The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Kristallnacht on Film: From Reportage to Reenactments, 1938–1948

Lawrence Baron
San Diego State University



One of the most significant examples of Nazi violence against the Jews in Germany and Austria before the war has lacked a cinematic record, that is an immediate filmed confirmation of the events. Yet Kristallnacht moved public opinion, enabling Franklin Delano Roosevelt to recall the American ambassador to Berlin and encouraging Hollywood to consider the production of anti-Nazi films.

In the absence of original footage from Kristallnacht, newsreels, documentaries, and feature films have employed several techniques to represent the November Pogrom. American and British newsreels initially featured political and religious figures condemning the violence, the resettlement of Jewish refugees, or stills of broken windows of Jewish shops. After the outbreak of World War II, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) narrowly focused on how the pogrom depicted in the film affected its Jewish protagonist. The anti-Nazi French propaganda film Après Mein Kampf, mes crimes! (1940) intercut footage of the 1933 boycott, a still of a pillaged Jewish store, doctored pre-1938 photos of a Berlin synagogue with dramatizations of the Vom Rath assassination and Kristallnacht. Subsequent documentaries misconstrued these reenactments for authentic footage of the event. Images from the war and its atrocities overshadowed Kristallnacht in American wartime propaganda films, whereas Jewish advocacy and fundraising films devoted more attention to its significance in the evolution of Hitler’s plan to eradicate European Jewry. The postwar German film Marriage in the Shadows (1947) presented the first realistic dramatization of the pillaging of German Jewish shops and pummeling of a Jewish owner. Further dramatizations of Kristallnacht were not attempted in feature films until the 40th anniversary of the pogrom. The documentaries made in the interim relied on photographs, footage of the SA boycott of Jewish businesses and the book burnings, the staged scenes from Après Mein Kampf, mes crimes!, footage of analogous events, or survivor interviews to depict Kristallnacht. It was only with the discovery of German home movies of Kristallnacht that authentic footage of the rampage appeared in documentaries made in 1988 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the pogrom. Reality and visual confirmation had belatedly converged to present the brutal reality of Kristallnacht fifty years after the fact. Tracing the evolution of these images alerts both filmmakers and audiences that reenactments can become mistaken for actuality with the passage of time and repeated use without attribution. 


Keywords   documentaries / Kristallnacht / newsreels / propaganda films / reenactments


“A Dearth of Film Footage”

The term Kristallnacht conjures up sounds of crackling fires and shattering glass and images of pillaged Jewish homes and stores, synagogues ablaze, and Jewish men marched off to concentration camps. Such a repository of aural and visual associations draws on contemporary news articles and photographs, radio broadcasts, the testimony of eyewitnesses, and subsequent fictional and historical reconstructions of what transpired on November 9 and 10, 1938 in Germany and the Greater Reich. Until the postwar discovery of amateur movies of Kristallnacht in the towns of Bielefeld and Buehl, often overlooked is the fact that there was no film footage of the rampage itself (“Synagogues Burn”).1  

With the notable exceptions of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and the permission to film granted to American filmmaker Julien Bryan in 1937, Joseph Goebbels had prohibited foreign camera crews from operating independently in Germany after newsreel coverage of the SA (Sturmabteilung) boycott of Jewish businesses and the burning of books in 1933 had tarnished the Nazi regime’s international reputation (Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler 281–92). Regarding the savagery unleashed on Kristallnacht, the Ministry of Propaganda ordered the German press to “take no pictures for the time being” (Hesse 138). While some perpetrators, onlookers, and foreign journalists ignored this directive, the Ministry of Propaganda released for publication abroad only a handful of stills consisting primarily of German passersby surveying the damage inflicted on Jewish stores or of their owners sweeping up broken glass from the sidewalks (Hesse 137–38). The Associated Press managed to smuggle out pictures shot by its photographers via Copenhagen and then wired them to London and New York. The most damning photo showed local firefighters hosing down a presumably German-owned structure attached to the rear of the smoldering synagogue on Prinzregentenstrasse in Berlin (Domeier 98).2 Unfortunately, there was no film of Kristallnacht comparable to such graphic stills. Representatives of the major American newsreels met on November 18, 1938 in New York to produce a joint exposé of the recent outburst of Nazi anti-Semitism, but realized they were severely handicapped by “a dearth of film footage available to make a vigorous presentation to the public” (Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler 290).

The first newsreels about Kristallnacht focused on the American protests it elicited. For example, Movietone News issued a segment titled “America Condemns Nazi Terrorism” as part of its November 1938 episode.  It featured footage of President Roosevelt sitting silently behind his desk while promulgating “a statement without precedent speaking out against the persecution of minorities in Germany” (“America Condemns”).

Ex-President Herbert Hoover and former presidential candidates Al Smith and Alf Landon echoed Roosevelt’s outrage. Hoover explicitly denounced “the terrible persecution of the Jews” along with “attacks against the Christian faith” (“America Condemns”). The equivalence he drew between the two typified how mainstream American political and religious leaders and organizations cast their denunciations in ecumenical terms to broaden the popular revulsion against Nazi human rights abuses (Dollinger 41–49)

Similarly, the Universal Newsreel dated November 16, 1938 shows Roosevelt, Hoover, and prominent clergymen censuring the assault on German Jewry (“FDR Leads”).

After Roosevelt appears, four seconds of stills of vandalized Jewish storefronts culled from the photographs Germany cleared for foreign distribution were inserted. The next edition of the Universal Newsreel reported on the Madison Square Garden rally attended by 22,000 people where Rabbi Stephen Wise declared, “American Jews are resolved, together with all other racial and religious groups in American life, to safeguard the equal rights of Jews, at home and abroad” (“Madison Square”).  

Within a month, the news of German Jews emigrating to free countries superseded coverage of Kristallnacht. The March of Time devoted its December 1938 edition to “The Refugee−Today and Tomorrow” (1938). Owned by Henry Luce’s media empire, the series was classified as “pictorial journalism” by the movie industry’s Production Code Administration (PCA). This exempted it from the PCA guideline to portray “the history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations fairly.” In practice that particular PCA stricture as applied between 1934 and 1938 meant avoiding overt criticism of Germany to discourage its banning the distribution of American films produced by whatever studio dared to offend Hitler’s regime (Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler 40–59; Urwand 44–95). The March of Time combined dramatizations, editorial commentary, and newsreel footage. Luce defended the staged reenactments as “fakery in the allegiance to the truth” (Barnouw 121).   

The March of Time’s status as journalism enabled it to promote a more avowedly anti-fascist stance than contemporaneous studio feature films were able to do. The January 1938 episode “Inside Nazi Germany” castigated Hitler’s regime and warned audiences about the domestic danger posed by the German American Bund (Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler 237–58; Fielding 186–201).3

Although the narrator of “The Refugee−Today and Tomorrow” does not directly refer to the November Pogrom, he clearly alludes to it by characterizing those fleeing Nazi Germany as victims “not of warfare, but of an intolerance and persecution unparalleled since the Dark Ages” (“The Refugee”). He declares, “Determined to drive all Jews from their professions and businesses, storm troopers and the dreaded secret police have pursued and hounded every Jewish shopkeeper” (“The Refugee”). Reflecting how the destruction of Jewish property and the atonement fine diminished the prospects of now impoverished German Jews to find havens in other countries, he points out, “Through systematic confiscation, Hitler is making sure that every Jew leaving Nazi Germany departs a helpless pauper” (“The Refugee”).  

Germany’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the start of World War II eclipsed references to Kristallnacht and Jewish suffering under Nazi rule in the newsreels produced in 1939. After the German invasion of Poland, the United Jewish Appeal for Jewish Refugees and Overseas Needs on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee, the United Palestine Appeal, and the National Refugee Service produced a fundraising film titled “Humanity Calls” (1939).

During its opening scenes, the narrator proclaims, “Today Jewry faces one of the most terrible ordeals in its long history of persecution and martyrdom. Not since Titus destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 and scattered the Jewish people over the face of the earth has the future been so dark and tragic” (“Humanity Calls”).4 As he utters these words, filmed images of the vandalized Jewish storefronts that appeared as stills in the Universal newsreel about the American protests against Kristallnacht flash across the screen. 

Highlighting the severity of the Jewish refugee crisis resulting from Germany’s persecution of its Jews and expansion into neighboring countries, “Humanity Calls” includes footage of expelled Jews from the Austrian province of Burgenland in an encampment on the Bohemia-Moravian border following the Anschluss (Zalmon).5 Although the narrator fails to mention this background information, viewers aware of the sequence of events that culminated in Kristallnacht probably misconstrued this footage as taken in Zbaszyn where Polish Jews deported from Germany in late October 1938 eked out an existence in a makeshift transit camp because Poland initially denied them entry into the interior of the country. The dual injustices of this latter expulsion and the deprivation they faced in Zbaszyn prompted Herschel Grynszpan, the son of a family confined there, to assassinate the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris on November 7, 1938. The Nazis perceived the murder as part of an international Jewish conspiracy against the German people and cited it as the pretext for collectively punishing the Jews with the wave of violence Goebbels and Hitler instigated on Kristallnacht (Kirsch 97–118; Schwab 43–76).

The First Anti-Nazi Feature Films 

The advent of the war in Europe and Roosevelt’s materiel support of Great Britain led to the PCA’s decision to grant its seal of approval to anti-Nazi motion pictures. Several of the anti-Nazi Hollywood films of 1940 obliquely touched upon the tribulations German Jews had endured during the Thirties. While substituting the term non-Aryan for Jew, The Mortal Storm (1940) features a scene of storm troopers burning proscribed books after walking out of their non-Aryan professor’s class to protest his assertion that there is no difference between Aryan and non-Aryan blood. The early scripts of the film were faithful to the novel on which it was based in stressing the Jewishness of the professor and the anti-Semitic animosity directed towards him, but Louis B. Mayer of MGM insisted on a more generic treatment of the issue (Pogorelskin 41–5). The Man I Married (1940) replicates the photos of Viennese Jews forced to scrub sidewalks after the Anschluss but identifies them as imported Czech laborers being punished for Czech attacks on ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland. Escape (1940) chronicles how the American son of a dissident German actress smuggles her out of a concentration camp (Krohn 212–24). Though set in 1936, the mother sarcastically asks the camp doctor, “Will my audience cry or will they yawn and say, ‘This was a bad performance? Now the day they burned a synagogue was much more fun’” (Escape). Loosely based on Martin Niemoeller’s sermons against Nazi doctrine and his ensuing incarceration in a concentration camp in 1937, the British film Pastor Hall (1940) evokes the recent memory of the anti-Semitic riots that swept Germany in 1938 with a scene of Stormtroopers wrecking the shop of the only Jew who resides in the pastor’s hometown (Insdorf 250–51).     

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator constitutes the exception to the circumspect depictions of Nazi anti-Semitism in the Hollywood films released in 1940. It revolves around a struggle of a Jewish barber and his co-religionists against the anti-Semitic regime of his doppelgänger and Hitler-lookalike, Adenoid Hynkel. Chaplin, who co-founded United Artists, was not deterred by Germany’s policy of prohibiting the distribution of all of a studio’s creations as a reprisal for producing an anti-Nazi film since United Artist productions had stopped exporting its productions there in 1933. When Chaplain contemplated shelving the project in early 1939, President Roosevelt encouraged him to complete it (Urwand 204–206). Even the stringent PCA chief Joseph Breen spared The Great Dictator from extensive cuts because “the picture was so fine a piece of great screen art that to intrude with what is hardly more than a technical violation of our regulations seems to be small and picayune” (Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor 216).  

The film portrays a gamut of anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by Stormtroopers, from painting “Jew” on the window of the barber’s shop, stealing Jewish produce, trying to hang the barber from a lamppost, and smashing storefront windows. When Hynkel launches into a radio tirade in which “straf” (punish) and ghetto are intelligible words, Stormtroopers stride through the ghetto singing an Aryan anthem, breaking windows, overturning pushcarts, and firing guns into the air. They stop at the courtyard where the barber lives to avenge his earlier scuffle with them, but desist when one of them recalls the barber’s former commanding officer Schultz had ordered them not to harm him. Upon learning that Schultz had been arrested for being a friend of the ghetto, the camera metaphorically focuses on a canary in a cage as the sounds of shattering glass, screams, and shots echo in the background. The barber and his girlfriend Hannah retreat to the roof of their tenement as a bomb explodes, and smoke and flames rise from the barber’s shop. While this scene evokes the attacks on Jewish homes and shops during Kristallnacht, it implies that the violence was localized and motivated by a personal vendetta against the barber rather than a coordinated attack on the Jews throughout Germany. 

Reenactment as Documentary: Après Mein Kampf, mes Crimes! par Adolf Hitler 

The French anti-Nazi documentary (1940) Après Mein Kampf, mes crimes! par Adolf Hitler, directed by Polish-born Alexandre Ryder and financed by the Tunisian-born Jewish producer Jacques Haik, offers a more sustained recounting of Kristallnacht despite committing a number of factual errors. Released in March of 1940, three months before Germany’s invasion of France, its prologue designated the movie as an indictment of Hitler’s crimes (Mitchell 16–17). Like The March of Time, it employs the common practice of the period of combining newsreel and stock footage with dramatic reenactments (Beattie 10–43; Nichols 34–5). Thus, it restages the 1934 Night of the Long Knives and the 1938 siege of Cardinal Innitzer’s residence in Vienna, as well as tracing the escalation of Hitler’s aggressive foreign and military policies. Contemporary audiences were aware that many scenes were dramatizations because the credits enumerate the names of the actors who appeared in them (“Après Mein Kampf, mes crimes: revue presse”).     

More pertinent to this essay, the film dramatizes Herschel Grynszpan’s assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris, but attributes it to a Jewish seventeen-year-old named Ernst hiding in a tailor’s workshop. Anxious about the fate of his deported family and enraged by the iniquities inflicted on Jews in general, he heeds his uncle’s call to murder an Obergruppenführer named Berger with the intent of sparking a Jewish revolt. Ernst is apprehended before he can fire a shot and beaten to death by a mob. Incensed Stormtroopers smash the windows of Jewish owned stores with German civilians seizing the opportunity to loot items from their showcase windows and shelves (Fig. 1). 

Synagogues are burned down, and Jewish hospital patients are ordered to stand at attention despite their frailty. One of them collapses. The government marches Jewish men off to concentration camps, withholds insurance payments for damages, and imposes an “atonement” fine on the Jewish community. The narrator describes the orgy of violence portrayed on the screen as a “pogrom under the guise of retaliation” (Après Mein Kampf).    

As accurate history Après Mein Kampf has many shortcomings. Both the names of the perpetrator and the victim are wrong. Grynszpan acted to raise international concern about the plight of the deported Polish Jews rather than to foment Jewish resistance. In the film the assassination is carried out in Germany where a spontaneous pogrom erupts and spreads throughout the country, substantiating the official German explanation that it was not organized and sanctioned by the government. Notwithstanding instances of localized or popular violence against German Jews and their institutions in the two days between the wounding of Vom Rath and his death, the consensus among historians is that Goebbels, with the approval of Hitler, mobilized party members, the SA, the Hitler Youth, and enraged civilians to attack Jewish property and terrorize Jews nationally after Vom Rath died (Gilbert 23–41; Steinweis16–55). The clips of the marking of Jewish businesses and Stormtroopers agitating from the back of trucks come from newsreels of the SA boycott in 1933.

The sequence of burning synagogues commences with a photograph of the façade of the Grand Synagogue of Paris and falling buttresses from an unnamed structure. It segues into frames of flames and smoke superimposed on a photograph of the Fasanenstrasse synagogue’s sanctuary in Berlin and concludes with footage of unidentified structures ablaze in the night. The unidentified structures may well have come from Julien Bryan’s documentary Siege (1940), which featured scenes of the conflagrations ignited by incendiary bombing raids on Warsaw. A close examination of the Fasanenstrasse synagogue’s interior reveals that the picture was taken prior to Kristallnacht because the pews and decorative patterns on the balconies are still intact, and there is no overt damage to the sanctuary or debris scattered on its floor (Fig. 2).6 

When viewed today, however, the image evokes the iconic photograph of the gutted sanctuary taken in 1941 (Ebbrecht-Hartmann 14).    

Nevertheless, Après Mein Kampf discloses more about Kristallnacht, including the lesser known episode about the SA tormenting Jewish hospital patients in Nuremberg, than other contemporary anti-Nazi documentaries (Steinweis 74). A copy of it was brought to Great Britain and reedited by Norman Lee into a shorter English version released under the title After Mein Kampf?-The Story of Adolf Hitler. It acknowledges that some of the scenes are “authentic reconstructions” (After Mein Kampf). The English version understandably dwells more on Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy and appends material about the invasions of Poland and France and the Battle of Britain. Of the original eight minutes chronicling Kristallnacht from the French film, only thirty seconds remained in the English version.

This extract hurriedly shows store windows daubed with the word “Jude,” the wreckage after the pogrom, the assessment of the atonement fine, and the internment of Jewish men illustrated with a shuttered storefront bearing the message: “Ist In Dachau” (Is in Dachau). The narrator erroneously states that these men were interned for allegedly committing acts of resistance, instead of as hostages as was really the case.  The American edition of After Mein Kampf: The Story of Adolf Hitler faced further bowdlerization by the PCA which objected to the derogatory characterizations of Hitler and other Nazi leaders and by the Pennsylvania State Board of Censorship, which deleted the film’s sections on Nazi anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht altogether (Slide 104–5).  

Allied War-Time Propaganda, Jewish Advocacy Films, and Nuremberg Trial Documentaries   

Wartime advocacy films produced by Jewish organizations and wartime propaganda films about Nazi Germany and postwar documentaries about the Nuremberg Trials made by the Allies place Kristallnacht in the broader context of Nazi anti-Semitic policies in the case of the former and of Nazi war crimes in the case of the latter. During the war, Allied propaganda films depicted the battlefield and home fronts, extolled the heroism of their soldiers and indigenous resistance movements, inveighed against the militarism and totalitarianism of their enemies, and publicized verified atrocities like the Lidice massacre committed by the German occupiers of Czechoslovakia (Casey 64–5). Since Kristallnacht occurred before the war, it received little attention in the media produced by the Allies beyond citing it as part of a litany of injustices ascribed to the Third Reich. Issued as the first entry in the Why We Fight series, Prelude to War (1942) dedicates a section to the suppression of religion in Nazi Germany.

This segment features staged footage of rocks thrown through a church’s stained glass window revealing a portrait of Hitler behind it, a clip of Alfred Rosenberg prophesizing the end of German Catholicism and Protestantism, and newspaper stories about the Nazi arrest of dissident Christian clergy including the arrest of, ministers, nuns, and priests. 

Included in these images documenting the Nazi onslaught is footage of flames superimposed on a stone Star of David atop a Berlin synagogue burned in 1934, the marking of a Jewish storefront during the SA boycott, and a headline about Kristallnacht from the Salt Lake City Tribune reading “Nazis Vent Rage on Jews-Riots All Over Germany-Mobs Kill, Loot and Burn” (Prelude to War). 

The relegation of the Jews to one of many ethnic, political, or religious groups that suffered persecution under Hitler hewed closely to federal propaganda guidelines, directing American films to emphasize that the war was being fought on behalf of all of Hitler’s victims in defense of democracy. Government officials in the Offices of Censorship and War Information feared that singling Jews out for special sympathy might be cited by Goebbels as proof that Hollywood’s Jewish movie moguls had manipulated Roosevelt into entering the conflict with the Third Reich (Doneson 44–7).  

On the other hand, advocacy films produced by Jewish organizations drew more attention to the fatal onslaught on European Jews and treated the persecution of German Jewry in the 1930s as preparation for an attempt to exterminate them throughout the continent. The narrator of United Palestine Appeal’s film “They Find a Home” (1941) does not mince words about Hitler’s intent: “With the assumption of control by the Nazi leader, there was initiated an anti-Semitic program aimed at the destruction of Jewish existence.”

What follows is the familiar boycott footage of Stormtroopers yelling from trucks that Germans should stop patronizing Jewish businesses, standing in front of Jewish stores to intimidate customers from shopping there, or painting “Jude” or Stars of David on their display windows. Amidst these images, an American newspaper headline about Kristallnacht reads, “Nazi Mobs Loot, Burn, and Murder.” The narrator informs audiences that Jewish businesses were liquidated and “synagogues reduced to blackened ruins” (“They Find”). Unattributed scenes of burning buildings illustrate the arson spree. Summarizing the Nazi campaign against the Jews, the narrator intones: “Blacklist, boycott, pogrom—every weapon was utilized to rid Germany of its Jews” (“They Find”). The remainder of the film identifies Palestine as the safest haven for Jews fleeing their Nazi tormentors.  

In “They Live Again” (1943), the Jewish women’s service organizations Hadassah and Junior Hadassah appealed for donations to support their youth Aliyah program for emigration to Palestine by stressing that Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe faced death if they could not extricate themselves from the clutches of the Germans.

The appeal opens with a brief clip of a burning building followed by the window-smashing scene from Après Mein Kampf, but erroneously dates it as occurring in 1933. The boycott and book burning newsreels are introduced with the latter transitioning into footage of buildings on fire. The provenance of this footage is not explicitly stated. It might have been excerpted from newsreels of the infernos caused by the London Blitz since the film’s credits list British Pathé as one source of the clips featured in the film. It also could have been extracted without attribution from the German weekly newsreel Die Deutsche Wochenschau documenting the occupation of Riga in July 1941. It contained footage of a synagogue in flames claiming that the fire was set by outraged Latvians as a reprisal against “Jewish” communists blamed for the mass execution of Latvian nationalists (“Occupation of Riga”; Ebbrecht 39). Shortly after this scene, “They Live Again” juxtaposes a photo of what appears to be the intact Great Synagogue in Danzig appended with footage of the remnants of a synagogue dome where several workers sift through the rubble (Danzig 7–8, 11). The narrator comments, “The synagogue was besmirched because the synagogue honored justice and brotherhood” (“They Live”).  The rest of the film focuses on a group of Polish Jewish children who trekked through the Soviet Union to get to Palestine but ended up stranded in Tehran. Youth Aliyah was working to transfer them to Palestine (Dekel).   

The horrific footage of the corpses, crematoria, gas chambers, warehouses of confiscated belongings, and skeletal survivors shot by Allied camera crews as they liberated concentration and death camps overshadowed Kristallnacht in the first documentaries about Nazi crimes against humanity. For example, the Oscar-winning short documentary “Hitler Lives” (1945) directed by Don Siegel dwells on the gruesome images of the atrocities perpetrated in the camps.

While it never mentions Kristallnacht, it warns Americans not to succumb to domestic demagogues who scapegoat minority groups by staging two scenes of hooligans ransacking Jewish grocery stores reminiscent of Kristallnacht.

Similarly, documentaries about the Nuremberg Trials barely address Kristallnacht. The charges leveled against the defendants stipulated that their crimes had to have been committed in more than one country in conjunction with the waging of the European-wide war. Consequently, participation in Kristallnacht did not qualify as a separate offense by the International Criminal Tribunal even though illegal acts committed as part of it were tried by German courts (Steinweis 148–60). Nonetheless, Allied prosecutors linked the pogrom to the plan to exterminate European Jewry. Omitting direct reference to the Jews or Kristallnacht, the Soviet documentary Nuremberg Trials aka Judgement of the Nations (1946) subsumes the Jewish dead under their national citizenship or as generic victims of fascism. Knowledgeable viewers can identify Jews as the owners of the stores designated as Jewish by Stormtroopers boycotting them in the iconic newsreel footage of the 1933 event (Hicks 203–204). 

The American documentary Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today aka Nuremberg (1948) was screened in the Western occupation zones but withdrawn from American distribution to avoid antagonizing West Germany as it emerged as an American ally in the Cold War.

The Allied prosecution acknowledges that the “greatest crime against humanity that the Nazis committed was against the Jews,” but only refers to the pogrom in relation to Goering utilizing it as an excuse to impose the billion mark fine (Nuremberg: Its Lesson). 

German Films Made in the Allied Occupation Zones

Before East and West Germany became sovereign countries in 1949, a few filmmakers in the Allied occupation zones began the process of reckoning with the legacy of Nazi rule. Two of them reconstructed how Kristallnacht was experienced by German Gentiles and Jews. The one emanating from the British occupation zone portrayed the pogrom as one of the hardships Germans, whether Gentile or Jewish, experienced under the Third Reich. The other from the Soviet zone depicted Kristallnacht as a turning point foreshadowing the fate of the Jews.

Helmut Käutner’s In Those Days aka Seven Journeys (1947) was the first postwar feature film to simulate the violence of Kristallnacht. Produced in the British occupation zone of Germany, it approaches the impact of Hitler’s reign through seven vignettes about the owners of the same car manufactured on the day Hitler became Chancellor and salvaged for parts in a junkyard by two men amidst the devastated landscape of defeated Germany. The car narrates the personal crises its owners underwent to preserve their humanity “in those days.” The stories foreground intimate dilemmas like the resolution of love triangles and place the Nazi past in the background. In one vignette a presumably Jewish woman Sally contemplates divorcing her Gentile husband Wilhelm to shield him and the shop she had transferred to his ownership from the retribution both might incur due to her stigmatized origins. Though they speak about the white letters daubed on storefronts and the decree prohibiting her from driving a car, the word Jew is neither spoken nor seen. It can be inferred because the window of one of the affected stores indicates its owner is Nathan Levy. The couple decides to stay together and return to town where they witness adolescent males in uniforms resembling those of the Hitler Youth smashing windows. They hear that the boys have been brought there from elsewhere. Some passersby join the rampage. Rather than let the mob destroy his store, Wilhelm heaves a rock through its front window. The next scene occurs outside the couple’s country cottage where the police discover that Sally and Wilhelm have committed suicide ironically by turning on the gas from their stove and shutting the doors and windows. Their self-sacrifice for the sake of love merges with the victimization of other decent Germans whose lives were disrupted or taken by Nazi barbarism (Shandley 51–64).

In stark contrast to In Those Days’s sanitized recreation of Kristallnacht, Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows (1947) replicates the pogrom as a disturbing combination of vandalism organized by the SA, looting by civilians, and sporadic beatings countenanced by police under orders not to intervene. The heroine Elizabeth—who the audience does not initially know is Jewish—is excluded from a seaside resort and subsequently from practicing her profession as an actress due to her religious origins. To afford her protection from further persecution, Hans, a Gentile actor, marries her and insists that she no longer go out in public, reducing her flat to a ghetto. Their marriage stems from moral solidarity and not from mutual passion since both are attracted to other lovers. After delivering a bravura performance, Hans visits his alluring female co-star. From her apartment, he hears the shattering of glass and runs out to the street to investigate the tumult and witnesses rioters breaking shop doors and windows with axes and then looting them. 

When he asks a policeman to intervene to help a Jewish storeowner from being beaten, the officer refuses.  

Shocked by the brutality and destruction left in the wake of the rioters, he goes to comfort Elizabeth and convinces her to remain with him to assure her safety. By 1943 the deportations of the Jews left in Germany dash this hope and prompt the couple to poison themselves.  

Although produced under Soviet auspices, Maetzig’s film is more melodramatic than ideological. For him, it was a deeply personal project because his Jewish mother had committed suicide after his Gentile father had divorced her. Like Elizabeth, Maetzig had been dismissed from the Reich Film Chamber in 1937 because his mother was Jewish. He based the movie’s plot on the more uplifting response of actor Joachim Gottschalk to Nazi demands that he divorce his Jewish wife Meta Wolff or face conscription and the deportation of her and their son to Theresienstadt. Rather than comply, they all committed suicide. Marriage in the Shadows was the only film the Allies allowed to be screened in all four sectors of Berlin. While millions of German viewers were drawn to the film’s star-crossed love story and the attachment to German culture expressed by the Jewish characters, its condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht were impossible to ignore. Perhaps Soviet atheism accounts for Maetzig’s omission of the burning of the synagogues in the Kristallnacht scene (Shandley 81–90).   

From Reenactments to Found Footage 

By 1947 the cinematic and photographic iconography of Kristallnacht had been established. Merely showing stills or moving pictures of mob violence against Jewish businesses, dwellings, or burning synagogues evoked the calamitous event for viewers although these images were not shot during Kristallnacht. For example, G. W. Pabst’s The Trial from 1948 is about a Hungarian ritual murder charge and trial in 1882 and 1883, but its fabricated scene of frenzied villagers descending upon a synagogue to wreak havoc by setting it on fire surely conjured up the specter of Kristallnacht among some Austrians and Germans (Prümm 200; Silverman 221–22) 

Documentary filmmakers, however, still labored under the illusion that the Kristallnacht scene from Après Mein Kampf was authentic footage of the event itself. The NBC documentary The Twisted Cross (1956) intercut newsreel of the SA boycott and Julien Bryan’s films of Jewish segregation signage in Germany with the reenactment of the November Pogrom from Après Mein Kampf. Although the staged scenes are easily identified in retrospect, the network’s publicity touted the inclusion of “hitherto impounded” Nazi newsreel footage and failed to issue any caveat about the usage of dramatizations in what it advertised as a documentary film (Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler 370). This practice of inserting Kristallnacht scenes from Après Mein Kampf continued in nonfiction films about the Third Reich and the Holocaust like Paul Rotha’s The Life of Adolf Hitler (1961), the “Genocide” episode (1974) of The World at War television series, and the Israeli documentary The 81st Blow (1974).7  

Cognizant of the chronological scope of this publication, I will not elaborate on the spate of docudrama and fictive depictions of Kristallnacht ushered in by NBC’s miniseries Holocaust (1978) and the 40th anniversary of the event in Germany in 1978 (Schmid 325–93). Over the next decade, both American and German documentaries supplemented the canonical photos of Kristallnacht and the staged scene from Après Mein Kampf with survivor testimony, acknowledged dramatizations of that testimony, or recently discovered footage of the pogrom or analogous events. Dieter Hildebrandt’s The Yellow Star (1981) and Arnold Schwartzman’s Genocide (1982) substituted a clip of a synagogue in flames excerpted from the July 1941 installment of Die Deutsche Wochenschau on the German occupation of Riga for the iconic stills of synagogues burning on Kristallnacht. Neither identified the original source of the footage (Ebbrecht 39). The Yellow Star introduced footage of the local Technical Emergency Help squad demolishing what remained of Dresden’s Semper Synagogue after Kristallnacht (“Beseitigung”).        

Commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht occasioned six documentaries from the two Germanys, the United States, and Israel. Let me conclude by singling out innovations presented in two of them. Produced by the public television channel ZDF, Guido Knopp’s Als die Synagogen brannten-November Pogrom 1938 (1988) begins with the graphic scene of the plundering and wrecking of Jewish shops from Marriage in the Shadows, which the narrator subsequently reveals was excerpted from a feature film. It then mounts an engaging telegenic reconstruction of what it was like to experience Kristallnacht in Berlin, Vienna, Wolfhagen, and Würzburg by illustrating eyewitness accounts with a bricolage of animation, footage of those cities in 1988, stop-action photographic sequences, and other special effects. As Ebbrecht-Hartmann observes, this blend of actual testimony and engaging impressionistic reenactments was “intended to substitute for the lack of historical visual evidence” (16). 

The American television production Kristallnacht: The Journey from 1938 to 1988 filled that lacuna with a home movie of the Bielefeld synagogue burning until its dome collapsed as firefighters and onlookers stood by passively. Found amateur footage of the Bühl synagogue being consumed by flames surfaced in the coming decade and first appeared in the Kristallnacht episode of Guido Knopp’s 100 Jahre-Der Countdown series (1999).                            

Nevertheless, the window breaking scene from Après Mein Kampf, mes Crimes! continues to appear in documentaries as “authentic” footage of the Kristallnacht riots. For example, in 2018 HBO broadcast the children’s film The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm. An eleven-year-old boy interviews his great-grandfather about growing up in prewar Poland and the ordeal he endured when Germany occupied it. Conflating the German-Jewish experience with the Polish-Jewish one, the boy asks him if he saw the Nazis setting fire to his synagogue which is then illustrated with an animated photograph of the Baden-Baden synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht followed by a computer enhanced image from Après Mein Kampf of a Stormtrooper tossing a rock through a Jewish storefront window.8 After decades of being recycled carelessly without proper annotation, the staged footage has achieved iconic status.                     

The “blurred boundaries” between reenactment and actualities rarely occasioned any special mention in documentaries and newsreels until 1960 when the more rigorous precepts of the cinéma vérité movement differentiated sharply between the two. Given the lack of footage of Kristallnacht until the discoveries of the amateur film clips of it, the impulse to fill the lacunae with staged scenes that approximated what had occurred was not intended to be deceptive. Necessity gave way to a practice that overlooked, ignored, or remained ignorant of the fact that one of the most brutal Nazi crimes of the interwar period remained without adequate cinematic documentation. Yet with higher expectations for the accuracy of historical documentaries and new evidence unearthed in archives, filmmakers need to be more exacting in attributing the sources of clips and distinguishing between original footage and dramatizations in documentaries about the Shoah. Scholars of the Holocaust have an obligation to point out the constructed and interpretative nature of documentaries even when they employ authentic footage. As Bill Nichols posits in his analysis of the ethics, evidence, and politics of documentary films, “History does not repeat itself, except in mediated transformations such as memory, representation, reenactment, or fantasy” (Nichols 35).  


1 On the origins of these films and their subsequent usage in documentaries, see Ebbrecht 39–45.   

2 This photo appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the pictorial spread “Nazi Germany Takes an Awful Revenge on its Jews” (14).

3 The American German Bund was a pro-Nazi organization consisting of German Americans.

4 See “Transcript for ‘The Refugee-Today and Tomorrow.’” 

5 I thank Michal Frankl of the Jewish Museum in Prague for identifying the origins of this footage.  

6 See the pre-Kristallnacht photograph of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue interior that resembles the one used in the film. Accessed 9 August 2018. 

7 Although The 81st Blow employs the reenactments from Après Mein Kampf, it also utilizes many of the stills of vandalized Jewish shops and burning synagogues taken during and after Kristallnacht.  

8 The great-grandson shows his great grandfather a photo of the burning synagogue in Baden-Baden and asks him if he witnessed his synagogue on fire. The great grandfather nods but does not answer. The Great Synagogue in Danzig was demolished by the city's pro-Nazi senate in May of 1939 before the German invasion when Danzig was still a free city. In any case, the great-grandfather lived in Poland in 1938 and would not have experienced Kristallnacht there.  


Works Cited

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