded her husband to Paris on their flight from the Nazis by taking along their neighbour, a Jewish boy, Max, whose father was killed by the SS; and in a sub-plot, that of Lina, the wife of the adult Max, who now is the president of a human rights organisation. At the centre of the film stands Elsa’s anguish over the fate of her husband, Michel, whom she has left behind in Berlin and who later is thrown in a concentration camp. Her yearning for Michel and her understandable distress at what might happen to him, is part of the film’s problem as it shifts our concern from the plight of the Jews (neither Elsa nor Michel are Jewish) to two lovers who cannot come together. We are witness to the predicament of a woman, who not only is unwillingly separated from her husband, but who is also slowly falling from grace, forced to move out of the plush Hotel George V into the gritty Hotel d’Orient, eventually even stooping to sleeping with the villainous Rupert von Leggart, in the hope that he, in his position of Ambassador of Nazi-Germany to France, will agree to order her husband’s release from a concentration camp. That later both, Elsa and Michel, get shot on the behest of Rupert von Leggart, is thus an act of jealousy rather than anti-Semitism.

La passante de Sans-Souci is indeed a melodrama of the highest order. This is exemplified in one scene in particular when Elsa is attending a Christmas-dinner in the luxurious dining-room of the George V, accompanied by the young Max. Approached by a band of violinists, there to entertain the guests, she asks Max to play for her instead. Listening to Max playing the Exile Song brings tears to Elsa’s eyes. In that very moment all boundaries between the actress Romy Schneider and the character Elsa seem to disappear, considering that Schneider had not just lost her own son, David, in a tragic accident just prior to filming, but also her son’s father, her former husband Harry Meyen, who killed himself the year before. It was at Schneider’s request that La passante de Sans-Souci was turned into a film and consequently she dedicated the film to ‘David and his father’.

Rouffio’s film calls to mind another Holocaust-Melodrama, Gloomy Sunday (Germany, Hungary 1999). Shot almost twenty years later, this film also has two different time-levels, a (melodramatic) song at its centre, and a settling of scores, which in Gloomy Sunday takes place at the end whereas in Rouffio’s film is set at the beginning. If we accept the murders as a conventional melodramatic device, the killings are in both films understandable, particularly since in the case of Gloomy Sunday it involves a man who took advantage of Jews during the Third Reich by pretending to be a Good Samaritan, and in the other, someone who is an envoy of Nazi-Germany. However, although in the light of the victims’ records the viewer is tempted to empathize with the respective assassins, endorsing the murders is at best questionable, especially considering that the adult Max is the founder of a human rights organisation. What makes La passante de Sans Souci stand out among the conventional, period Holocaust-Melodrama is its link to contemporary Europe -in this case France- highlighting the dormant anti-Semitism which every now and then rears its ugly head. Like its neighbour, Germany, France, too, had had a long history of anti-Semitism prior to WWII. Talking about the Dreyfus Affair and its aftermaths Hannah Arendt writes that 'certainly it was not in France that the true sequel to the affair was to be found, but the reason why France fell an easy prey to Nazi aggression is not far to seek. Hitler’s propaganda machine spoke a language long familiar and never quite forgotten' (Arendt 1976: 93). And needless to say, this anti-Semitism was sadly not wiped out with the end of WWII. Although the events at the end of the film -when Lina and Max are killed in an anti-Semitic assault- may seem somewhat exaggerated, as recent history has shown, they are closer to reality than one might think: when the twenty-three year old French Jew Ilan Halimi was brutally slaughtered last February, the International Herald Tribune reported that ‘French officials now say that anti-Semitism played an important role’ (Crampton 2006: 4). Thus, La passante de Sans-Souci, besides being ‘a fine tear-jerker’ (Insdorf 1989: 43), serves as an important reminder that anti-Semitism is still rampant in Europe and has never quite been eradicated, which may well have been the reason why Arthur Brauner -a Holocaust survivor- was so easily swayed by Schneider when she urged him to produce the film.

Costa-Gavras’ film Amen (France/ Germany/ UK/ Romania 2002), loosely based on Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter (The Representative), deals with one issue that so far has received little attention from film-makers: the indifference of the Catholic Church to the massacre of the Jews by the Germans. Because of its highly controversial subject-matter, Hochhuth’s play caused a major stir when it first came out in 1963, and I suggest this is also the reason why it took forty years -during which Europe was largely secularised- to turn the play into a film. Besides the fact that Europe went through a major secularisation process -which facilitated criticism from outside- what may have reignited interest in Hochhuth’s play is the fact that the Catholic Church had come under fire as a series of child abuses by its priests had been brought to light which gave rise to further question its infallibility. Kurt Gerstein, a high-ranking member of the SS in charge of decontamination, is at the centre of the film. It is he who signs the orders for the infamous Zyklon B gas. However, unbeknownst to him, the gas is not used for actual decontamination – but to brutally murder the Jews. Upon finding out, he tries to enlist the help of the Swedish Ambassador to Germany, alas, to no avail for he does not believe him. Too far fetched, too implausible, is Gerstein’s story, which brings to mind Charles S. Maier, who said that ‘indeed the Nazi experience does test the limits of what history can “explain” ‘(Maier 1997: 100). Pleading with various distinguished members of the Vatican to intervene on behalf of the Jews proves equally fruitless as wartime pontiff Pius XII’s response is a deplorable ‘My heart is with the victims’. The pope’s reaction confirms Victoria Barnett’s claim that 'there seems to have been little concern throughout the world about the people being murdered in Europe. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that, in their war against the European Jews, the Nazis drew on prejudices against the Jews that had existed for centuries Barnett 1999: 112). In a further attempt, this time by an American diplomat, who had previously been approached by Gerstein, to convince the Vatican of the importance to act and to inform the world of the genocide that is going on in Germany, the Pope’s aide-de-camp replies ‘You can’t condemn Hitler without condemning Stalin – who is your ally!’, alluding to the brief moment during WWII when the US and Russia were allies in their war against Nazi-Germany. Regardless of the fact that the Jews had been discriminated against for centuries, the reaction of the Vatican proves that their main concern was religion – their own religion. As far as they were concerned, why should they act on behalf of the Jews, after all they were Jews and not Catholics. And aligning themselves with the US was also anathema since the US had joined forces with Stalin, who, like all communists, was a staunch opponent of religion, reason enough for the Vatican to turn a blind eye. While the fact 'that Pope Benedict XVI visited a synagogue on a visit to Cologne last year, is seen as a sign of increasing rapprochement between two religions, the Vatican’s refusal to open its archives, which would shed new light onto its position during WWII’ (Hall 2005: 7), is doing little to dispel ongoing allegations about its precise role during the Holocaust. Like his previous films, most notably Z (Algeria/ France 1969) and Missing (USA 1982), Amen relies on Costa-Gavras’ by now familiar blend of melodrama and action-thriller, which a journalist once commented by saying ‘after having seen one of his films you feel like killing colonels all around the world, because he trivializes fascism and inflates evil’ (Witte 1989: 35). Costa-Gavras, however, justifies his means by claiming that his films reach a wider audience as they would otherwise, which he deems important considering the relevance of his topics. It goes without saying that the topic of Amen is a very relevant one indeed, all the more so as it appears that the story is based on actual, albeit contentious, facts; even though I am unsure to what extent the film veers from the play. His tendency for ‘inflating evil’ notwithstanding, one scene in particular is of an extraordinary subtlety: in it, the Doctor (Mengele?) is showing Gerstein around a concentration camp, to make it clear what the gas he always signs for is used for. The Doctor walks up to a huge grey wall with a peep-hole in it. Upon opening it and peeking through it his face remains completely motion-less. He then orders the unsuspecting Gerstein to do the same. The subsequent close-up of Gerstein’s face betrays the unspeakable horrors that go on inside. Costa-Gavras is clever enough to treat the scene with the respect it deserves, knowing that the expression on Gerstein’s face speaks volumes -and by using neither sound nor music- saying everything the viewer needs to know. Costa-Gavras merely hints at the horror, but leaves it up to the viewer to imagine it. As such, this one moment is perhaps the most chilling scene ever to be seen in a feature-film to symbolize the killing of six million Jews. Another striking element in Amen is its metaphorical use of trains. The film is riddled with the images of trains, symbolizing, needless to say, death. One of the protagonists exclaims ‘the whole world is travelling by train’ – what comes to mind are of course the millions of Jews who arrived in the concentration camps by precisely that means of transportation. Towards the end of the war, and with his attempts at making the crimes of the Nazis public proving futile, Gerstein turns himself in to the French, hoping they would be responsive to his information. But -as cynically predicted by The Doctor in an earlier scene- having signed all the receipts for the purchase of Zyklon B, he gets thrown into prison. There, he writes what is now known as the Gerstein Report, which, according to the film, helped to authenticate the Holocaust. He then is found dead one morning in his prison cell in what looks like suicide by hanging, but has since been disputed with some people claiming he might have been murdered by a fellow SS-member in an act of revenge for writing his report, which was seen as betrayal. That he was later rehabilitated by Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, in his position of Premier of Baden-Württemberg before succeeding Ludwig Erhard as Chancellor of West-Germany, is an irony in itself. After all, it was Kiesinger who later was famously punched by Beate Klarsfeld for his involvement in the Nazi machinery, which ties in with the point I made at the beginning of this essay. The Doctor, on the other hand, is sheltered by the Vatican before escaping -with the Vatican’s help- to South America, which gives rise to the suspicion that The Doctor in question is indeed Mengele, although in the latter’s case it was allegedly the Red Cross and not the Vatican which enabled him to leave Germany and hide in Brazil, where he died in 1979.

I believe that even though all three films can be labelled as melodramas, I have made it sufficiently clear how diverse the treatment of the Holocaust can be in terms of topic and how its approach has a lot to do with the country of the film’s origin and the time the film was made in. However, by dealing with the Holocaust in a melodramatic form, the film-makers allow for easy identification with the respective hero or heroine as the horrors of the Holocaust are reduced to a personal tragedy, thus making it more palatable, more digestible for the viewer. That said, all three films have relevant topics at their centre, yet undoubtedly are a product of the times they were made in. If Rosen für den Staatsanwalt seems dated today it probably was a daring film at the time and probably as daring a film about the Holocaust as West-Germany was able to come up with in those days. In fact, one marvels, in hindsight, at the sheer lucidness with which Staudte observed German society, holding up a mirror to his fellow-citizens which, in post-war West-Germany, surely must have earned him more disdain than praise. It can also be astounding how a film all of sudden regains relevance -as in the case of La passante de Sans Souci, doubtless the most unashamed melodrama of the three- when looking at contemporary developments in Europe where anti-Semitism is still rampant, particularly in countries like Germany, Poland and France. On the other hand, Amen, with its highly controversial subject-matter at its centre, raises important questions about the role of the Vatican in the Holocaust, leaving no doubt that in the long run, a continuous refusal to open its archives will be detrimental to its integrity. Made twenty years earlier, Amen would no doubt have sparked a lot of outrage. The importance of dealing with the Holocaust cannot be questioned, for its ramifications, particularly in Germany, are still palpable today as a reckoning with its past has only just started, a process which reunification complicated rather than simplified, a fact that is epitomized in a dramatic surge of Neo-Nazism, particularly in the German East. On the other hand, if melodrama is the best approach to deal with the Holocaust is at best debatable. Unlike documentaries, such as Nuit et brouillard (France 1955) and Shoah (France 1985), which 'tower above other films because of an intimacy with and commitment to the cinematic medium as well as historical facts'(Insdorf 1989: 254), melodramas often suffer from a tendency to belittle and distort the Holocaust because of their preoccupation with the personal. On the other hand, because of the continuing relevance of the Holocaust as a topic, I can not help but agree with Insdorf who claims that‘any film that tackles the Holocaust with visibly good intentions is brave, if not commendable’ (Insdorf 1989: 255).


Arendt, Hannah (1976): The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt
Barnett, Victoria J.( 1999): Bystanders, Westport (CT): Greenwood Press
Crampton, Thomas (2006): Gang chief to be sent to France, Paris: International Herald Tribune
Engelmann, Bernt (1980): Wie wir wurden was wir sind (How we became who we are), Munich: Bertelsmann
Fulbrook, Mary (1999): German National Identity after the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity Press
Hall, Allen (2005): Jewish leader asks visiting Pope…, Edinburgh: Scotsman
Hochhuth, Rolf (1998): The Representative, London: Oberon
Insdorf, Annette (1989): Indelible Shadows, New York (NY): Cambridge University Press
Maier, Charles S.(1997): The Unmasterable Past, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press
Maslin, Janet (1983): Schneider performs in two roles, New York (NY): The New York Times
Witte, Karsten (1989): Betrayed, Frankfurt: EPD Film


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Costa-Gavras, Constantin, Amen, France/ Germany/ UK/ Romania 2002
Costa-Gavras, Constantin, Missing, USA 1982
Costa-Gavras, Constantin, Z, France/ Algeria 1969
Enrico, Robert, Le vieux fusil (The Old Gun), France/ FRG 1975
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Staudte, Wolfgang, Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us), Germany 1946