‘Shadows of a Distant Nightmare’

Visualizing the Unimaginable Holocaust in Early Documentary Films
  • Larry D. Wilcox


At the end of this terrible Century, we are still haunted by images of continuing inhumane atrocities committed in many parts of our world. However, in spite of the ubiquity of CNN, the most enduring visual images of our Century remain those of the Holocaust, the attempted Nazi genocide against the Jews of Europe and others deemed ‘life unworthy of life’. Robert Abzug has written eloquently about the initial American reactions to the first pictures of the liberated camps in his Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps, and some of his conclusions remain unsettling, even today. He writes, in his final chapters, that ‘the image that news makes of reality is ephemeral; the reality itself remains. Piles of dead, sticks staring at the camera, the deep vacant eyes and emaciated body of the survivor multiplied hundreds of thousands of times — there were the fixed images that stunned Americans, and the realities from which they shrank.’


Concentration Camp Nazi Regime Documentary Film Death Camp International Military Tribunal 
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  1. 2.
    Robert Abzug, Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), quotations from pp.141 and 173. A more recent work by Barbie Zelizer explores the role of photographic images, primarily as reproduced in print media, in analysing how we remember the Holocaust. See Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See, for example, Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp.3–6, where she concludes that ‘The television program Holocaust (1978) heightened awareness of both the historical facts and the problems of how to dramatize them on film. This mini-series took Nazi atrocities out of the province of specialized study and made them a ‘prime-time’ phenomenon with both the benefits of exposure and the drawbacks of distortion. Its case illustrates the rewards and tendencies inherent in films made for mass audiences — from the power of sensitizing, to the danger of romanticizing and trivializing. Indeed, Holocaust must be appreciated for its stimulation of concern, both in America and Europe, but questioned for its manner of presentation — including commercials (for example, it packaged devastating gas chamber scenes into neat 15-minute segments separated by commercials for an air deodorizer and panty shields).’Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    This 76-minute black and white film is now widely available on video, as are many of the films noted in this paper. Obviously, the number of people with televisions in 1946 would have been rather small, so most people probably would have been exposed to such documentaries in public movie theaters, both during and after the war. The best general studies of visual representations of the Holocaust, though none claims comprehensive coverage are, in addition to the Insdorf volume mentioned above, Ilan Avisar, Screening the Holocaust: Cinema’s Images of the Unimaginable (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); andGoogle Scholar
  4. Judith Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1987).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Genocide, written by Martin Gilbert and Rabbi Martin Hier won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1981, and it also generated an anthology edited by Alex Grobman and Daniel Landes, Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust. A Companion to the Film Genocide (Los Angeles: Simon Wiesenthal Center, 1983). Auschwitz and the Allies was a BBC production based on the Martin Gilbert book of the same title. Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah, a decade in the making, used only footage of his interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders, with none of the usual archival footage of the Holocaust.Google Scholar
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    For a critical evaluation by a historian of Schindler’s List and its relationship to other well-known visualizations of the Holocaust, see Orner Bartov, ‘On Heroes and Villains: The Holocaust in Hollywood,’ in his volume of essays, Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp.166–175. See also, Yosefa Loshitzky (ed.), Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
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    For purposes of this discussion, the term ‘Holocaust’ refers to the murder of nearly six million Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany and occupied Europe after 1933, a term interchangeable with ‘Final Solution’ and the Hebrew term ‘Shoah’. Of course, I am aware that the term has a broader application to all atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, including genocidal treatment of other groups deemed ‘life unworthy of life’, such as the handicapped and the Gypsies. For a brief definition of the term, see Uriel Tal in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan, 1990), I, 691: ‘In the course of time it carne to be used to describe slaughter on a general or large scale, and, especially, various forms of the destruction of masses of human beings. In the 1950s the term carne to be applied primarily to the destruction of the Jews of Europe under the Nazi regime,… ‘See also Tal’s more extended discussion of terminology in ‘On the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide,’ Yad Vashem Studies XIII (Jerusalem, 1979): 7–52.Google Scholar
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    Among the best general accounts are Roger Manvell, Films and the Second World War (New York: AJ. Barnes & Co., 1974); andGoogle Scholar
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  11. George H. Roeder, Jr., The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
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    Among the most useful general guides to films from the war period are the following: Larry Langman and Ed Borg, ed., Encyclopedia of American War Films (New York: Garland, 1989);Google Scholar
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  14. Nicholas Pronay, British Official Films in the Second World War: A Descriptive Guide (Santa Barbara: Clio Press, 1980); andGoogle Scholar
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    Yehuda Bauer in the introduction to Sheba F. Skirball, Films of the Holocaust: An Annotated Filmography of Collections in Israel (New York: Garland, 1990), xxiv. This guide to films and film footage held in the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive annotates over 1000 entries in 23 different languages. Another useful guide has been compiled byGoogle Scholar
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    Of course, much visual evidence is available in the form of photos documenting Jewish life before the Holocaust, for example those taken by Roman Vishniac in Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, a selection of which are now available in a volume edited by Marion Wiesel, To Give Them Light: The Legacy of Roman Vishniac (New York: Viking, 1993). These might be compared to the later photos of a youngGoogle Scholar
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  21. 18.
    For example, see the very sympathetic treatment, with detailed information on this nearly two hour film, by Richard Barsam, Filmguide to Triumph of the Will (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975). More critical general treatments of film propaganda in the Third Reich are provided byGoogle Scholar
  22. David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983);Google Scholar
  23. David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema, 1933–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), andGoogle Scholar
  24. Hilmar Hoffmann, The Triumph of Propaganda: Film and National Socialism, 1933–1945 (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1996). Riefenstahl’s own view of her work on this film can be found in her autobiography, Leni Reifenstahl: A Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), especially pp. 156–166.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    On the Deutsche Wochenschauen, see Welch, pp.191–203, as well as Robert E. Herzstein, The War That Hitler Won: The Greatest Propaganda Campaign in History (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978), pp.223–257. Welch also discusses the two named feature films, directed respectively by Veit Harlan and Fritz Hippler, in a section titled ‘The Image of the Jew’, pp.280–306.Google Scholar
  26. 22.
    On British documentary and wartime films, see the following: Paul Swann, The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926–1946 (Cambridge University Press, 1989);Google Scholar
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  29. 24.
    Sources on Capra are numerous, one of the most recent being Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). Capra’s own account of his career, including his stint in the war, is not very reliable, Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title (New York: Macmillan, 1971).Google Scholar
  30. 26.
    The complete narration of four of these films, including the first three in which the Nazis are featured, is provided in the appendix of Charles Burgess Ewing, An Analysis of Frank Capra’s War Rhetoric in the ‘Why We Fight’ Series (Unpublished dissertation, Washington State University, 1983). The quotes in the text are from pp.135 and 150.Google Scholar
  31. 30.
    Doherty, pp.213–216, discusses this effort to distribute a more positive film view of black Americans to all movie theaters, not just segregated black theaters, but he also notes the suppression of this film by censorship boards in the South. See also the favorable analysis of this film by Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, ‘The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White’, in Peter C. Rollins, ed., Hollywood as Historian: American Film in Cultural Context (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983; revised edition, 1998). Carlton Moss, one of the writers for the film, played the black preacher reading from Mein Kampf, as well as narrating the footage illustrating the role of blacks in American history.Google Scholar
  32. 31.
    On the creation of such visual documents from a US perspective, see the excellent study by Peter Maslowski, Armed With Cameras: The American Military Photographers of World War II (New York: The Free Press, 1993). Maslowski’s father was one of those American cameramen.Google Scholar
  33. 34.
    See Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp.247–249. He notes that the first such footage was shown publicly on April 26, 1945, in an Art-Kino one reeler entitled Nazi Atrocities. The best account of American reactions to such revelations about the concentration camps can be found in the Robert H. Abzug study noted at the beginning of this essay, i.e., Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps. This study also includes a generous selection of visual images from American photographers, images that had, in his view, a profound impact: ‘Most of these scenes were recorded by Allied cameramen at the liberations, and their dissemination in April and May 1945 marked a turning point in Western consciousness. A visceral tremor passed through those who witnessed scenes of the camps in the darkness of movie theatres or at home in newspapers and magazines. Some cried, some were sick, others were simply stunned to silence,’ pp.ix–x. However, he also notes at the end of his study that some people tried to avoid viewing this gruesome evidence of Nazi atrocities, e.g., ‘as the first films of the liberated camps were shown, many people walked out of theaters all over England rather than witness the horrors of the camps. At one cinema in London’s Leicester Square and apparently at others in smaller towns and cities, British and other Allied soldiers blocked the exits and told the fleeing patrons to return to their seats.’ (p.172)Google Scholar
  34. 41.
    On this point see the detailed article of Douglas Lawrence, ‘Film as Witness: Screening Nazi Concentration Camps Before the Nuremberg Tribunal’, Yale Law Journal, CV-2 (November 1995), 449–481.Google Scholar
  35. 45.
    See, for example, Roeder, The Uncensored War, p. 127, on this April 1945 visit, during which Patton got sick while viewing the camp. Eisenhower must have been a believer in Visual documentation’ because ‘only by seeing could the true but unbelievable become credible.’ He pushed hard for maximum publicity on the camps, including sponsoring camp visits by groups of journalists and congressional delegations. See, for example, his cable of 19 April 1945 to General Marshall: ‘We continue to uncover German concentration camps for political prisoners in which conditions of indescribable horror prevail. I have visited one of these myself and I assure you that whatever has been printed on them to date has been Understatement. If you would see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple of C-54’s, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps. I am hopeful that some British individuate in similar categories will visit the northern area to witness similar evidence of atrocity.’ See Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (ed.), The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, The War Years: IV (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), p.2623.Google Scholar
  36. 47.
    The Allies also edited concentration camp footage for viewing, forced or otherwise, by German audiences. David Culbert, ‘American Film Policy,’ discusses several example, including the fifth issue of the Anglo-American newsreel for occupied Germany, Welt Im Film, released on 15 June 1945; and a twenty-two minute documentary, entitled Todesmühlen, released to German theatres in early January 1946 by OMGUS. He summarizes the negative reactions of German audiences to this ‘hammer-and-tongs assault’ and he concludes that ‘as a re-education device, Todesmühlen was a failure’ (p. 179). The English version of this film, which I have viewed, would be released in March 1946 as Death Mills, but it is unclear how widely this film was viewed inside inside or outside of Germany. For a more recent brief discussion of the difficulties encountered in making this documentary see Brewster Chamberlin, ‘Death Mills: An Early American Attempt at Mass “Reeducation” in Occupied Germany, 1945–46,’ in George O. Kent (ed.), Historians and Archivists: Essays in Modern German History and Archival Policy (Fairfax, Virginia, 1996). He also concludes that this film failed to achieve its major objectives: ‘While the majority of the Germans exposed to the film readily admitted that the atrocities had been committed and that this was evil behavior, almost none of them admitted that they felt or should feel any sense of personal or collective guilt’ and ‘the makers of “Death Mills” perhaps believed too thoroughly in the idea that the film medium can alter people’s minds in any fundamental way’ (pp.244, 245).Google Scholar
  37. 52.
    Lorentz was best known for his two New Deal films, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). See, for example, Pare Lorentz, FDR’S Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts (Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  38. 58.
    The best known, and perhaps most widely discussed, early documentary film of the ‘concentration camp universe’ plays down the special role of the Jews in this Nazi created hell. Alain Resnas’ Night and Fog, released in 1955, has been the subject of much discussion in film history literature. For example, see the useful article by Charles Krantz, ‘Teaching Night and Fog: History and Historiography,’ Film and History, XV–1 (February 1985), 2–15, as well as Avisar’s discussion, pp.6–18, in which this author discounts the criticism that Resnais, and his scriptwriter, Jean Cayrol, ‘ignored the causal core of the concentration camp universe, namely, the attempted genocide of the Jews’ (p. 15). One of the most recent discussions of Resnais’ can be found inGoogle Scholar
  39. William Rothman, Documentary Film Classics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), chapter III. Other serious documentary treatments of the Holocaust before the late 1970s are hard to find, but any list should include Erwin Leiser’s film biography of Hitler in Mein Kampf (1959) and the BBC production of Warsaw Ghetto (1968), as well as the films byCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Marcel Ophuls, The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) and The Memory of Justice (1976). As indicated earlier, I find the World at War version of Genocide (1974) a useful film for classes at the university level. Most of my students find this film more comprehensible than Night and Fog because it takes a more straight forward historical approach, but I also find this film valuable because it focuses specifically on the development of the Nazi racist policies that led to the Holocaust. In addition this film, and the series of which it is a part, illustrates the increasing reliance on witness testimony to enhance the available visual footage of the Holocaust, by now a standard technique in most historical documentaries on more recent periods.Google Scholar
  41. 63.
    I have taught a course entitled ‘World War II on Film’ for over a decade at the University of Toledo, a course emphasizing careful viewing and critical analysis of documentary films on various aspects of that war. A paper presented on this topic at the 1995 Siena College World War II Conference, Did the ‘Real War’ Get Into the Pictures?’, included in a volume of essays edited by Thomas O. Kelly, III, World War II: Variants and Visions (1999).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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  • Larry D. Wilcox

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