Retrospective: Matt’s Top 5 Holocaust Films

Written by Matt Butler April 08, 2017

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This article was originally meant to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27th), particularly in relation to the Trump administration signing the Muslim Ban on the very same day. It’s an injustice that’s forced us to stand together in solidarity, and so far we’ve stood strong. There’s a creeping fear that history is repeating itself, but I do believe these are different times. That we’re more vocal, resilient and reactive to injustice. Needless to say, we aren’t done standing.

That was the original intent of this piece. However, as time has slipped by, I’ve decided to realign the theme to address the collective fascination we have with the Holocaust. And it’s hardly any wonder why. It’s a time when humanity seemed all but absent. An extermination of mind, body, and spirit. When over 6 million Jews were slaughtered like animals. Even the films on this list, recognized as they are, don’t come close to reconciliation. Still, they do laudable work of recollecting an enduring dread synonymous with the time. Though these five films are all set before the same dreary backdrop, they tell very different stories.

5. The Pianist (2002) – Directed by Roman Polanski

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Pointedly straightforward, The Pianist tells the story of World War II through the eyes of Polish pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody). Through him, we witness the spectacle of war in all its bone-crushing, heart-wrenching insanity. And through it all, we try to find meaning, some thematic unity, something to tie everything together. But The Pianist plays its story discordantly. Apart from Brody’s nuanced performance, the only true consistency of The Pianist is the downward slope into a time bereft of the means and spirit for music.

4. Son of Saul (2015) Directed by László Nemesson-of-saul03

There’s a very disorienting feeling when you watch a movie like Son of Saul, and it’s little to do with the subject matter. The movie is 90% medium close-ups, all confined within a 3 by 4 frame. Add in a grieving father, subtract music, and you have something akin to Son of Saul. It’s a film so dry of hope, never raising the audience too high. You feel trapped with Saul. Any movie that can illicit that feeling deserves praise, especially in this context.

3. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) Directed by Stanley Kramer

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The best courtroom dramas are bold and critical. They challenge our perceptions of justice and shine a light on where we stand, for better or worse. Judgment at Nuremberg is critical because it takes into account the aftermath of the Holocaust. It’s bold because it dares to complicate our view of the Nazi party, and reminds us of some paramount truths about World War II. While evil characterized the Nazis, it did not define Germany. In a genre so heated with rage and remorse, Judgment at Nuremberg stands even-tempered, giving each side of the story its due time in court. It’s a lengthy affair that asks much of its audience in the way of patience but deserves every ounce of it.

2. Life is Beautiful (1997) – Directed by Roberto Benigni

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Laughter is the best medicine. But sometimes it’s the only medicine. Actor/Director Roberto Benigni knows this as well as anyone, and uses this sensibility as the crux of Life is Beautiful. The film begins with all the whimsy of a Mr. Bean sketch, with Benigni starring as the film’s jester, Guido. The film is, in essence, Guido’s long series of tricks and schemes to laugh his way through a life of misfortune. It’s only after the rise of the Nazi regime, and the birth of his son, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini) that we understand the full meaning of Guido’s madness. Whereas The Pianist draws grief from everything we see, Life is Beautiful draws grief from everything we can’t see. We know exactly what awaits, so we know every reason why a father would go to such lengths to protect the innocence of his child.

1. Schindler’s List (1993) – Directed by Steven Spielbergholocaust

There’s a great quote from Stanley Kubrick regarding Schindler’s List. When asked about the film, Kubrick says, “The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t.” In some ways, I agree with Kubrick’s take. The Holocaust narrative is not the place to showcase humanity. It’s not a story we go to for answers. But I also know that sometimes we want and need answers. I think Spielberg was desperate for them. And while the story is of success, it’s the scene where Schindler pulls off his gold Nazi pin, quivering through the words, “One more person”, that we’re reminded just how human Oskar Schindler was. Though the frame is crowded with survivors, for that moment we too believe it is too little, too late. What Spielberg accomplishes with Schindler’s List is something few biographic films do: a paradoxically focused and all-encompassing look at history. The film is at once a story of an unlikely hero finding the compassion to save over one thousand lives while also a story of immeasurable suffering. The film is an absolute good.

It’s obvious which film is my preference, but I thoroughly recommend each as an introduction to one of the most important moments in human history.

Lest we forget.

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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