From harrowing early documentaries providing the first looks into the Nazi death camps to award-winning blockbusters like “Schindler’s List,” cinema has proven itself uniquely suited to conveying the grim significance of the Holocaust. The volume of cinematic depictions can only be explained by the event’s call for intensely visual artistic response.
Last Tuesday the Harvard Film Archive explored the history of those responses, using one of the earliest cinematic portrayals of the Holocaust as a starting point for a broader discussion.
The selected film was André de Toth’s “None Shall Escape” (1944), one of a small number of World War II-era Hollywood films that represented the extermination of European Jews then underway. The screening was preceded and followed by discussions with Jean-Michel Frodon, former managing editor of the seminal French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma.
Frodon discussed “None Shall Escape” in the context of his new book “Cinema & the Shoah,” an exploration of cinematic responses to the Holocaust. A complicated relationship between Hollywood and the Nazi Party, he explained, kept American cinema—despite its many Jewish industry leaders—from representing the Nazis negatively until nearly the end of the war.
As an example of that tension, Frodon cited the assassination of a Jewish Warner Bros. representative in Berlin by the Nazis as early as 1934. “Of course,” he added, “Hollywood also had to consider commercial concerns,” given that many Americans had conflicted views of the war. “None Shall Escape,” for example, did well at the box office but was far from a breakaway hit.
However, the film clearly had aspirations beyond the financial. Released just as the war was ending, it also functioned as a piece of propaganda: “None Shall Escape” opens and closes with the presiding judge of a war crimes trial directly addressing the audience, asking that justice be done in light of the trial.
The film’s narrative runs through the testimony of the trial’s witnesses, who tell the story of corrupted German Willhelm Grimm. Grimm’s progression from wounded World War I veteran to odious SS leader must have given its viewers a more nuanced, but ultimately condemning image of the typical Nazi.
In the question and answer session following the screening, viewers expressed surprise at seeing the Holocaust represented cinematically before the end of the war. Frodon explained that de Toth was sent by a news agency to film the situation in Poland in 1939, giving him some insight into the effects of Nazi rule, which is especially critical given the film’s Polish setting.
Another viewer raised the issue of historical accuracy, questioning the film’s use of a priest as a protagonist and its depiction of a rabbi urging Jews to take up arms against the Nazis. Frodon reminded the audience of the film’s political aspirations: designed to unite a fractured America behind a call to justice, “None Shall Escape” had an understandable interest in providing Americans with immediately identifiable protagonists.
All cinematic depictions of the Holocaust, Frodon urged, must be understood in their context—when they were made, by whom, and for what purpose. Historical inaccuracies should be noted, but artistic responses, even commercial Hollywood films, cannot be judged solely by their historical veracity.
Nevertheless, Frodon didn’t ignore the tough questions. In fact, he raised one himself, putting simply the question of American awareness of the Holocaust while it was taking place: “Who knew what?”
To this, he answered, there is no easy response. He described one often-lamented instance of an American spy plane taking photographs of Auschwitz early in the war. Those photos, taken in hopes of locating factories rather than atrocities, went unnoticed. The line between knowledge and ignorance, then, was remarkably thin.
What is clear is that the eventual realization of this atrocity brought with it an immediate cinematic response, an artistic outpouring that continues to this day. The relationship between film and the Holocaust, Frodon believes, is one that continues to evolve and deserves further investigation.
His book was written, he says, “not to say how films about the Holocaust should or should not be made,” but rather to explore the connection between profoundly affecting art and its profoundly affecting historical origin.Whether through the viewing of films like “None Shall Escape” or the reading of books like “Cinema and the Shoah,” that connection continues to demonstrate its lasting relevance.