Heinrich Schulze is a kindly-looking old man who lived as a child near the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in Lower Saxony, Germany. In the course of Luke Holland’s quietly searing Final Account, Schulze returns to the old family farm to point out the hayloft where a group of escaped prisoners had once taken shelter. The escapees were starving and had begged him for some food. But then the guards came and retrieved them, which was of course very sad. Under further questioning, with a sheepish shrug, Schulze admits that yes, the prisoners were recaptured because he himself called the guards. As to what became of them after that? “Oh,” Herr Schulze scoffs. “Nobody knows that!”
Round them up and bring them out: the bystanders and functionaries, the children who pitched in and the adults who turned a blind eye. Holland, a British documentary-maker, spent the last decade of his life with these straggling survivors of history, those with first-hand experience of the Nazi regime, and the results are damning; the testimonies chill the blood. Monsters, Primo Levi once wrote, are always aberrations. But the small men who watch from the sidelines and occasionally lean in to lend a hand: these are the real danger. They’re even worse than the monsters.
Sixteen years after an English court discredited his work and the judge called him “antisemitic and racist”, the historian David Irving claims he is inspiring a new generation of “Holocaust sceptics”.
On the eve of a major new Bafta-nominated film about the trial, Irving, who has dismissed what happened at Auschwitzconcentration camp during the second world war as “Disneyland”, says that a whole new generation of young people have discovered his work via the internet and social media.
“Interest in my work has risen exponentially in the last two or three years. And it’s mostly young people. I’m getting messages from 14, 15, 16-year-olds in America. They find me on YouTube. There are 220 of my lectures on YouTube, I believe, and these young people tell me how they’ve stayed up all night watching them.
“They get in touch because they want to find out the truth about Hitler and the second world war. They ask all sorts of questions. I’m getting up to 300 to 400 emails a day. And I answer them all. I build a relationship with them.”
“Joe’s Violin” (2016), opens with a shot of the titular Joseph Feingold, tuning his violin. He hasn’t played in “8-10 years,” and his fingers look unsteady as he holds the instrument’s neck. After tinkering for a bit, Joseph puts down the violin and asks “how long can you live with memories?”
Joseph, one of the two subjects of the documentary, is a nonagenarian Polish Holocaust survivor living in New York. In 1939, just after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Joseph and his father fled Warsaw for the Soviet controlled eastern portion of the country. Upon arriving in Eastern Poland, the two were arrested by the Soviet police and taken by train to a Siberian labor camp (aside from the destination, Joseph’s account of his deportation sounds almost indistinguishable from the stories of Nazi round-ups). When Joseph and his father fled to eastern Poland, they left behind Joseph’s mother and two brothers – only one of Joseph’s brothers, who was sent to Auschwitz, survived the war.
This looks set to offer a fascinating insight into the Holocaust denial mindset: a dramatisation of the famous libel trial brought against Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt by right-wing historian David Irving
[From The Guardian]
In 2010 I was first approached by the BBC and by Participant Media to adapt Deborah Lipstadt’s book History on Trial for the screen. My first reaction was one of extreme reluctance. I have no taste for Holocaust movies. It seems both offensive and clumsy to add an extra layer of fiction to suffering which demands no gratuitous intervention. It jars. Faced with the immensity of what happened, sober reportage and direct testimony have nearly always been the most powerful approach. In the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, I had noticed that all the photography, however marginal and inevitably however incomplete, had a shock and impact lacking in the rather contrived and uninteresting art.
It was a considerable relief on reading the book to find that although the Holocaust was its governing subject, there was no need for it to be visually recreated. In 2000 the British historian David Irving, whose writing had frequently offered a sympathetic account of the second world war from the Nazi point of view, had sued Lipstadt in the high court in London, claiming that her description of him as a denier in her previous book Denying the Holocaust had done damage to his reputation. In English courts at the time, the burden of proof in any libel case lay not with the accuser but with the defendant. In the United States it was the litigant’s job to prove the untruth of the alleged libel. But in the United Kingdom it was up to the defendant to prove its truth. It was in that context that London was Irving’s chosen venue. He no doubt thought it would make his legal action easier. All at once, an Atlanta academic was to find herself with the unenviable task of marshalling conclusive scientific proof for the attempted extermination of the European Jews over 50 years earlier.
The Oscar-winning debut film has stunned audiences with its unflinching portrayal of Auschwitz victims. Here, the director explains why he wanted it to be a visceral, immersive experience that avoided the usual ‘safe road’ ending for viewers.
Immersive is a word normally associated with thrillride films such as Gravity or Lord of the Rings, or boutique costumed events such as Secret Cinema; it is not one that tends to be linked with cinematic descriptions of human misery at its most extreme. But that is how Hungarian film-maker László Nemes likes to refer to his Oscar-winning Holocaust picture Son of Saul, which penetrates to the heart of the grotesque killing machine of Auschwitz.
Nemes, 39, says he wanted Son of Saul, his first full-length feature film, to be a visceral experience and that he had “spent years experimenting with immersive strategies”; really, what he is talking about is Son of Saul’s extraordinary ability to evoke both the baleful dread inside the concentration camp, and the frenetic chaos of its extermination process. For virtually the entire film, the camera is rammed hard into the face of its protagonist Saul Ausländer (the surname, pointedly, means “alien” in German), with unspeakable cruelties largely enacted in blurred, out-of-focus sections of the frame, or just off-screen. The restricted perspective, Nemes says, was designed to reflect the fragmentary experience of the prisoners themselves. “The human experience within the camp was based on limitation and lack of information. No one could know or see that much. So how do you convey that?”
In all the controversy over the lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Awards, what hasn’t always been noticed is the remarkable story behind the Holocaust drama Son Of Saul, the front-runner for the foreign-language Oscar.
When it comes to the challenge of representing the Holocaust on screen, the risks of appearing clumsy, insensitive or downright trite are obvious (Roberto Benigni’s 1997 comedic Life Is Beautifulmay have won an Oscar but is still seen by many as ill advised).
Laszlo Nemes, 38, the Hungarian film-maker behind Son Of Saul, was born long after the Second World War. But he knew he was tackling taboos by recreating the horrors of the Nazi genocide on screen with his story about a sonderkommando in Auschwitz – an inmate who disposed of the corpses.
Outside it was burningly hot, the skies clear blue. But inside there was only darkness. For the next nine and a half hours, in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, they would sit, rapt and in silence, through Shoah, the film made by the French director Claude Lanzmann, which was already being garlanded by critics around the world as the greatest single film about the Holocaust and one of the very greatest documentaries in the history of cinema.
It was June 1986, eight months after the film’s release. Hushed audiences had sat spellbound at screenings in Paris and New York, but this June day was different. It was the first official showing of Lanzmann’s masterpiece in Israel, its premiere marked as all but a state occasion. Taking their seats at the Cinematheque, then a newly opened arthouse cinema facing the walls of the Old City, were Israel’s prime minister, Shimon Peres, along with the country’s president, chief rabbi and even the chief of staff of the military. A surging pack of press and cameras had greeted their arrival.
Less noticed as they made their way through the heaving crowd were the rest of the invited audience. Among them were several of those who appeared in the film: the survivors of the Nazi death camps, the resistance fighters, those who had witnessed the slaughter up close. They were in the room. Many had their children at their side.
Documentary takes sons of Nazis and professor whose relatives were killed back to the horror of occupied eastern Europe.
Seventy years after Hans Frank, the SS governor of Poland who oversaw the Holocaust, appeared before the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, a documentary is released this week exploring his embittered family legacy and the possibility of reconciliation following the atrocities.
My Nazi Legacy is a compelling journey into the horrors of occupied eastern Europe in the company of Frank’s son, Niklas, Horst von Wächter – whose father, Otto, was Nazi governor of Galicia (now mostly in modern Ukraine) – and Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law, many of whose family died during mass murders of the Jewish community there in 1942.
The film deals with the relationship between the three men and their attempts to come to terms with what their parents inflicted or suffered, examining the way Germans have dealt with their poisoned inheritance and Ukrainians embroidered their fragile history of independence.
The subject of the holocaust is a difficult one to discuss on film, not least because so much has been done on it before. Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands’s latest feature, My Nazi Legacy, alternatively titled A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, begins as a fairly standard effort, with archive footage, moody music and a slightly monotonous voiceover. The subjects are two men in their 70s, an Austrian and a German, who are the sons respectively of Nazi war criminals Otto Wächter and Hans Frank. Both were key architects of Hitler’s policies throughout the eastern part of Germany, collectively responsible for thousands of deaths. Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank are interviewed over a series of months about their fathers, families and lives during and after the war.
The film gains a real hold, however, when it becomes apparent that a rift is growing between the two men. Niklas becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Horst’s determinedly rose-tinted view of his father, who was known by some as “the butcher of Poland”. Niklas condemns his own father for his crimes and for his lack of paternal affection, while Horst firmly believes that von Wächter was good inside and had little idea over the atrocities being committed under his command. He pities Niklas, saying that he is an egomaniac whose “life is practically annihilated by his father”. The fascinating difference between two men with such similar backgrounds becomes the documentary’s most interesting element, with Sands’s increasingly difficult relationship with von Wächter adding an unusual tension not seen in the average history documentary.
[My Nazi Legacy is released in select cinemas on 20th November 2015.]
JERUSALEM– Laszlo Nemes, whose directorial debut “Son of Saul” won Cannes’s Grand Prize, attended the Jerusalem film festival to participate in the Sam Spiegel Film Lab’s Jury and took the opportunity to chat about his movie’s journey from financing to premiering it at the festival, as well as his views on the European film scene.
“Concentration camps were a mix of organization and chaos and that was our approach for this film,” said Nemes, who expresses a blend of determination, strength and humility. “Everybody came to the shoot with the Holocaust in mind. I had a lot of discussions with the actors, I told them to ban this feeling of self-pity, to bring (their act) down, do less. In a way it’s the most primitive way of directing.”
There has been countless movies about the Holocaust but Nemes says none truthfully “conveyed the experience of the camps, its limitations, its chaos, what it meant to be a human being living in the camps.”
“I wanted to make a film about the Shoah, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to stick with one character but I needed an angle. After two or three years, the sentence came (…) it had to be about a member of the commando who was burning his own people,” explained the helmer.
Auschwitz-set Son of Saul is focusing the film industry’s attention on the wartime atrocities committed by the Nazis – and it couldn’t be more relevant.
“No one could bear to look at these things without losing their sanity,” said WG Sebald, just before he died in 2001: he was talking about the Holocaust, and specifically the numerous acts of bestial persecution visited on the Nazi’s unfortunate victims. This has been a preoccupation of film-makers too, ever since the first newsreels emerged from concentration camps after their liberation. The desire to show, to tell, to educate, comes up against decency, taste and revulsion. What purpose, exactly, is served by documenting and/or recreating unwatchably violent and horrible images: hapless civilians murdered in their millions; shot, beaten, starved and tortured in greater numbers than ever believed possible; an entire national civilisation that prided itself on its sophistication undergoing the most spectacular moral breakdown in history. At what point do film-makers take responsibility for the trauma their images inflict, even if they are simply reflecting actual events?
The story behind the recently completed German Concentration Camps Factual Survey film attests to that: it was compiled from footage sent to London in 1945 by combat film units, as Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald were liberated: more was acquired from the Soviet film crews present at the death camps further east, Auschwitz and Treblinka. At some point the project – which briefly involved Alfred Hitchcock as a consultant – was abandoned, for no clear reason. The best guess is that its stated aim – to confront the surviving German population with atrocities carried out in their name, and partly in their midst – was neither effective nor expedient, as the allies sought to rebuild and reorganise in the already-burgeoning cold war with the USSR. But even at 70 years distance, the images it contains are appalling. The enormous mounds of emaciated corpses, tipped into giant burial pits; crowds of starving, disease-ridden survivors barely clinging to life; the unutterably gruesome remains of a man who had attempted to dig his way out under the wall of a burning building, only to be shot by soldiers waiting on the other side.
Frankl, a contemporary of Freud, lost his whole family during the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jews. He developed his theory of “healing through meaning”, known as logotherapy, while a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Kaufering concentration camps. He counselled his fellow prisoners, many of whom were suicidal, with a philosophy that argued that striving for meaning, not pleasure nor power, is what keeps us alive.
His book detailed the psychological reactions that an inmate progressed through during their time in the camps and how their behaviour changed if they survived and were liberated. He argued that men were “decent” or “indecent” regardless of their station. So a Nazi guard who showed kindness could be a decent man, while an inmate who exploited his fellow prisoners for personal gain, could be indecent.
This astonishing debut film, about a prisoner in the concentration camp employed in the industrial processes of body-disposal, is a horror movie of extraordinary focus and courage
A season in hell is what this devastating and terrifying film offers — as well an occasion for meditating on representations of the Holocaust, on Wittgenstein’s dictum about matters whereof we cannot speak, and on whether these unimaginable and unthinkable horrors can or even should be made imaginable and thinkable in a fictional drama. There is an argument that any such drama, however serious its moral intentions, risks looking obtuse or diminishing its subject, although this is not a charge that can be ultimately levelled at Son of Saul.
By any standards, this would be an outstanding film, but for a debut it is really remarkable, a film with the power of Elem Klimov’s Come and See — which has surely inspired the film’s final sequence — and perhaps also Lajos Koltai’s Hungarian film Fateless. It also has the severity of Béla Tarr, to whom director Làszlò Nemes was for two years an assistant, but notably without Tarr’s glacial pace: Nemes is clearly concerned at some level to exert the conventional sort of narrative grip which does not interest Tarr.
Son of Saul is set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944, and one Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul (played by Geza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners given humiliating and illusory privileges as trusties, with minor increases of food ration in return for the task of carrying the bodies from the gas chambers to pyres to be burnt and then carting the ashes away to be dumped: a task carried out at a frantic, ever-accelerating 24/7 rate, as the Allies close in. Among the dead, Saul discovers the body of his young son, and sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give this boy a proper burial in secret: an objective requiring the deployment of pleas, threats, blackmail and the offerings of bribes using jewellery (called the “shiny”) stolen from the bodies. Saul’s desperate mission is carried out with the same urgent, hoarse whispers and mutterings as another plot in progress: a planned uprising, which Saul’s intentions may in fact upset. And all the time, the Sonderkommandoare aware, through this network of whispers, that they themselves will be executed in due course by their Nazi captors.
In 1945, Alfred Hitchcock advised on a film that would catalogue the atrocities uncovered in concentration camps by Allied troops. Now the Imperial War Museum has completed the film with previously unseen footage.
Skeletal figures, too weak to move, wait limply for help. At gunpoint, blank-faced SS officers manhandle the twisted bodies of the prisoners they starved to death, slinging them into gigantic burial pits that will eventually be filled with thousands of corpses. Bullet-riddled bodies and skulls smashed into grotesque shapes line country roads. Having frantically tried to dig his way out of a barn where hundreds were being burned to death, a man’s body lies wedged under a wall where he was shot by German troops.
The catalogue of horrors uncovered by the film German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is unremitting, but they remained unseen for decades.
After production got under way in 1945, it was never completed and simply shelved. Only extracts have previously emerged, notably in the 1985 TV film A Painful Reminder. The story of the film, perhaps best known for the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock, was recently told in the documentary Night Will Fall, released in cinemas last September and screened on Channel 4 in January. Now, however, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, restored and completed to the film-makers’ original specifications, has gone on public release for the first time, with a two-week run at the BFI Southbank in London, and further screenings in May through the Picturehouse chain of cinemas.
At 87, Claude Lanzmann is still capable of enforcing his film-making personality on European cinema: he is a landmark in the shadow of his great subject, the Holocaust. His film, Shoah, is now best seen not merely as an incomparable record, but as an intervention in history, an insistence on eyewitness testimony and compelling truth. This new film is a remarkable companion to his masterpiece Shoah: a fascinating encounter, recorded in Rome in the 1970s, while working on his great film but not used at the time, for reasons that Lanzmann leaves us to ponder.
It is an interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian Jew and last surviving “chairman” of the Theresienstadt ghetto, near Prague, a supposedly comfortable Potemkin-style arrangement that was part of a sickening pantomime of ostensible good faith after the Anschluss. Murmelstein explains that their inhabitants, and the world, were distracted with the fatuous fantasy of being shipped over to Madagascar: a cynical euphemism for the death marches and extermination, in which Murmelstein was held to be complicit. The Nazis coerced leading Jews to be their administrative “elders” there, a queasy use of Judeophobe-propagandist terminology, and Murmelstein was the last surviving example (his predecessors were murdered by the Nazis).
He was a man hated after the war for being a collaborator. But he was someone who perhaps saved lives due to his endless and often terrifying negotiations with Adolf Eichmann on the subject of emigration, when the Nazi authorities still believed that allowing Jews to depart without their money might be practicable and profitable.
Writer-performer Olivia Satchell flits between the branches of her family tree in this fiction-streaked biographical work inspired by the life of the grandmother she never met.
In 1938 Truda Vitz, a 17-year-old Viennese Jew, escaped Nazi Austria and, we can assume, almost-certain death. Arriving in England she was registered as an Enemy Alien and very much alone. Her mother had died earlier that year. Her father, who insisted on her leaving Vienna, fled to Cuba with a mistress.
All that stood between the teenage Truda and destitution was the grudging hospitality of wartime Britain and the jewellery she had smuggled from Vienna under her fur coat.
New York-born actress appeared in some 200 productions written by husband Jacob Kalich in the 1920s, later starring opposite Topol in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.
June 1, 1898, is one of two birthdays that were claimed by Molly Picon, the beloved performer best known for her work in Yiddish theater, whose career spanned more than eight decades. (One version says that her actual date of birth was February 28, and that her grandmother invented June 1 so that Molly could celebrate her birthday twice each year.)
Margaret Pyekoon was the daughter of Clara Ostrovsky and Louis Pyekoon, both immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side from what is today Ukraine. Clara was a wardrobe seamstress in the theater, and the little-present Louis a shirtmaker who had neglected to divorce his first wife before leaving for America. Molly later described her father as being “just ‘anti’: anticapitalist, antireligion, antilabor, and antigirls,” until he finally “faded out of our lives.”
At the age of 5, Molly competed in and won a talent show at a theater in Philadelphia, where the family had moved after her father’s departure. As a teenager, she gave up her studies at William Penn High School so she could perform with a Yiddish repertory troupe and help support the family – Clara and her mother, and Molly’s sister, Helen. The company switched between Yiddish and English, depending on the composition of their audience.
[Interesting position piece about Holocaust cinema]
Cinema is entertainment. This has been the thorny challenge for filmmakers who’ve chosen to grapple with the subject of the Holocaust, and the reason why, from ‘Kapò’ to ‘Schindler’s List,’ most of their attempts have failed.
The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo is best remembered for two powerful films, “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) and the Marlon Brando-starring “Burn!” (1969). But in 1960 he directed another very important film, called “Kapò.” It was important for two reasons: It was the first prestigious European movie set in a concentration camp; and the criticism written about it had a formative influence on film criticism ever since.
Pontecorvo’s film told the story of a Jewish girl (the American actress Susan Strasberg, who a few years earlier played the lead role in the original Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”). The girl is sent to Auschwitz with her parents. After they are killed, she tries every possible way to survive, including becoming a kapo.
The movie aroused controversy as soon as it was released. The few feature films before it that had dealt with the memory of the Holocaust – such as Edward Dmytryk’s “The Juggler” (1953), filmed in Israel and starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor struggling to overcome the aftereffects of the war, or “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959) – did not depict life in the camps.
Steven Spielberg will be asked to help create a permanent British memorial to the Holocaust which will capture the audio-visual testimonies of all the survivors of Nazi persecution who forged a new life in the UK.
The film director sent a message of support to 400 survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution who gathered at Wembley Stadium for a consultation staged by the cross-party Holocaust Commission, announced by David Cameron in January.
The Commission was set up to investigate what more needs to be done to ensure Britain has a fitting memorial to the Holocaust and the right resources to educate future generations about the genocide, in which an estimated six million Jews were killed.
Spielberg, whose USC Shoah Foundation has filmed about 52,000 two-hour eyewitness accounts in 34 languages and in 58 countries, told the gathering: “The singular perspective of those who were there is vital. You are teachers of the next generation. The power of your stories is an inspiration to me and people the world over.”
The Holocaust continues to cast a long and varied shadow over our cultural landscape. Seventy years on, with the number of actual survivors dwindling, the stories and lessons from that time continue to echo through generations, and across the planet. This week sees the opening in Toronto of three films dealing with the Holocaust and its repercussions.
The 400 films, selected for the virtual cinema, reflect the vast scope of documentary material collected in the Spielberg Archive. The films range from 1911 to the present and include home movies, short films and full length features. The Holocaust is extensively represented in the Archives film collection. Many of the films deal with the fate of survivors in the post-war period. An important exception, which provides testimony from the war years, is the trial of Adolf Eichmann.