Friday, January 18, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

How movies have portrayed the Holocaust

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust," a documentary by Daniel Anker. 92 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. SIFF Cinema, through Thursday.

If a filmmaker depicts unspeakable atrocities of history on screen, are those atrocities by necessity diminished and lessened? Should filmmakers not even try to depict the Holocaust, as their efforts couldn't possibly measure up to its true horror? Is this chapter of history far beyond any traditional narrative form? These are some of the questions examined by Daniel Anker's documentary "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust," a critical and thoughtful look at the way the film industry has depicted the World War II genocide.

Working with a relatively small number of films (narrator Gene Hackman notes that most World War II movies focused on the war in the Pacific and the spirit of American teamwork there), Anker provides a careful and engrossing history. We see early newsreel footage of Nazi book-burning, accompanied by a jovial voice-over that seems to take this no more seriously than a college prank.

In the early 1930s, Hollywood was careful not to offend Nazi Germany. Though there was some early resistance to Hitler, including Hollywood's Anti-Nazi League (we see a brief clip of Melvyn Douglas reading a statement from the group, with Myrna Loy seated next to him), many others were simply afraid to speak out. Even by 1939, we're told, half the cast of the anti-Nazi film "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" refused to have their names in the film's credits.

Film historians in "Imaginary Witness" tell us that of the few films that dared to confront Nazi Germany, many were "written in code" — few used the word "Jew," and many marketing campaigns downplayed war content. Sidney Lumet speaks movingly of his own shock at finally hearing the word "Jew" spoken on screen — in Charles Chaplin's independently financed, daring 1940 satire of Hitler, "The Great Dictator."

After the war, footage of the atrocities was shown widely in theaters in newsreel form. But still, few movies dared to speak boldly — "Crossfire" and "Gentleman's Agreement," two postwar Hollywood films depicting anti-Semitism, didn't use the words "Jew" or "Nazi." "The Diary of Anne Frank," in 1959, de-emphasized Anne's tragic end. And the 1959 television film "Judgment at Nuremberg" made headlines because of an appalling moment of censorship: Its sponsor, the American Gas Company, insisted that the word "gas" (in reference to the ovens at the camps) be bleeped in the broadcast.

"Holocaust," the 1978 TV miniseries, attracted vast audiences, including young people who until now had seen little of this story. But controversy continued: Elie Wiesel, novelist and Holocaust survivor, wrote in The New York Times of his disapproval of the production and how it trivialized the horrors. And Anker's film notes that in Hollywood's biggest Holocaust films of recent decades — "Sophie's Choice" in 1982, "Schindler's List" in 1993 — the heroes have been a Polish Catholic and a Nazi.

Steven Spielberg explains his use of the color red in a brief, unforgettable moment in the otherwise black-and-white "Schindler's List." It symbolized the Holocaust as "a bloodstain on everyone's radar" that was ignored for too long. Anker's film is an important one, shining a light on that red stain and how we saw it filtered through Hollywood's lens.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725


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