It is known as the Holocaust. Jews call it the “Shoah” – an ancient word for "disaster” or “catastrophe." The mass, industrialized murder of European Jewry, the culmination of centuries of hate in an explosion of unimaginable brutality, left nearly six million Jews dead. Not killed in battle or even casualties of war but put to death, often in factories built expressly for murder.
Since the gruesome discoveries of just how Nazi Germany set about eradicating Europe's Jews, aided and abetted by anti-Semitic or just cowed populations, mankind has struggled to understand what happened. And to answer the ultimate question – could it happen again? The subject is exhaustively covered in media, literature – and cinema, too, where some set out to document, some to investigate and some even, finally, to riff. Directors wonder, dabble in alternate realities and ask: What if? And then what if?
What won't you find on this list? Stephen Spielberg's 1993 epic "Schindler's List" – which turned twenty-five in December 2018. The director himself said he felt compelled to do, rather than wanted to do; a work that has become almost a cliché for cinematic coverage of the Holocaust. Based on the book “Schindler’s Ark” by Thomas Keneally, it is a movie that shatters, explaining exactly how the stinking cesspool underneath a communal toilet can be a haven for a child. Here is a list in no particular order of 21 other movies worth seeing, some for sharing, and yes, some for the joy of it.
DENIAL (2016) This British-American drama focuses on the amazing true story of the Irving v Penguin Books Ltd case. The film stars a superb Rachel Weisz playing Deborah E. Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust studies, who is harassed and later sued by David Irving, a scholar of Nazi Germany. Irving sues Lipstadt for libel, on the grounds that she called him a Holocaust denier. To win the case in court, the burden of proof fell on her: she had to prove her claims that Irving distorted facts to fit his view of history were indeed false and that the Holocaust was a fact, a burden of proof which took her on a journey through Shoah history.
THE READER (2008) Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet star in this German-American film directed by Stephen Daldry, based on the 1995 German book of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. Winslet won a Best Actress Oscar at the 2009 Academy Awards for her portrayal of a woman tried for war crimes late in life, for her role as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp. Part raw romantic drama, as Winslet’s character carries on an affair with a teenage boy who later becomes a lawyer present at her trial, and part Holocaust film, “The Reader” is a tragic tale of redemption and young love. New York Times film writer Manohla Dargis sums up the film: “You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow.”
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SON OF SAUL (2015) The Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” tells the tragic story of Saul Auslander, a Jewish Auschwitz inmate forced to work in the Sonderkommando, burning the bodies of murdered fellow prisoners. The story is loosely based on real testimonies of Sonderkommando members. Auslander, played by New York City-based Hungarian poet Géza Röhrig, is gradually driven mad after being ordered to cremate the corpse of a boy he believes to be his son. Directed by László Nemes, the film has won critical acclaim from wall to wall and numerous awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
EUROPA EUROPA (1990) Europa Europa is also based on a true account, of a Jewish boy who masqueraded as a Nazi Party activist to survive the Holocaust. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, who dealt with the Holocaust in several previous films, it tells the story of Solomon Perel, played by Marco Hofschneider. The family escapes to Poland but after its conquest by Germany, Solek is separated from family and lives in an orphanage. When the Nazis arrive, he ditches his papers, declares himself to be "Josef Peters", an ethnic German and joins their forces in the war with Russia. He is sent to a Hitler Youth school, is almost shot by victorious Russian forces but survives the war - and reaches Israel. The movie won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
THE LADY IN NUMBER 6: MUSIC SAVED MY LIFE (2013) This fantastic 38-minute film won best short documentary at the 2014 Academy Awards. The film's subject, Alice (who at the time of its release was the world's oldest living holocaust survivor) was born on November 26, 1903 into an upper-class Jewish family steeped in literature and classical music. In 1943, however, Alice and her husband, their 6-year old son Raphael (Rafi), and Alice’s mother were loaded on the transport to Theresienstadt, a fortress town some 30 miles from Prague which was touted by Nazi propaganda as the model ghetto — “The Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” with its own orchestra, theater group and even soccer teams. Throughout the film, Alice, a concert pianist, describes how her optimism and music pushed her to survive the horrors of the holocaust. Alice died in London on February 23 at the age of 110 one week before the documentary won the Oscar. (JTA)
IDA (2015) A Polish film about a young nun who learns that she is the daughter of Jewish parents killed during the Holocaust, is a sparse, powerful film by director, Pawel Pawlikowski. "Ida" beat eight other films from Russia, Sweden, Mauritania, Georgia, Estonia, Argentina, Holland and Venezuela for the best foreign-language film Oscar in 2015. It is certainly a movie worth seeing, but it may also be difficult to appreciate properly because of the way in which it stylizes memory; it strives for a simplicity that becomes, instead, a kind of ostentation. I almost found it too easy to admire. Given the seriousness of its intention, this is a work that should require serious confrontation, not a facile response to its obvious artiness, but its artistic ambition is what makes me unable to have an unequivocal appreciation of its value. (Uri Klein)
SECRET LIVES: HIDDEN CHILDREN AND THEIR RESCUERS DURING WWII (2002) This superb, thought-provoking documentary by Aviva Slesin avoids much of the usual idealization surrounding Holocaust rescue. Based on interviews with Jewish children like herself who were saved by Christians, it reveals that even decades after the war, these survivors continue to harbor feelings of resentment toward parents who gave them away and feelings of guilt for severing ties with those who risked all to save them. In one particularly shattering scene, a survivor reunites with his rescuer after many years and discovers the closet where he hid for months still in its original place. In another, children of Dutch rescuers confess feeling angry at their parents for risking their lives to save those of other children not their own. (Judy Maltz)
ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY (1989) We all know about love triangles. But “Enemies: A Love Story” is a love quadrangle – one in which the four participants are Polish Holocaust survivors living in New York in 1949 trying to rebuild their lives. Based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel of the same name and directed by Paul Mazursky, the movie is elevated by the late Ron Silver’s brilliant lead performance. While it’s hard to imagine a Holocaust film being simultaneously funny, sexy, thought-provoking and tragic, this one actually pulls it off.
THE PIANIST (2003) Hollywood’s adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman autobiography, "The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945," was a critical smash that won three Oscars. The story is a tragic first person account as to how Warsaw gradually changes at the beginning of World War II. Szpilman, who is played by a very gaunt Adrien Brody, is eventually forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and separated from his family during Operation Reinhard.
The film won director Roman Polanksi his only Oscar for Best Director and also won best adapted screenplay for Ronald Harwood. “The Pianist” is a true tear jerker that stands the test of time as a great film for its honest and harrowing human portrayal of life under oppression and serves as a brutal reminder for how quickly freedom can be taken away.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) "Inglourious Basterds" is a quintessential Quentin Tarantino romp and an audacious revenge flick that defies categorization. One of the most chilling fairy tales in recent memory, this visual feast walks the blurred line between fantasy and horror – each uber-stylish scene dripping with more tension than the last. But its real power is in the outrageous rewriting of Holocaust history. Rejecting mere re-enactment and transcending the typical Hollywood history lesson, it makes a daring case for what might have been.
DEFIANCE (2008) This film starring Daniel Craig tells the story of the Bielski brothers in Nazi-occupied Poland who flee to the Belarus forests, where they built a village. Despite its action star, this gritty film builds slowly to its climax, en route showing how the Jews, joined by some locals, overcome the elements and hardships of the icy winter, especially as the village grows and the population’s needs expand. Critics quibble over the film’s historical accuracy but this a different kind of Holocaust film, focusing on the struggle of those on the run, forced to live off the land, beyond the mores of civilization.
THE PAWNBROKER (1964) The Holocaust isn't the subject of "The Pawnbroker," but it is the background to it and to the main character, a Holocaust survivor who becomes a pawnbroker in Harlem, and whose loss of his family to the Nazis (described in flashbacks) shapes his character and drives his actions. The phenomenal portrayal of the survivor/pawnbroker by Rod Steiger is enough to qualify this as a "Holocaust movie." Directed by the great Sidney Lumet, it's one of thebest movies ever, of any category.
THE BOOK THIEF (2013) Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson star in this modern classic that has the feel of a movie made decades before its time. Based on the the 2005 novel of the same name by Markus Zusak, the story centers around a young girl, Liesel, who finds joy in the throes of the Holocaust by stealing books and reading them to the Jewish refugee being sheltered by her adoptive parents. Its a bittersweet and touching story about adolescence in Nazi Germany, while literally narrated by “death” itself, is a moving story of finding humanity in the worst of circumstances.
CONSPIRACY (2001) This HBO film is a slow gut-punch of a movie the depicts in eerie detail the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, where senior Nazi officials met to discuss and decided upon the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Question." The film, which is set almost entirely around a dining room table converted into a conference table stars Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. As the film develops the attendees at the meeting slowly begin to understand that their various mandates in dealing with Jews in Europe has evolved from deportation and evacuation to annihilation. Several of the meeting’s attendees hold out, but are slowly either conjoled or intimidated into supporting the plan, which they learn is already in action as gas chambers and extermination camps are already being built to annihilate an estimated 11 million Jews - including Russian Jews.
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997) On its release, “Life is Beautiful” was hotly debated for having the audacity to employ humor in its treatment of the Holocaust. But that is how its protagonist, the Jewish-Italian waiter Guido, always navigated life, so why stop when he and his son are sent to a concentration camp? Both director Roberto Benigni (who co-wrote the script) and his onscreen character have an insatiable zest for life, helping to explain the film’s schizophrenia: It builds slowly from charming romance to Holocaust drama, delivering, from start to finish, a tour de force of the human spirit.Co-starring Nicoletta Braschi.
NUMBERED (2012) Some thousands still survive of the roughly 400,000 people tattooed with serial numbers in Auschwitz and its sub-camps. The documentary "Numbered," directed by Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai, explores the numbers' meaning to their bearers, their families and communities. They are marks of shame for some, badges of honor for others – and for yet others? One woman relates how her family uses her father’s Auschwitz number in their lives – it's the code for their house alarm, bank account and Internet. When her father passed away, she had his number tattooed on her ankle, with unforeseen results. A young man made a similar effort to preserve his family’s Holocaust legacy. “This is our connection,” he says, posing for a photo with his elderly grandfather – each man holding out an arm with the identical number etched onto it. “I don’t want it to fade.”
FUGITIVE PIECES (2007) “Fugitive Pieces” is a drama directed by Jeremy Podeswa, adapted from the award-winning novel of the same name written by Anne Michaels. It tells the story of Jakob Beer, orphaned in Poland during World War II and saved by a Greek archaeologist. Starring Nina Dobrev and Stephen Dillane, the film premiered September 6, 2007, as the opening film of that year's Toronto Film Festival. This beautifully portrayed quest for liberation from haunting memories and loss and for love and redemption spans three continents and three generations. Particularly moving is the portrayal of the bond established between the boy and his rescuer, who are very different kinds of refugees, and the historical metaphors that help ground them in the world of the living. (Yakhin Shimoni)
THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC (1999) Hannah Stern, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a young Jewish girl living in the United States in the late 20th century. On Passover eve, she is bored with the Seder and at one point complains she's tired of remembering. When she opens the door for the prophet Elijah, she finds herself in Poland in 1942. Deported to a concentration camp and in the face of near-impossible odds, Hannah calls on all her inner resources – including hope and friendship – to survive. Based on a novel by Jane Yolen, the film was directed by Donna Deitch. (Rahel Jaskow)
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (2008) This heart-wrenching film is based on John Boyne’s novel published two years earlier by the same name. Set at a Nazi concentration camp, the story is told through the eyes of two 8-year-old boys: Bruno and Shmuel, the son of the Nazi running the camp and the other a prisoner. The boys develop a friendship through the barbed wire fence separating them. While both the movie and the book stirred controversy for its humanizing portrayal of Nazis committing atrocities, it is the humanity exposed in the relationship between the two boys that gives the movie heart and such an emotional punch at the end. Without giving away too much, this film is a must-see as it both offers a different point of view on the horrors of WWII, and is a rare film in that it won receives high praise from devoted fans of a very popular book.
And honorable mention:
AMEN (2002) Kurt Gerstein is an SS officer employed in the SS Hygiene Institute, planning programs for water purification and destruction of pests. He is horrified to discover that the process he has developed to fight diseases like typhus using a hydrogen cyanide mixture called Zyklon B is being used to kill Jews in the camps. In this movie, directed by Costa Gavras, Gerstein pleads to the pope to stop the genocide, with the help of a young priest, to no avail. In yet another ugly display of human behavior during this dark period of history, the movie draws a disturbing picture of the Vatican's silence regarding the holocaust. (Karine Obadia)
VALETINA’S MOTHER (2008) An intricate relationship is woven between Paula, a Holocaust survivor living alone in Israel, and Valentina, a young migrant worker from Poland who comes to live with her in this film directed by Matti Harari and Arik Lubetzky. When Paula meets Valentina, who shares the same name as a Christian friend from Paula’s childhood, repressed memories from the Holocaust awake. Paula begins to share her past with Valentina and becomes extremely dependent on her. Her obsession with Valentina, whom she considers her “twin soul,” eventually gets out of control. As dark memories of the past continue to surface, she begins to lose her grasp on reality. When it becomes too intense for Valentina, Paula tries to hold on to her at any price. The film, starring Atel Kobinska and Sylvia Drori, is based on a novella by Israeli writer Savyon Liebrecht. (Yakhin Shimoni)
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) Admittedly, this brilliant musical set in Czarist Russia has little to do with the Holocaust. But by the final credits of this toast "To Life" in the shtetl of Anatevka, seen through the wise eyes of Topol’s Tevye the Milkman, we begin to understand the tragedy of the "Sunrise, Sunset" of a world that is no more. Tevye’s soliloquies with God contrast "Tradition" with the social and cultural pressures to move o and all the protagonists end up "Far From the Home I Love." Directed by Norman Jewison, adapted from the story by Sholom Aleichem and starring Topol, Molly Picon and a young Paul Michael Glaser. (Marty Friedlander)
Any movies missing? Add your suggestions in the comments for your fellow readers to consider.
Original article published April 2013, updated April 2020.