Movies, Memory, and Millennials: How Modern Films Have

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Bellarmine University
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Undergraduate Theses

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Movies, Memory, and Millennials: How Modern Films Have Influenced the Holocaust
Audrey M. Hehman Bellarmine University, [email protected]

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Recommended Citation Hehman, Audrey M., "Movies, Memory, and Millennials: How Modern Films Have Influenced the Holocaust" (2017). Undergraduate Theses. 22.
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Movies, Memory, and Millennials: How Modern Films Have Influenced the Holocaust Discussion
Audrey Hehman Bellarmine University Honors Thesis Advisor:
Dr. Fedja Buric

Part I: There’s No Business Like Shoah Business
“It’s a truism… that we never directly encounter events, only representations of events, which offer different versions of events. The more highly charged the event, the more evocative it is, the greater the incentive to become invested in different versions of it.”1 This is true of any historic event, but quite possibly the best event to fit this description is the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe. Those of us who did not endure the concentration camps have no way to know exactly how it felt to be in that situation. Elie Wiesel said this while criticizing the acclaimed mini-series Holocaust.2 We only know what we have seen in the representation of the event, so we have seen different versions of the Shoah3. Each year we see a huge increase in Holocaust films being released, with no signs of slowing down.
In this thesis I plan to focus on the fundamental films that affect how we view the Holocaust today. I will be looking specifically at how these films affect the millennial’s perspective: in today’s world when a young student learns about the Holocaust, their primary instinct is to look for movies, TV shows, and search for information on the internet. We have approximately 100,000 survivors alive to give personal testimony.4 So now, more so than ever, it is important for historians and students alike to look at how the Holocaust is represented. For example, many schools will watch Schindler’s List to show students what the Shoah was like,
1 Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 220-221. 2 Paraphrased from the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, dir. Daniel Anker, perf. Gene Hackman (USA: Anker Productions, 2007), DVD. 3 Shoah is another term used for the Holocaust. While Holocaust means a sacrifice that burns the entire offering, Shoah means a catastrophe. While there is debate on the usage of each term, this thesis will use both indiscriminately. 4 In addition to only 100,000 survivors, the youngest of these average an age of 71. So the survivors who are able to give full testimony, remember the events, and can communicate are much less than 100,000. Figure taken from a Time article,

rather than try to grasp the concept through reading primary sources. There have been instances where students are not mature enough to handle watching the film, and were known to laugh and mock the film.5
In a digital age, where Netflix, Wikipedia, and unchecked facts and articles are everywhere, it is important more so than ever to analyze what our media is telling us. As a history major who grew up in this media and movie saturated culture, I feel like this puts me in a unique position to talk about the Holocaust discussion in a post-Schindler’s List world. I know my first introduction to the Holocaust was books like Night, and movies like The Pianist and Life is Beautiful. All were stories focusing on the survivors. In fact, it wasn’t until I was much older that I saw movies that did not have the Hollywood happy ending that is typical of Holocaust films.
My experience with Holocaust education and films is certainly not irregular. This is why I will be looking at Holocaust media, from postwar to modern day, with an emphasis on the pivotal decade of the 1990s. In this thesis I hope to further bring to light the importance of the Holocaust discussion, especially when Holocaust media is not scrutinized by many who watch it. Many people take Holocaust movies as fact, and because there are so many of them and they are so accessible, it warps what we perceive the Shoah to have been. Either that, or we become so desensitized to what they show us, it no longer holds significance. The Holocaust becomes fiction, like the movies show us. Our sense of what was real and what is fiction gets blurred in Holocaust films, and the overabundance of Holocaust media does not help this.
5 “Teens’ Laughter Angers ‘Schindler’s List’ Viewers,” Tribunedigital-chicagotribune, January 25, 1994, accessed April 02, 2017,

This is not to say, however, that Holocaust media does not have any benefits, or that we should stop making Holocaust films completely. These films can explore themes that would otherwise not be talked about, such as the 2008 film God on Trial, which takes a philosophical approach to try to answer some of the questions raised by the Shoah. However, from the historical perspective, Holocaust films can pose threats to the historical memory of the Shoah. How then, can we draw distinctions in the Holocaust discussion? To see the full benefits and harms of this vast library of Holocaust films, we will analyze the themes, storylines, objectives, and historical accuracies of numerous Holocaust films. Only after this analysis we will be able to draw a conclusion about how Holocaust films impact what we know.
For this thesis, I have also conducted interviews with Generation Y (aka millennials) to see firsthand what their thoughts and reactions are to Holocaust media, and how much the films have an impact on millennials. I found that many millennials have seen at least one Holocaust film, and that almost all interviewees saw the Shoah as a very removed subject, something that does not affect them today. I also found that many were not as informed about Holocaust films as I had anticipated: many couldn’t name more than a handful of films, and a few thought that all Holocaust films were factual.
Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Inglourious Bastards, The Diary of Anne Frank, Sophie’s Choice, The Pianist, The Book Thief, X-Men: these are just a brief sampling of movies that represent Jewish persecution during the Third Reich. Since the 1970s, our culture has been saturated with illusions to and storylines revolving around the Holocaust. One can’t even read comic books like X-Men or Superman without running into a reference to the Holocaust. There is even a subgenre of the graphic novel, pioneered by Art Spiegelman’s Maus, that focuses on telling the events of the Shoah through full-fledged graphic novels. It

seems that almost every form of media we consume, whether it be books, newspapers, movies, documentaries, or comics talk about the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is an event that fascinates historians, theologians, and lay people. As historian Yaffa Eliach said, “there is no business like Shoah Business”.6 It seems that the Holocaust is now appropriate for any age. For example, while I was visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC, there was a little girl in a stroller at the museum, whose mom had ever so thoughtfully given her one of the infamous ID cards, even though the girl could not yet read. Especially in America, there are so many Holocaust memorials, museums, and exhibits that it has become commonplace. Author Tim Cole said, “it seemed that the ‘Holocaust’ had become as American as apple pie.”7
Ever since the rise of the Nazi regime, the media has had a unique relationship with representing events that involved Nazi actions. Even in the 1940s there were movies that addressed the events of the Shoah – even though now we’d consider the comments made wildly inappropriate. Some films tried to downplay the Final Solution. The film I Married a Nazi (1940) has a line: “I bet they [the concentration camps] aren’t has as bad as they say they are!”8 Other movies went for comedy, as a scene in the 1942 film To Be or Not to Be shows a woman in an elegant ball-gown who gets scolded: “is that what you’re wearing to the concentration camp?” These are just two examples of film portrayal of the Holocaust during the Second World
6 Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust: from Auschwitz to Schindler: how history is bought, packaged, and sold (London: Routledge, 2000), 6 7 Cole, Selling the Holocaust,14 8 For a great overview of film’s unique relationship with Nazism and the Holocaust, see the documentary Imaginary Witness

War. Films in the late 1930s and early 1940s began dealing with more social issues. Despite this, there were only a few films that openly confronted Nazism and anti-Semitism: The House of Rothschild, The Great Dictator, and Gentleman’s Agreement, along with the two previously mentioned ones, stand out.9 Especially after America came into the war, films focused on the war and uniting against fascism. So anti-Semitism and the genocide which had begun were not focused on in film, rather the war effort took center stage.10
Already we can see a complex relationship between the media representations of the Holocaust and the actual Holocaust. This only got more complicated as the trial of Adolf Eichmann began in 1961. Eichmann was an SS official in charge of deporting European Jewry.11 He was “an ambitious bureaucrat...[he] began to organize transports of Jews to the General Government…Eichmann played a central role organizing forced emigration of Austrian Jews in 1938 and of Czech Jews a year later.”12 He had escaped United States custody and had been hiding in Argentina until he was again discovered by the Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence community:
The background to this announcement was a secret Mossad campaign which would only really come to light fifteen years later as the agents involved started to speak out… This news led to months of diplomatic wrangling between Argentina and Israel starting with the request that the Israeli ambassador issue a statement explaining the run of events.13
9 Judith E. Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002) 16. 10 Ibid, 44. 11 "Adolf Eichmann," United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, , accessed April 02, 2017, 12 Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: a Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016).108. 13 Cole, Selling the Holocaust, 49.

Eichmann is most commonly known for creating the schedules for the trains that deported Jews to camps. Eichmann was also one of the senior officers at the Wannsee Conference which “focused on Jews as the top priority of Nazi destruction. Eichmann’s report makes it clear that all 11 million Jews in Europe were targeted for murder.”14
The Eichmann trial was the most widely covered trial since Nuremburg. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw rise in television sales, so more people were able to view the trial. There was much controversy at the beginning of the trial, because the Jews wanted to try Eichmann in Israel. Many Americans felt that Israel had no right to claim jurisdiction over the case, and said that the Argentine authorities would be better to try him.15 One of the most notable things about the Eichmann trial was how much later it was than the Nuremburg trials. This gap in time allowed for a renewed interest in the Holocaust. Many newspapers reported on the trial as well. The Eichmann trial is also famous for bringing forth testimonies made by survivors. This was the first significant time that a large group of survivors came forth and told of the horrors they experienced. Again, this furthered the Holocaust discussion, and was one of the very first times anybody had heard survivor testimonies of what the camps were like16.
After the release of the movie Judgement at Nuremburg in December 1961 there was the first significant wave of Holocaust films released, including The Pawnbroker and The Diary of Anne Frank.16 The Pawnbroker centered on a survivor and his life after moving to America, and the survivor’s guilt he experienced. The Diary of Anne Frank was yet another version adapting the famous diary – this time as a TV movie. Another fascinating film (though it was never
14 Bergen, War and Genocide 164. 15 Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, 129 16 Cole, Selling the Holocaust 60. 16 Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust. 2004

released) is The Day the Clown Cried, about a German circus clown who is put in a concentration camp and performs for Jewish kids. The star of the film, Jerry Lewis, said it was the worst film he had made, and the movie was buried. Only in the summer of 2016 was footage finally leaked. The Library of Congress has a copy of the film, but only on the promise that they won’t release it publicly until June 2024.17 In this first wave we see films that focus on the Holocaust from a more outside perspective – only The Day the Clown Cried focused on the Holocaust happening in the camps. However, The Day the Clown Cried never made it to final cuts, for fear that it would be poorly received.
In the late 1970s, NBC released a miniseries entitled Holocaust, which Peter Novick says is, “without doubt the most important moment in the entry of the Holocaust into general American consciousness.”18. NBC originally created Holocaust as a response to the successful miniseries Roots, produced by ABC that was about slavery in the Antebellum south. Holocaust went through major phases leading up to the Holocaust, so people became familiar with events such as Kristallnacht. However, Holocaust also caused a lot of controversy. Famed author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was very outspoken about the series, saying it was “untrue, offensive, cheap” and “an insult to those who perished and to those who survived…. It transforms an ontological event into soap-opera.”19 Despite this and many other protests against it, Holocaust brought the events into the mainstream and into everyday conversation in America. Lawrence Barn, a professor of Modern Jewish History and founder of the Western Jewish Studies association says that the series reached an estimated 120 million Americans. Those who
17 Mahita Gajanan, "Thirty Minutes of Jerry Lewis's "The Day The Clown Cried" Released Online," HWD, June 18, 2016, accessed March 25, 2017, 18 Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, 209. 19 Ibid, 211.

tuned into the program would have otherwise remained uninformed about the history of the Holocaust, while a poll indicated that 60 percent respondents felt watching Holocaust enabled them to better understand Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.”20
After Holocaust, the public only became more fascinated with these tragic events. Films such as Sophie’s Choice used the Holocaust to further character development, and mislabeled as “Holocaust Films” because of one character’s backstory. During this time the Holocaust film genre grew into what it is today: “a film influenced by the Holocaust is also termed a Holocaust film.”21 The 1980s also saw two remakes of previous Holocaust films: To Be or Not to Be (Starring Mel Brooks) and another TV movie of The Diary of Anne Frank. Here we see the growth in interest in Holocaust films, encapsulated in the 1985 documentary Shoah. This nineand-a-half-hour film, along with the remade films from the 1940s, illustrate how the Holocaust was solidifying itself in Hollywood.
While the 1980s focused on remakes of old Holocaust films, the 1990s included some of the most pivotal Holocaust works to date. The most famous was Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s film has been one of the most praised, as well as one of the most criticized, Holocaust works.22 The choice to film the movie in black and white is a topic that has been the focus of discussions among many groups. The little girl who walks around the ghetto in a red coat is possibly the most memorable scene in the entire movie. Because of the substantial conversation surrounding Schindler’s List, I will save the discussion, praises, and criticism for
20 Lawrence Baron, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: the Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010) 54. 21 Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film, 7. 22 For more on the criticism surrounding Schindler’s List see Yosefa Loshitzky, Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1997).

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Movies, Memory, and Millennials: How Modern Films Have