The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Cinema and the Creation of Holocaust Memory | Introduction

The final section of this special issue addresses cinematic questions surrounding the Holocaust, from its prelude in the 1930s to its repercussions through the twentieth century.  Lawrence Baron in “Kristallnacht on Film: From Reportage to Reenactments, 1938–1948” examines film treatment of the most notorious of the state-sponsored attacks on Jews of the 1930s, Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass.  For two days, November 9 and 10, 1938, mobs, abetted by SA storm troopers, murdered Jews, burned synagogues, and destroyed Jewish-owned shops and businesses.  According to the Hollywood trade paper, Film Daily, the regime prevented any film coverage of Kristallnacht from leaving Germany (10). Baron explores whether contemporaneous film coverage nonetheless exists and, if not, how we are to understand the film of Kristallnacht that we do possess.

Phyllis Lassner focuses on the made-for-television British film of 1993, Genghis Cohn in “The Cinematic Haunting of British World War II Memory: Genghis Cohn.”  Most immediately the film parodies West German indifference to the Holocaust.  Lassner, however, explains that it also condemns indifference to the Holocaust in British culture fifty years after World War II.  In fact, she observes, the Holocaust has no place in traditional British understanding of the war.  How then can memory be preserved, or commemoration occur, of what is ignored, hidden, suppressed, or deemed simply better left forgotten?  The subject of Lassner's essay is how the film calls for a moral reckoning with indifference in both Britain and Germany, if not elsewhere.

Such indifference to the Nazis was not simply a convenient product of the postwar years.  Indifference had characterized much of the Anglo-American world through the 1930s.  Kristallnacht proved the turning point.  As a result of it, a “wave of revulsion against Nazi Germany…swept over the American public” (Davis 365). Film historian Thomas Doherty has called Kristallnacht “an epiphany…for American journalism” (Doherty 281). In Hollywood it aroused “a militant anti-Nazi fervor” (Doherty 291).

The reaction opened the door to a revolution in Hollywood’s treatment of the Nazis, previously a taboo subject, otherwise ignored or actively excluded from the screen except in newsreels.  The moguls feared engaging the movies in what could be perceived as a Jewish cause.  But in March 1939, Will Hays, Elder of the Presbyterian Church and head of the studios’ trade association, announced euphemistically that the subject of war and peace could now find a place in Hollywood productions.  The following month Warner Brothers released Confessions of a Nazi Spy and MGM purchased the movie rights to Phyllis Bottome’s best-seller The Mortal Storm, making it into the first Hollywood feature to focus on the plight of Europe’s Jews.  All were the fruit of Kristallnacht.

Works Cited

Bottome, Phyllis. The Mortal Storm, foreword by Phyllis Lassner and Marilyn Hoder-Salmon, Northwestern UP, 1998.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Directed by Anatole Litvak, performances by Edward G. Robinson and George Sanders, Warner Brothers, 1939.

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: Into the Storm. Random House, 1993.

Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood and Hitler. Columbia UP, 2013.

“Footage Dearth Stymies Newsreels’ Nazi Expose.” Film Daily, 21 November 1938, p.10.

Genghis Cohn. Directed by Elijah Moshinsky, performances by Robert Lindsay, Diana Rigg, Antony Sher, BBC Productions, 1993.

The Mortal Storm. Directed by Frank Borzage, performances by Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, MGM, 1940.


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