- Hollywood and the Holocaust by Henry Gonshak
Judith Doneson's The Holocaust in American Film (1987) pioneered the study of how Hollywood feature films have depicted Germany's attempt to exterminate European Jewry during World War Two. Doneson recognized that American directors sought to familiarize their domestic audiences with a foreign genocide whose means and scope were unprecedented. To do this, they initially downplayed the Jewishness of protagonists enduring or evading persecution, deportation, ghettoization, or liquidation and derived universal lessons about human nature, prejudice, and totalitarian rule from the Jewish ordeal by drawing explicit or implicit analogies from it to contemporary events. They typically imposed edifying endings on otherwise tragic narratives. Although Doneson recognized the shortcomings of this process of domestication, she concluded that American films "helped through their images and portrayal of history to imprint the Holocaust on American memory" (209). The second edition of her book appeared in 2002, the same year she died of cancer. Perhaps due to her struggle with the disease, she appended only a chapter on Schindler's List (1993) to the original volume, which had ended with NBC's miniseries Holocaust (1978).
While the corpus of scholarly literature on Holocaust cinema has grown considerably since 2002, it has lacked an updated survey about American feature films on the topic. Henry Gonshak's Hollywood and the Holocaust fills this void. Like Doneson, he devotes a chapter to Chaplin's prophetic satire about Hitler's anti-Semitism, The Great Dictator (1940) and another to Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), which Doneson mentioned only in passing. After criticizing several wartime productions for either minimizing or trivializing Germany's persecution of Jews, Gonshak emulates Doneson by examining the early postwar classics of American Holocaust cinema: The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Pawnbroker (1964), and Cabaret (1972). Unlike her, he curiously omits Ship of Fools (1965) and Julia (1977). Thereafter, his choice of films diverges completely from Doneson's with the notable exception of Schindler's List, comprising The Producers (1967), The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), The Boys from Brazil (1978), Sophie's Choice (1982), Enemies: a Love Story (1989), Triumph of the Spirit (1989), Mother Night (1996), Life Is Beautiful (1997), Apt Pupil (1998), Jakob the Liar (1999), X-Men (2000), The Grey Zone (2001), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), Defiance (2008), The Reader (2008), and Inglourious Basterds (2009). The book's inclusion of atypical Holocaust genres like comedies, sci-fi adventures, and thrillers and its coverage through 2009 make it worthy of consideration as a textbook for courses on Holocaust cinema.
Hollywood and the Holocaust possesses additional qualities that make it an attractive choice to assign to college classes. Gonshak writes in a clear and jargon-free prose that is accessible to students. He summarizes plotlines, points out contemporary factors that influenced the films, and presents conflicting interpretations of the manifest and latent messages they conveyed to audiences. Since his expertise is in literature, Gonshak [End Page 64] explores not only how movies adapted from fictional or non-fictional works differ from their original sources, but also how subsequent remakes and theatrical revivals alter their stories to reflect evolving perceptions of the Holocaust and its relevancy to current events.
As a work of rigorous scholarship, however, three flaws detract from the book's merits. First, Gonshak fails to enumerate any criteria for classifying a motion picture as a Hollywood film. One can infer from the introductory chapter that he uses the term Hollywood as a synonym for American commercial films, which he generally faults for exploiting the Holocaust for sentimental, universalistic, or uplifting purposes During the timespan his book covers, Hollywood evolved significantly from being dominated by the studio system and the film industry's Production Code to being diversified among big companies churning out commercially viable films alongside some edgier ones by auteurs, independent producers, broadcast and cable television networks, and multinational ventures operating within an increasingly liberalized rating system. This transition in who was making films, how they were distributed, and the (drastically reduced...