Thursday, August 6, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Holocaust Films

There have been many, perhaps too many, films about the Holocaust made in the past few decades. Like any "genre" there are good, bad and great films about about this subject. Some are downright offensive, but some of the films on this list deserve their placement among the great films of all time. So here they are, the best films made about the Holocaust ever. I decided not to include documentaries, because honestly, I'm not quite sure how I would fit the masterpiece that is Shoah into this list.

10. The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)
I know I will likely catch some flak for including this recent Oscar winner, since it was very controversial last year in it’s depiction of Kate Winslet as a German war criminal. I myself, questioned the films value, not necessarily on its on terms, but whether or not it should have gotten into the Oscar race. And yet, as the months have passed, I find that my mind often wanders back to strange, challenging film. This is a film about knowing what the right thing to do is, and yet still choosing the war thing. That the film makes Winslet’s war criminal understandable and sympathetic is not a flaw in the film, but rather one of its great strengths. It does not condone her actions, but does indeed explain them. She knows what she is doing is wrong, and yet she does it anyway. Later in the film, the main character faces a similar choice, and again chooses wrongly. Does this make the movie a study in moral relativism? I don’t think so, but it about the choices we make, and the consequences of those choices. Yes, The Reader is certainly a flawed film (perhaps even a deeply flawed film), but it is a film that stays with you as you try to piece together it’s moral puzzle – and that is even more rare than a great film.

9. The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens, 1959)
The best of all the many adaptations of the famed young girl’s diary, George Stevens 1959 is only marred by the bland and ineffectual Millie Perkins in the lead role. The rest of the cast though is exceptional – particularly Joseph Schildkraut as Anne’s father Otto and Shelley Winters as the alternately crude and sad Petronella van Daan. What continues to amaze me about the film is how Stevens was able to essentially keep all the action of the film in one cramped space for nearly three hours, and yet not have the film come across as either boring or too stagebound. The movie truly draws us into to its story, and its characters and devastates us with its all too well known climax.

8. Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987)
There have been many (in fact WAY too many) films about the Holocaust told from the point of view of children, but Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants is far and away the best. At a French boarding school, a sympathetic priest agrees to hide three Jewish students and disguises them as regular students. The film’s main character, Julien, eventually discovers the secret, but by then he has already become good friends with one of the students. There is a key scene in a restaurant, where Julien’s new Jewish friend accompanies his family to dinner, and the French police kick a Jewish patron out. Although there appears to be much moral outrage, and even some backtalk to the police, most of the dinners do nothing. Eventually, the Gestapo will get wind of their being Jewish students at the school, and this is when Julien makes a terrible mistake. Au Revoir, Les Enfants was Malle’s own story – he was Julien, and the events of his childhood were forever etched into his memory, with guilt and remorse. It is an intelligent film – one that allows the children to act like children – sometimes petty and trivial things seem all important. The musical score, especially when the film repeats Julien’s tortured piano playing in comparisons to Jeans, is one of the best, and most memorable, I have ever heard. A truly great film by a master filmmaker.

7. Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982)
Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice is quite simply one of the greatest screen performances in history. She hits pretty much every emotion in this film – not just the scenes of torment that the film is famous for, but also those of joy, confusion and lust. The film is essentially a three person study, opening in Brooklyn in 1947, when a young Southern writer (Peter McNicol) moves to Brooklyn, and immediately befriends his neighbors – Sophie (Streep), a Polish-Catholic immigrant and Nathan (Kevin Kline), a crazed romantic. Only gradually does the film reveal it’s hidden depths, as it flashes back to Sophie’s past and her time at Auschwitz, where upon arrival she has to make the most impossible choice any mother has ever had to. Yet while many concentrate solely on Streep’s performance – and there is no doubt that it is a stunner and completely unforgettable – the film also makes time to make both McNicol’s and Kline’s characters into realistic people as well. The reason why the movie works as well as it does – both in the past and present – is because the characters that it draws are so real, so sympathetic, that you cannot help but love them, no matter what they do.

6. The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar & Elmar Klos, 1965)
Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ film is one of the most underrated of all Holocaust films. It concentrates on a man from Czechoslovakia who is assigned to take over a local business from an eldery Jewish woman once the Nazis have invaded. She thinks he has shown up for a job, and gives him one, because he does not have the heart to tell her the truth. When the Nazis start rounding up the Jews, he tries to protect her, with tragic results. The film is closely observed, quiet and heart breaking. An all but forgotten masterwork.

5. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
Before Roman Polanski became infamous for being a world class filmmaker, having his wife murdered by Charles Manson, and becoming a convicted rapist, he was a Holocaust survivor. It took him decades before he was ready to address the issue head on, which he finally did in 2002 with his Oscar winning film The Pianist. While many of the early scenes are reminiscent of many Holocaust films, even if they are handled much better, the later scenes, which are often wordless, contain a power that is rarely found in film. This is one of Polanski’s best films.

4. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel,, 2005)
Germany has had trouble dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust – just not in their country, but also in their art. Which is what made Oliver Hirschbiegel ‘s 2005 film Downfall such a major event. For one of the first times ever, a German film directly confronted Hitler and his merry men head on. The result is this surreal masterwork, set in the waning days of the war, with Bruno Ganz delivering an amazing performance as Hitler – moving troops around his maps, even if those troops have long since died, yelling and screaming as things start to fall apart. While the film may not directly show any of the camps, their legacy hangs over ever scene. That is what makes Downfall such a masterful film.

3. The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1965)
As a Holocaust survivor now living in Harlem, Rod Steiger gives what could in fact be the best performance of his career. As a German-Jew Professor, he was dragged off to the concentration camps, where he watched his children die, and his wife raped and murdered. He has become numb emotionally, and keeps himself at a distance from everyone in his new home. People try and reach out to him, but he rejects everyone. The film has some thriller elements that do not work as well, but Steiger’s towering performance is quite an accomplishment, and makes The Pawnbroker one of the best films on the subject ever made.

2. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2007)
Paul Verhoeven is probably best known for his hyper sexual, super violent American films like Basic Instict, Robocop, Starship Troopers and Showgirls. But far and away his best film is Black Book, a film he made in his home country of The Netherlands. The film concentrates on a beautiful young Jewish woman (brilliantly played by Carice Van Houten) who disguises herself as a gentile, and seduces a high ranking Nazi officier in order to help the resistence. Everywhere she looks, she finds anti-semetism, bigotry and hated. That she actually falls for the Nazi officier, who is one of the “good ones” makes the movie all the more complex. Black Book is a difficult film, a complex film that is morally ambigious and troubling. It is also a crackerjack thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. It is an amazing film.

1. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Sometimes the most clich├ęd answer is also the best one. Spielberg may go a little overboard at moments (the little girl in the red dress, the shower sequence, Schindler’s tearful final speech, etc), but the bottom line is that no feature film in history has done a better job at capturing the horror of the Holocaust. It’s depictions of the camps, of Amon Goeth’s evil, of Stern’s kindness, or Schindler’s opportunism, even it’s view of the Holocaust as a business, was all amazing. The black and white cinematographer by Janusz Kaminski is wonderful, the production design meticulous, the performances superb. Schindler’s List is one of the best films ever made.

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