Sparking Education, Preserving Memory, and Tackling the Future:
Representations of the Holocaust in Film

by Joanna Katz
June 6, 2003
Writing 50, Roy Vallis

published on Prof. Marcuse's Hist 33d Projects website; 33d course homepage, prof's homepage


To say that I grew up around the Holocaust would be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. I began my Jewish studies at a young age by attending preschool and kindergarten at Jewish-interest schools. My family attended temple on a regular basis and my dad held Shabbat ceremonies during Friday night dinners each week. Furthermore, as I got older, I attended weekly classes about the teachings of the Torah, the sacred prayer book, on how to read and write Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, and took classes about the Holocaust. In these classes, we studied mostly the emotional affects and personal stories of terror during the time of the Shoah. We studied the horrors of the Holocaust through personal recollections, guest speakers, and various film clippings.

Having a "Jewish" background pertaining to the study of the Holocaust affects the manner in which I am further influenced by Holocaust literature, and more notably, by Holocaust films. I remember trying to watch Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List at the age of nine when it first came out on video. I went into my parents’ bedroom where they were watching it and sat in between my mother and father as a young child does to attract attention. I do not remember much from this first viewing experience because after no more than 10 minutes of watching, I left the room. Something about the film, or most likely the film’s content and setting, made me incredibly uncomfortable and forced me to leave the room. My next Hollywood connection to the Holocaust would come in 1998 with Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. On an average Friday evening of my freshman year of high school my parents decided it would be a movie night. Somehow, without even telling me what movie we would see, they got me in the car and brought me to a small theater in Palo Alto, California. We met my parents’ friends and their daughter who I went to preschool with there. At this point, I was still completely unaware of the plotline or general content of the film. I did not realize that this film was about the Holocaust and dealt with issue of the discrimination of Jews until the scene where Joshua asks his father (Benigni) why a store displayed a sign that prohibits Jews from entering. From then on, this film hit me hard. I was deeply and emotionally affected by the workings of Life is Beautiful Benigni employs in his film and still am each time I watch it. I have attended many Holocaust museums, including the United States’ Memorial in Washington D.C. as well as Israel’s own memorial for the Holocaust in Jerusalem. However, the power films, in comparison to other forms of education about the Holocaust, in its method of affecting human emotions such as pain, regret, memory and knowledge, is one of demanding influence over personal perceptions.

Holocaust survivor and often spokesperson, Elie Wiesel, asks, "Does there exist another way, another language, to say what is unsayable?" (Insdorf xi). According to directors Steven Spielberg and Roberto Benigni the answer is "yes: film." The medium of film becomes this alternative language that carries the power to depict the horrors and the unthinkable tragedy the years of the Holocaust encompass. Wiesel claims the alternate language of film proves that the camera may "succeed where the pen falters" (Insdorf xii). In this sense, the tactical and systematic process of a film allows for the portrayal of the sensitive subject of the Holocaust to emotionally affect its viewing audience in a way that a book cannot. A film is more demanding and dynamically powerful than a group of writings in terms of how it can affect its audience. Furthermore, "a film is not like a book" (Daly 145). One cannot just turn their back on a film as easily as they can close a book. Film, and more specifically Holocaust films, present the viewer not only with an intense plot line, but also with rapid and powerful visuals that engage one’s emotions. In addition, according to Naomi Kramer, a representative of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, "…the film compels the viewer" and in this way distinguishes its power from that of a journal or memoir, in the case of representing the Holocaust (Daly 145). Historical films, when viewed as a powerful and expressive language, have a threefold purpose. They have the ability to educate, create memory and act as an influential tool to send a moral message for future generations.

Often, films are used to educate their audience. They can distinguish an important event, serious of events, and/or historic situation in the mass mind. It is by these means that culture, traditions, and often history are taught. In this sense, the media is seen as a "substitute educator" and the theater as the "classroom" (Goldschlager cited in Daly 149). Using films as educational tools for learning and informing about Holocaust history have become instrumental in ensuring the memory of the horrifying mass brutality and destruction of the Jewish people. According to Holocaust and film Professor Judith E. Doneson, when film "approaches a subject like the Holocaust, it brings an enormous potential to educate" (6). The power of film is seen in this sense as pictures which incorporate the Holocaust into their plotline, timeline, and even their atmosphere teach their audience something of World War II and the tragic murder of six million Jews. Since cinema offers this potent and influential means into the mass mind, it becomes crucial that films encompassing the horrors of the Holocaust be as accurate, moving, and cautious as possible. Also, according to Doneson, "…films for commercial release and for television have been instrumental in helping to assimilate the Holocaust into the popular consciousness" (5). Three Holocaust films in particular have had this impact into the mass mind, and into the memories of post-Holocaust generations. The first is NBC’s 1978 seven and a half hour docu-drama Holocaust. A decade and a half later, Oscar wining director Steven Spielberg creates his masterpiece Schindler’s List. Lastly, in 1998, Italian director and actor Roberto Bernigni presents his film entitled Life is Beautiful. These three films, although related by their general topic and historical context, present the Holocaust from distinct points of view while still leaving their audience emotionally saddened and ready to prevent future such occurrences in contemporary matters.

Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, all peoples can be touched and deeply saddened by the tragic events of the Holocaust. Millions of innocent people had their lives stolen simply because of their religious beliefs, as well as cultural or political differences. It then becomes central that a tragedy of this magnitude be taught, studied and prevented from ever happening again. Films have become one tool utilized in the art of remembrance and prevention of a future Holocaust. Numerous Holocaust films, including Holocaust, Schindler’s List, and Life is Beautiful, function as key historical and emotional lessons with the purpose of teaching, remembering, and preventing a future Shoah.

A common theme often intertwined with mass brutality in the Holocaust film is the idea of the silent witness. According to Doneson, "the bystander…is often as guilty as is the perpetrator" (151). The United States’ involvement, or lack thereof, during the Holocaust often leaves the country holding some responsibility for the aftermath of the Shoah and its detrimental outcome. The United States failed to allow the complete immigration of Jews, and did not bomb the concentration camps when given opportunity. In this sense, and because of these factors, "American has chosen to carry the burden of the Holocaust more than any nation apart from Israel" (Doneson 152). Furthermore, Doneson suggests that America, in order to make amends for its silence during the war, take on the challenge of inducing the memory of this event into the minds and hearts of its citizens.

One of America’s first of such attempts, entitled Holocaust, aired as a docu-drama supported by NBC in April of1978. This four-part, seven and a half hour series attracted an audience of over 220 million, the largest percentage of viewers in the history of American television (Insdorf 6; Doneson 145). The film describes and uncovers the development of World War II by tracking its effects on various members of the Weiss family, a fictionalized German Jewish family. The docu-drama gets its partial documentary title because it also "incorporates actual Nazi footage of political events" (Goldschlager cited in Daly 155). Through this mix of documentary fashion film, as well as fictionalizing the personal aspects of the series, the American audience is presented with its first national depiction of the Holocaust. Attracting unprecedented attention from the media as well as from American television viewers, controversy developed relating to the production and presentation of this docu-drama. This film, although tackling the emotionally consuming historical issue of the Holocaust, aired during prime time television viewing, and was constantly interrupted by commercial breaks. These interruptions not only disrupt emotional progression of the series, but also display trivial advertisements in the midst of the presentation of a serious subject matter. According to Alain Goldschlager, representative of the Holocaust Literature Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario, "on an emotional level, the advertising interruptions re-introduce everyday banality at the most crucial moments, breaking the continuum of the artistic perception…" (Daly 157). Other negative criticism of NBC’s creation includes that the film is based upon a fictional family during a historic time period, detracting from the realness of the individuals’ struggle during this tragedy.

However, not all critics explore NBC’s Holocaust from this perspective. Doneson sees this series relevance providing a "universal message for mankind" (9). Often, the Jewish story of struggle and injustice is seen as the universal metaphor for inequalities and discrimination against the collective individual. Furthermore, Doneson declares, "in Holocaust, universalization implies focusing on the centrality of Jewish suffering during the Final Solution and applying its lesson to modern evil" (144). The release of this docu-drama comes at a time when Israel was yet again on the brink of war with the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War and the end of American involvement in Vietnam in 1973. In this sense, American films dealing with the issue of the Holocaust and World War II, such as NBC’s Holocaust, embody a moral lesson and act as a metaphor for contemporary problems. The emotional and lasting effects of using the art of film to portray this metaphor and instill its application in contemporary America becomes apparent and increasingly important as more and more filmmakers tackle the issue of the Holocaust. Relating this concept to NBC’s 1978 work, Doneson states, "History, and its cousin memory…are essential components of Holocaust" (152).

Continuing this theme of instilling the preservation of the memory of the historical tragedy of the Holocaust, director Steven Spielberg produces Schindler’s List in 1993. This film takes the true story of Oskar Schindler, a wealthy Nazi German businessman who uses his personal and political power to save the lives of Jews who work for him in Krakow during the Holocaust, and molds the premise that stories of survival are stories of exceptions. Since a great majority of viewers of Spielberg’s film "have little knowledge or the Shoah or of Jewish life," (Kramer cited in Daly 146) it is crucial that the workings of the film appeal to a broad audience and present the Holocaust experience accurately. Additionally, according to Frank Manchel of the University of Vermont, "…for countless viewers, Spielberg’s staged recreation of the humiliation, torture, and murder of millions and millions of Jews becomes ‘proof’ that the Holocaust occurred" (87). For this reason, a major blockbuster work such as Schindler’s List, depicting a historical tragedy, must be sensitive to the events’ survivors, participants, as well as its audience. To ensure this respect and knowledge, Spielberg’s inspiration and factual support for his film comes from "what only the survivors can remember" (Manchel 87).

Crucial to the concept of the simplicity, not in historical relevance or emotional value, but pertaining to external and contextual knowledge, Schindler’s List not only appeals to a broad viewing audience, but also continues to advance the concern of the Holocaust in the mass mind. According to Doneson, "…Schindler’s List has become the Holocaust of the 1990’s…" (227). Additionally, Spielberg’s unique forum for educating an audience with minimal knowledge of the horrific and heartrending events of the World War II, revives and instills memory of the Holocaust in the viewer’s mind. Film critic Robert Gellately believes this occurs because "…the film manages to transmit the nature of the Holocaust at a level that can easily be comprehended" (486). Viewers, naturally varying in prior knowledge and experience with the issue of the Holocaust are, no matter their level of familiarity, affected by the film. In order to more carefully pinpoint the centrality and significance of Oskar Schindler and his story, the film presents the facts of his experience within the historical context of World War II’s Holocaust. For this reason, according to Goldschlager, "the film does not pretend to tell the entire story of the Holocaust or describe the multiple facets of the five years of the war but only one story that crosses many events" (Daly 157-58). The significance of this style of portraying a complex event is that Spielberg recognizes he cannot possibly incorporate and present all aspects of the monumental upheaval of the Holocaust. He therefore focuses on a morally pleasing story of a man who saves Jews. Goldschlager also believes that "as a film, Schindler’s List establishes itself as a fiction using historical events as background…to create a piece of art which transcends its basic material and calls the viewer to appreciate issues that go beyond the anecdotal story" (Daly 159). Furthermore, a moral metaphor for the strength of attacking contemporary issues, as well as an emotional significance of the importance of preserving the tragic memory of the events of the Holocaust in American culture molds with the viewing of such a Holocaust film.

Personally, I am not as affected by this Holocaust portrayal. I finally screened the entire film in February of this year and was shocked that I did not have a substantial emotional and tear-jerking reaction to the presentation of Schindler’s List. I watched the film with about fifteen other students, some Jews, some non-Jews, some with extensive Holocaust background, most without, and found that I was the least affected by this Holocaust picture. Leaving the screening, I felt a sense of guilt for my lack of emotional response to the film. However, I am, no matter how many times I watch other Holocaust films and documentaries, emotionally and extensively affected. Kramer finds similar conclusions about viewing Schindler’s List, especially after viewing for the second time. She comments, "My reaction after the second viewing was much less intense, the horror was muted and veiled by the shroud of entertainment" (Daly 147). Kramer proposes explanatory reasoning for this phenomenon. She challenges the concept that a film praising the acts of the wealthy businessman, Oskar Schinlder, receive any more consideration and glorification than strict documentaries about the Holocaust. Kramer believes, "We need these stories of good to balance our despair so that we can confront the despair in the Shoah" (Daly 147). Since it is sometimes too emotional, and too painful, especially for those who have little Holocaust knowledge and experience, to bear witness to graphic Holocaust realities of World War II, a film such as Schindler’s List, which ultimately is the recollection of a survivors’ success, offer the positive outlook on a horrifying tragedy.

Finally, advancing another dimension to the Holocaust film incorporating comic relief with the backdrop of the Holocaust during the Nazi occupation, is the wonderfully vibrant film Life is Beautiful. As Roberto Bernigni’s Life is Beautiful begins, one finds himself in a small community in Italy (The film is in Italian with English subtitles). Benigni’s role is that of a charming waiter gifted with a colorful imagination and an irresistible sense of humor who wins the heart of a woman he calls "princess." The couple, along with their young son, reflect an ordinary family life, until the war affects Italy and Gudio (Benigni) and his son, Joshua, are taken to concentration camps. However, Dora, Guido’s wife, is not sent away because she is not Jewish. Since Dora loves her family so much, and cannot bear to live without them, she begs her way on the train that, ultimately, ends the lives of over six million Jews. This is the audience’s first "reality check." Some wonder: "Would I have gone on that train knowing it would probably lead to the end of my life?" The audience is forced to vicariously live through the charming characters of Guido, Dora and their young son. The film does a fine job of allowing the viewer to feel the joys, sorrows and complete desperation of those imprisoned during the Holocaust.

Once the setting changes to the slums of the death camps, the tone of the film also becomes more serious; however, Benigni is careful with his comic inserts in this more emotional second half of the film. He constantly utilizes creative ways to tell his son what is happening to them without ever letting him discover the true reasons they are sent away. This aspect allows the viewer to understand the tragedy and horrors of the Holocaust and its effect on families while being entertained by a major motion picture. However, Benigni portrays the evils of the Shoah and its mass brutality in a way almost unprecedented by a Holocaust film. In order to represent a more simplistic rendering of the Holocaust, Benigni limits portrayals of graphic violence and it is this avoidance that evokes imagination and thought from the viewer. According to Carlo Celli, Assistant Professor of Italian and film studies at Bowling Green State University, "…by not showing the horror of the camps, Life is Beautiful avoids seeming fantastic." Furthermore, Celli believes this avoidance of violence and cruelty does not produce a similar reaction from the audience. On the contrary, viewers are struck by the content of Benigni’s heartbreaking story and in turn are eager to learn more about the tragedy of the Holocaust and prevent such future, as well as contemporary, evils.

Another important feature about this film is that it is in Italian and contains English subtitles. This is anything but a setback for viewers since one can easily follow the film and its development through the visual aids within the film. In addition, Benigni captures the audiences with his timeless and comic character. The film’s jokes are easily understood and stationed during appropriate moments for laughter. Here, Benigni brings us a light-hearted Holocaust film. Furthermore, Benigni balances the horror and injustice of the Holocaust by combining both comedy and drama: "…The movie has the ability to make you laugh, smile, and cry, both from tears of joy and grief" (Brundage). Benigni’s ability to combine multiple sentiments, on numerous levels of intensity, builds powerful and emotional reactions from a wide range of viewers and a grounded respect and eagerness for future Holocaust material opportunities.

According to Annette Insdorf, author of Indeliable Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, "…any film that tackles this subject [the Holocaust] with visibly good intentions is brave, if not commendable" (255). The threefold purpose of educating, forming memory, and evoking a general morale when approached with issues of injustice and mass cruelty has become a central and driving force in the creation of modern Holocaust films. The purpose of researching and studying Holocaust films, according to Doneson, "is to provide an invaluable source for analyzing a traumatic era in history in order to give meaning to the present" (cited in Shimoni 22). This notion is vital to the placement of the Holocaust genre of films as a metaphor for contemporary problems. Using film as a central resource for delivering this modern message, as well as educating the public about a traumatic historical event, proves one of the most affective and emotional means to accomplish this task since "…cinema offers a powerful route into the collective mind" (Doneson 4). Each of the three films examined above: NBC’s Holocaust, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, utilizes this "powerful route" and evokes the significance of formulating an educational sense of, developing memory for, as well as the preventing of future and present-day brutality pertaining to the events of the Shoah.

Personally, I have developed an interested in this topic because I have come to appreciate these Holocaust films. I see a need for these films to be used as tools in the project of remembering the Holocaust. Also, this event is very special to my heart; being of Jewish background, I have a deep appreciation and regard for the importance of preserving the memory of the event. Watching, studying, and researching films which depict events of the Holocaust, whether historical or fictional, has a huge impact on my Holocaust learning experience. Holocaust films, including but not limited to those considered above, have both a historical and educational purpose. It is important that future generations have a knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust. Even if their knowledge stems from blockbuster films, it grows more and more important for historic tragedies and wartime events to be understood, researched and prevented.

Works Cited (back to top)

Brundage, James. "La Vita E Bella."

Celli, Carlo. "The Representation of Evil in Roberto Bennigni’s Life is Beautiful." Journal of Popular Film and Television Aug. 2000 <>.

Daly, Peter M. ed. Building History The Shoah in Art, Memory, and Myth. vol 4. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.

Doneson, Judith E. The Holocaust in American Film. 2nd edition. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Gellately, Robert. (1994). Film Review. Central European History, Vol. 26, No. 4, 475-89.

Insdorf, Annette. Indelible Shadows Film and the Holocaust. 2nd edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Manchel, Frank. "A Reel Witness: Steven Spielberg’s Representation of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List." The Journal of Modern History (March 1995): The University of Chicago, 1995: 83-100.

Shimoni, Gideon, ed. The Holocaust in University Teaching. New York: Pergamon Press, 1991.


Paper by Joanna Katz, June 6, 2003; converted and uploaded by H. Marcuse, 4/7/05
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