There are two kinds of art that exist in context of the Holocaust. The first kind treats the events as a backdrop in order to tell a moralizing story, ultimately cheapening not just the tragedy but the power of the stories rooted in this history. The second kind offers us a way to reckon with the strangest and darkest period of modern human history and gives us a vocabulary to make sense of the world during and since. Yom Hashoah is a time for the latter. Here are a few films that have succeeded in doing this.
Band of Brothers 109, “Why We Fight”
When this series first aired 17 years ago, we were conditioned to expect week after week moments of tremendous battle cinematography and glimpses into the human toll of war. Still, no one really expected episode nine, when Easy Company comes across a concentration camp full of prisoners. So few Holocaust films ever really bring you so close to the realities of the camps themselves. In one heart-wrenching scene, a german-speaking American solider realizes that the he will be tasked with confiscating rations given to the prisoners, who are at risk of eating themselves to death. The episode ends as Easy Company oversees the burial of the Jewish dead by resentful german townspeople, and gives viewers one of the greatest moments in television history. In this scene a group of nearby musicians are playing a Beethoven string quartet. “Germans make good cleaners, all you have to do is play Mozart,” one soldier remarks. “That’s not Mozart,” his booze-addled commander responds. “It’s Beethoven.” Lyricism and death have hardly ever existed in such harmony on the small screen.
This film sticks with you because unlike most holocaust movies, it isn’t a family story or one about the camps. It’s the story of a child trying to hide in plain sight in a Nazi school, making his way through occupied Europe almost entirely on his own. And so in a way that only childhood can be, Europa Europa is lonely and tragic and deeply moving, and makes you wonder if you yourself could ever be as resourceful.
Night and Fog and Shoah
These are two wildly different films, but probably the two most important documentaries about the holocaust. Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, which appeared three years before his seminal film Hiroshima Mon Amour, uses different styles and techniques to give viewers a visceral experience of equal parts horror and heartbreak. At ten hours, Shoah is 20 times longer than Night and Fog, and is not only one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, but also one of the best films of the last 30 years. It relies heavily on testimonies of victims and culprits. The footage used to tell this story is as difficult to watch as it is important.
Arguably one of the greatest films in cinema history, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion actually tells the story of soldiers in a military prison camp during WWI. However, this film was released in 1937, when the Nazi threat was already breathing down Europe’s neck. The Grand Illusion is more than just a portrait of life in a German prison camp. It is more than premonitions of what would come. This film’s greatest accomplishment is showing us how at a human level, war and all its trappings are not just senseless, but also totally useless.
Any Marx Brother’s Movie
These great comic films would be nothing if not for the perpetual sense of us versus them, which is a Jewish story as old as time. We are an absurd people; we move in strange circles; we have our own jokes, lingo, habits. The plot of every Marx Brother’s film is the absurd notion that these few people see the world in a way that makes sense only to them, where their internal logic and harmony stands in opposition to everything else. And of course, the world is always eager to punish them for it. The Marx Brothers understood that only a surreal kind of humor could ever possibly rise to a level of greatness capable of undermining a similarly great tragedy.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.