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How Is the Holocaust Represented in Films Essay

‘The Holocaust’ was the massacre of nearly six million Jews in parts of Europe controlled by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party leading up to and during World War II. When the Nazi party first came to power in 1933 they began building on the anti-Semitist feelings in Germany; introducing new legislations that gradually removed the Jews from society such as the Nuremberg Laws which prohibited marriage or extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and German citizens and required Jews to wear an armband with the Star of David on it so they could be identified as a Jew. Encouraged by the Nazi’s, people began to boycott Jewish ran businesses and in the November of 1938 they were openly attacked, these pogroms became known as ‘Kristallnacht’ which in German translates as: “the Night of Broken Glass” because of the vandalised shops and broken glass windows.

During Kristallnacht over 7,000 Jewish shops and 1,668 synagogues (almost all of the synagogues in Germany) were destroyed and the official death toll is ninety-one although it is assumed to be much higher. In 1939, after the invasion of Poland, small areas of towns were sectioned off from the rest of the population where Jews and Romani were forced to live in confined and overcrowded spaces. These were known as ‘ghettos’. The largest was Warsaw Ghetto, in Poland (where ‘The Pianist’ was set), with over 400,000 people living within its walls. Although it contained at least 30% of the population of Warsaw it occupied only 2.4% of the city’s area; this meant that the residents of the ghetto were forced to cram in an average of nine people per room. From 1940 through to 1942 starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed hundreds of thousands. Over 43,000 residents of the Warsaw ghetto died there in 1941.

On January 20th, 1942 a “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe” was devised by the Nazi leaders. Death camps were built in Eastern Europe with new railway systems that were made to transport Jews from other countries to these remote areas. Jews, as well as other ‘undesirables’ such as Romani, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, homosexuals, people with physical or mental disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other political and religious opponents, were rounded up from all over Europe and forced into tightly packed rail freight cars like cattle.

If they survived the journey, a small fraction of the Jews were deemed fit to work as slave labour. Everyone else was sent straight to the gas chambers which were disguised as shower rooms to prevent the victims panicking or trying to fight back. People were packed into these ‘shower rooms’ where the doors were bolted shut and a small but deadly pellet of Zyklon-B was dropped in and was activated by the heat of hundreds of human bodies crammed in together, those inside were dead within twenty minutes. By the end of the war six million Jewish men, women and children had been killed; this was more than two-thirds of the Jewish population.

We have watched three films based around the Holocaust. The first of the three ‘The Pianist’ is a film based on the true story of a Jewish man, Wladysaw Szpilman: a famous pianist who worked for a polish radio station, living through the Holocaust. The beginning of the film shows the German invasion of Poland, in which Szpilman’s radio station is bombed, and the anti-Jewish laws that the Germans enforce in Poland, for example, when Szpilman is refused entry to the park or the café with his polish friend and made to walk in the gutter to let polish people get primary use of the pavement. Szpilman and his family soon have to move to the Warsaw Ghetto where death became commonplace due to starvation, disease and attempt to rebel against the Nazi’s.

The Nazis treat the Jews appallingly; they forced some Jews to dance to humiliate themselves for their own entertainment, a little boy is beaten to death for trying to scavenge some food for his starving family and, in one scene, Szpilman watches from an opposite flat as Nazi soldiers tip someone in a wheel chair out the window because he couldn’t stand up when they ordered him to. After several months in the ghetto, Szpilman and his family are chosen to be taken to the Treblinka death camp, however, Szpilman is saved from boarding the train by Itzak Heller, a Jewish police officer, while his family board the train never to be seen again. Szpilman is then put to work under gruelling, abusive conditions with the ten per cent or so of the Jews that the Nazi’s kept alive to use for slave labour; tearing down the walls that use to separate the ghetto from the rest of Warsaw and rebuilding the houses for new, non-Jewish residents.

The Jews who are still alive are planning on rebelling Szpilman helps; smuggling guns into the ghetto. But after almost being caught by a Nazi soldier who suspects he is concealing something in a bag of beans, Szpilman decides to attempt an escape and take his chances hiding in the city. His friend, Dorota, and her husband hide him in an empty apartment near the ghetto wall where he can get by on smuggled food; however he must not make a noise or go outside as there are other, non-Jews living in the building to all believe the room to be empty. From his apartment window he helplessly watches the Jewish ghetto uprising from the 19th of April 1943 to its unsuccessful end on the 16th May. He lives silently in the abandoned apartment for another few months until he accidently smashes a shelf of china plates. Although Szpilman is unhurt the noise alerts other residents to his presence in the abandoned apartment; he is forced to leave his hideout.

Szpilman is hidden once more, with the help of people from the Polish resistance, in another abandoned flat but the man supposed to be providing him with food disappears with the money from generous and unwitting donors, pocketing it all for his self. Dorota and her husband find him gravely ill from lack of nutrition but luckily he recovers in time to witness the Warsaw Uprising. His flat gets bombed during the uprising and Szpilman escapes to the abandoned ghetto where he is found by a merciful Nazi officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. Szpilman plays the piano for him to prove that he is a pianist and the soldier, moved by his playing, finds him food and allows him to remain hidden there. Szpilman hides out here until the end of the war when the German Nazis are rounded up and polish prisoners released.

The freed prisoners yell insults at the Germans and Hosenfeld, upon hearing that one of the freed prisoners was a violinist, asks him to contact Szpilman; to ask him if he will return the favour of saving him. However, Szpilman is unable to help Hosenfeld as the camp of Nazi prisoners had been moved and Szpilman returns to playing the piano for the Warsaw radio station. As the movie finishes the closing captions on screen tell us that Hosenfeld died in 1952 in a prisoner of war camp but Szpilman continued to live in Warsaw until his death in 2000, aged 88.

The second film we watched was ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ this film took a different, perspective of the Holocaust than ‘The Pianist’. This film is shown through the point of view of Bruno, the eight-year-old child of a German Nazi officer; he doesn’t really see the Jews as any different to himself yet despite his innocence Bruno still becomes a victim of the Holocaust… At the start of the movie Bruno and his family are moving because his father got a job promotion as Commandant of a Jewish extermination camp. Bruno is upset and lonely because he was forced to leave his friends in Berlin so when he meets Shmuel, a Jewish boy the same age as Bruno, sitting on the other side of the fence, in the death camp, Bruno immediately befriends him. Shmuel tells Bruno that he is a Jew and that the Jewish people have been imprisoned here by soldiers, who also took their clothes and gave them the striped camp clothing, and that he is hungry.

Bruno is confused and starts having doubts about his father being a good person. However, Bruno regularly returns to the fence bringing Shmuel food and playing checkers with him through the fence. When Bruno’s Mother realises what’s actually happening at the camp through a comment by one of the younger soldiers “They smell even worse when they burn,” she is shocked and appalled as she believed it to be a labour camp. She argues with her Husband, insisting that she and the children should move elsewhere, eventually the Mother wins out but Bruno doesn’t want to leave anymore because of his friendship with Shmuel. Shmuel tells Bruno that his father is missing. Bruno gives him the bad news that he will be moving away for good the next day after lunch.

Wanting to make up for letting Shmuel down and naive that his father has likely been murdered, Bruno agrees to help Shmuel to find his father, and returns the next day with a shovel to dig a hole under the fence to get into the camp, and Shmuel will bring an extra set of camp clothing; Shmuel’s suggestion that he could leave the camp through the hole is rejected by Bruno, who doesn’t know what it’s really like inside the camp and is determined to find Shmuel’s father. Whilst still searching Bruno and Shmuel get caught up in a crowd of people being marched to the gas chambers where both Bruno and Shmuel are murdered with the other Jews. In the meantime, Bruno’s Mother tells his Father, who was in a meeting about increasing the capacity of the gas chambers, that Bruno is missing.

They find Bruno’s clothes next to the hole under the fence and realise that he got into the death camp. His Father runs throughout the camp when he reaches the gas chamber, he realises that Bruno has been brought to the gas chamber with the other Jews, but when He arrives it is too late, the boys are already dead and he is devastated. Upon hearing the Father’s cry of “Bruno!” his Mother and his sister, Gretel, realise what has happened and are equally devastated. The ending of this film has an element of retribution as Bruno’s father, who has killed thousands of Jewish children, finally gets a taste of what it’s like to lose his child.

Finally, the last movie that we watched was ‘Life is Beautiful’. This film was set in Italy about the main character, Guido, a young, Jewish, man who at the opening of the film moves to the city with his friend to work at his uncle’s restaurant where he meets his future wife, Dora, although neither knows it yet. During the beginning of the film you can see how the anti-Semitist feelings built up it Italy for instance when the school children are meant to be lectured on ‘the superior race’, when someone paints “Beware, Jewish horse” on Guido’s Uncle’s horse, the sign on the shop reading “No dogs, no Jews!” and, later in the film, when Guido and Dora are married, despite the fact that Guido’s a Jew and Dora’s Italian, people trash their house.

On Joshua (Guido and Dora’s son) birthday the Germans arrest Guido, Joshua and Guido’s uncle are taken onto the train to be taken to the death camp Dora insists on going with them even though she isn’t a Jew eventually the Nazi gives in and puts her on the train where she is included with the other Jewish women. Guido is devastated to see his non-Jewish wife board the train. Protecting his son from the horrific truth, Guido tells Joshua that they are simply on a big holiday camp, and he turns the camp into a big game for Joshua, saying that they must win 1000 points to win a real tank and leave. Luckily Guido’s quick thinking saves Joshua from the truth when a German officer requires a translator.

Despite not speaking a word of German, Guido steps forward and makes up the “Regole del Campo” from the German’s body language, claiming that tanks, scoreboards and games of Hide and Seek litter the camp, while cleverly stating that Joshua cannot cry, ask for his mother or declared he’s hungry, resulting in the loss of the “game”, in other words, death. Joshua later refuses to take a shower (repeated from an earlier part in the film), and unknowingly escapes being gassed, so Guido hides him with the help of other Italian prisoners, since there are no other children. Playing messages over the speakers for Dora, kept prisoner on the other side of the camp, let’s Dora know her son and husband are alive, while the Nazi’s don’t speak Italian.

With the help of Guido’s former German friend, Herr Lessing, Guido hides Joshua amongst the German children, while waiting the German Officer’s meals. Hiding Joshua in a junction box for the last time, telling him that everyone is looking for him, Guido jeopardises his own survival to prevent the Germans discovering Joshua, while he attempts to free Dora, giving his own life away at the same time. Once the German’s realise they’ve lost the what they desert the camp, closely followed by the surviving Jews escaping, then, when the Americans break into the seemingly deserted camp the following morning Joshua comes out of hiding just as a tank pulls around the corner so Joshua believes that he has won ‘the Game’. Hitching a lift out, Joshua spots his mother reuniting as the film ends.

Although all three of these movies are based on the Holocaust each one uses different themes and different view points. Firstly, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ is filmed from a very innocent, child view point. Bruno is very young and the difference between Jew and German doesn’t matter to him; he doesn’t understand what might be considered wrong in befriending Shmuel. A similar viewpoint is used in ‘Life Is Beautiful’ where Joshua doesn’t know what’s going on because his father told him it was a game. I think that this perspective very effective in displaying the horrors and injustice of the Holocaust and, personally, it makes for a more entertaining film as it uses the audiences’ sympathies to make them more emotionally involved with the plot.

However, in displaying historical fact within the film this take has disadvantages because what makes the main characters so innocent is their lack of understanding of their situation which naturally makes it harder for the film to be both educating and entertaining. ‘The Pianist’, however, has a much more grown up approach as, being based on a true story, it sticks to the facts and I felt that I learnt more from that film then I did from the other two. A similar theme that emerges in all three of these films is family. In ‘The Pianist’ Szpilman loses his family early on in the film, although he seems quite close to them before, and he struggles to survive without them probably feeling lonely all those month in hiding with no one with him for company.

In ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ you see how Bruno’s family are driven apart by their conflicting opinions of the Holocaust; Bruno’s father is a strong believer in Nazi policy and the commandant of the death camp, however, his Mother is quite shocked and appalled when she learns the truth of what’s happening at the death camp and insists on moving away with the kids, whereas Bruno is young and confused as he’s been brought up being told that Jews are basically evil and German soldiers, like his father, are good but when he befriends Shmuel he realises that some Jews are nice, like Shmuel, and begins to doubt his father. Contrast to this, in ‘Life is Beautiful’ you see how Joshua’s family grow closer together because of the Holocaust; they stick together for each other and Guido even sacrifices himself in hope of saving Joshua.

Although we often assume that all of the Nazi soldiers were evil, the issue of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Germans is brought up in all three of these films. Firstly, in ‘The Pianist’ although most Germans are portrayed as evil, the Nazi officer, Captain Hosenfeld, saves Szpilman from starvation or being found and, towards the end of the movie, when he’s a prisoner and begging for help you begin to sympathise with him a bit more, especially when it’s revealed that he died on the caption.

Then, in ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ Bruno befriends Shmuel, and Bruno’s Mother and Grandmother openly disagree with Nazi views, which makes you think not to stereotype all Germans as ‘evil’. And lastly, in ‘Life I Beautiful’ although no German steps out and helps Guido and his family, you do see a doctor (who Guido knew before he was forced to work at the death camp) beginning to lose his stability because the work he is forced to do goes against all his moral values. This adds another layer to the ‘evil Germans’ assumption because maybe not all of them were doing it willingly so therefore does that make them bad?


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