Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust


How do you depict the unfathomable? Can tragedy be re-created without cheapening it? These are the familiar questions passed between interviewees in Imaginary Witness, a survey of how American cinema has historically interpreted Nazi atrocity. The film compiles hundreds of excerpts dating from 1939—the year of Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first studio picture to attack the Reich—through postwar reticence, and finally to Schindler’s List‘s Oscar orgy. Daniel Anker’s made a serviceable, abridged guide to his subject, though some omissions do rankle: Sam Fuller’s gutty 1959 Verboten!, which utilized actual concentration-camp footage, dissed in favor of 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, praised for doing the same? Though Hollywood’s the announced focus, the lack of any foreign media denies a useful comparison. And the tackiest material is not more than alluded to; there’s only a glimpse of Robin Williams—no The Day the Clown Cried, no very special episodes. But Anker’s excavated some remarkable stuff here, including documentation of Hollywood producers being taken to tour death camps, and footage from a 1953 This Is Your Life broadcast showcasing a Holocaust survivor, Hanna Bloch Kohner. Hearing host Ralph Edwards recount epic mass extermination amid the immaculate, floodlit studio trappings is every bit as moving as it is surreal.