Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust Reviews

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Super Reviewer
½ December 28, 2010
This is an excellent documentary, which depicts the Holocaust through Hollywood movies and television. Especially interesting is Hollywood's anemic reaction to Hitler's rise to power during the 30s, which shows how afraid Hollywood moguls were to offend Nazi Germany before America's entry into the war. The film clips of the Holocaust shown through movies is brilliantly depicted, and the commentary from historians and movie makers explains the evolution of how Hollywood movies became more honest and open in showing this horrible chapter in human history. Very interesting film.
Super Reviewer
½ May 2, 2009
An in-depth look at how Hollywood has portrayed the Holocaust, from Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Black Legion to Schindler's List and The Pianist. Insightful and revealing.
Super Reviewer
March 7, 2009
[font=Century Gothic]Narrated by Gene Hackman in an accusatory tone, "Imaginary Witness" is a frustrating documentary whose intention is to explore the history of the Holocaust in Hollywood films. What it inadvertantly does is explore the evolving level of content in these same movies.[/font]

[font=Century Gothic]The documentary starts off in the 1930's, ascribing a lack of anti-Nazi films to the potent anti-Semitism of the time. Actually, government policy never directly addressed the Holocaust and so, neither did the propaganda. It also had to do with the perennial fact of Hollywood that its producers and directors would make films they think other people want to see, not what they themselves want to see. This might explain why the only major cinematic attack on the Nazis of this period came from Charles Chaplin with "The Great Dictator."[/font]

[font=Century Gothic]After World War II, the Italians were quickly deep into neo-realism while Hollywood was still in fantasy mode.(Another of the documentary's faults is that it does not survey European films to compare and contrast.) It is unfair to attack the 1959 version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" for not going into a concentration camp because it is unnecessary.(And it also unfair to attack blacklistees who were probably the most fervent of anti-Nazis. Look at Chaplin for example.) By 1965, reality was creeping back with "The Pawnbroker" which might also have been one of the first Hollywood films to contain nudity. The final shot in the film is of the real street corner of Park Avenue and 116th Street in New York City.[/font]

[font=Century Gothic]Television would take the lead with the miniseries "Holocaust" and "War and Remembrance" but the documentary does not even mention "Playing for Time." Not until "Schindler's List," would the Holocaust be an economically viable topic for a major Hollywood film.[/font]

[font=Century Gothic]But none of the movies mentioned can hold a candle to actual newsreel footage of the liberated concentration camps. Despite this, as the documentary puts it, there is a power to the images in any film which can be used to impart history. For example, in the remake of "To Be or Not To Be," I learned for the first time that gays were also persecuted by the Nazis. For more information, check out the documentary "Paragraph 175." So, it should be interesting to see how Hollywood depicts other genocides.[/font]
½ January 15, 2012
I study the role music plays in our lives, so it was interesting to see the ties between Hollywood, the US, and the Holocaust.
½ August 17, 2011
Ultimately this is an intelligent and informative documentary that explores Hollywood's uneven attempts to depict the Holocaust. As a movie about the power of movies, it works
January 8, 2011
about how we watch movies and how Hollywood chooses to tell its stories. It could have been longer though and with more interviewees. It's good for TV though.
September 14, 2010
This is a documentary more about American art than European history. To that end, its subject is Hollywood's (and television's) attempts to "bear witness" (in the words of the interviewees) to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Particularly, the first half is very strong - great clips of newsreels and classic films, with wonderfully concise and clear narration of the historical context. I felt I began to understand why the world stood by and watched for so long. My one complaint is that it seemed to exclude some quite notable works in the middle - a complaint I would not have, except that I suspect that the director was concerned with not mentioning that which was in poor taste - a poor goal for a documentarian. If we start with 30s cinema that's soft on Nazis and we end with Schindler's List and The Pianist, and we spend plenty of time talking about how film and TV sidestep any real portrayal of the horrors, why, then, should we fail to mention Hogan's Heroes? But moreover, if, as one interviewed director put it, we want to show the gravity while avoiding exploitation, do we mention none of the many movies that actually did exploit the Holocaust for entertainment? This is a serious error. Case in point: near the end of the doc, we are told that Schindler's List, by winning several Oscars, opened the door to a cascade of Oscar-seeking movies of questionable quality to history. Are we to ignore the decades of previous WWII films made for profit or accolades? Or the schlocky grindhouse Ilsa flics? But, despite this, it was a very good documentary that will prompt most viewers to add some new Holocaust movies to their queue, and to appreciate a bit more the difference between film and reality.
June 10, 2010
This is an interesting Hollywood documentary. It is about the Holocaust, but the subject is Hollywood and it plays just like a Hollywood story. It was a nice, neat historical document played as placid as it could be, right there with Gene Hackman?s narration to the generic editing only at breaks and silences. Maybe that is the intention, to not cause a ripple, and let the hell that was the holocaust be the only generator.

Beside the tempered tone, the other real caveat to share is that it ruins the end of a lot of movies. And I?m not talking about how the war ended. It?s good for film historians. And it is not just a bashfest on Hollywood, because like any traditional Hollywood movie, the hero triumphs at the end.
January 25, 2010
A detailed and comprehensive portrayal of American cinema and the holocaust, superbly done, with an outstanding use of film footage from movies that deal with Nazi Germany. Great interviews, it?s very disturbing and touching. Very memorable.
January 25, 2010
A detailed and comprehensive portrayal of American cinema and the holocaust, superbly done, with an outstanding use of film footage from movies that deal with Nazi Germany. Great interviews, it?s very disturbing and touching. Very memorable.
September 8, 2009
I caught this documentary by chance and I'm glad I did. It was informative and at times of course very hard to watch.

My words cant do this documentary justice. I would encourage you to watch it and see for yourself.
½ September 5, 2009
The Holocaust--Making Even Obscure Films Awards Bait Since 1945

It is not my intention to trivialize the Holocaust, as you no doubt know. I also believe that it's very important for movies on the subject to get made. The more it's in the public eye, the less ground those ridiculous deniers can gain, for one. We need to see that footage. We need to see it over and over again. We need to keep it in our minds for the rest of our lives. We especially need to try using it to remind us of places where it's happening now. Perhaps if the Armenian Genocide had been so well documented, the Holocaust might not have happened. Though all things considered, I find it rather unlikely. It's just that I've never even heard of this--obviously, I got it because it starts with "I"--and it's won two awards. Oh, it's from festivals I've never heard of, too, but that's just the way things go. On the other hand, it finally worked with Stephen Spielberg, long the Academy's most-ignored director.

Before the War, Hollywood was awfully wary about making anti-Nazi films. Part of this was the Breen Office, which insisted that no foreign institutions or persons should be treated unjustly. There was no way of knowing just how justly that would be treating them. At any rate, when those few movies were made talking about the Nazis, the whole of the country seemed up in arms about the Jew menace. Even Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece [i]The Great Dictator[/i], discussed in this space already, was considered a Jew slander, despite the fact that Chaplin was not, in so many words, Jewish. It was only when the real film, the film from the camps, was released in the US that the US public stopped seeing it as mere propaganda. And even then, things faded until the seventies, until [i]Holocaust[/i] and [i]Sophie's Choice[/i] brought things back into the public eye. [i]Schindler's List[/i], of course. What Hollywood does is imaginary, true, but the point is that even the imaginary can be important.

One of the great debates in the movie is the sanitization of the camps. Most of the time, the horror is cleaned up. This is for several reasons, not least because a lot of Holocaust-based films are either shown on TV or intended for a younger audience. On the other hand, there is the avoided ending of [i]The Diary of Anne Frank[/i], also discussed here. The movie ends with her declaration about the basic goodness of people, and it doesn't show her last days, the illness that killed her in conditions more horrific than we can imagine. There's the fact that the TV dramatization of the Nuremberg trials wasn't permitted to use the word "gas" for fear of offending the sponsors. Even today, showings of [i]Schindler's List[/i] get trimmed of sex, nudity, and violence.

I think part of the problem is that it's hard for us to really believe it's real. I would imagine that even those who lived through it now see it in some kind of dim haze. It must be hard to remember it's even really real. The whole thing is so mind-numbing. The machinery of the system was so huge, the system so broad, the demands of the population so enormous, the actions of the leaders so heinous. How do you take all of that in? We've been trying for sixty-five years, and it doesn't get any easier. It won't get any easier. In fact, I suspect it's getting harder and harder as time passes and survivors die. Soon, all that will be left for us is words in books, the flickering images on film, the buildings either crumbling or preserved so we won't forget. That's what Hollywood can do for us.

It's fashionable to badmouth Hollywood. It's apparently one of my failings as a highbrow critic; I can't do it. I've never been able to. I can only badmouth certain aspects of anything, and never an entire industry or faction thereof. It is shameful that the industry was prevented and prevented itself from showing what needed to be shown early. It is shameful that we needed the movies to do it for us in the first place. Hollywood pays attention to things for us. Oh, sure, there are a dozen or more [i]Scary Movie[/i]s for every [i]Schindler's List[/i]. A couple of dozen. More, even. However, they are still willing to give it a chance now and again.
October 29, 2015
This was an amazing documentary. I loved it and enjoy watching it over and over. I seem to always discover moments or scenes I had missed during previous viewings of this film. I truly recommend that you view this work!
April 15, 2014
An interesting take popular censorship. Dependence on movies to bear witness to history including the atrocities of the holocaust means our perspective is always blunted by the filters applied in the making of such.
February 3, 2014
A fantastic look at how Hollywood dealt with Germany, before, during and after WWII. Covers pretty much all the bases and talks with film makers, survivors, and has several great film clips. Well worth a watch and it's on Netflix!
January 2, 2014
I have seen some of the films discussed in this documentary. I suppose I had never really thought about how Americans use film to display historical events. I had always assumed, naively I suppose, that any film about the Holocaust was good because it was reminding people that this that the chances of it occurring again would be reduced. But now I realize that any depiction of this event in history would automatically be colored by the views of the society who produces it. That changes over time and that society evolves. And in this case, the producers are even further removed from the events, not only by time, but by the American lens....American ideologies and self identities....of those who write and create these films.

Powerful and thought provoking.
November 12, 2013
Profound and telling. It's a different and compelling look at the Holocaust and what we, as Americans, know of it An how we depend on our media to inform and enlighten us about things, and in so many ways while the industry may have dropped the ball, they have also brought this story to us in so many ways as only something of such depth and breadty can be done; and they made it a gift to us all, a sense of spirit to carry of those who died and some shred of memory or image to hold.
½ December 23, 2012
Interesting documentary on how Nazi antisemitism and the holocaust have been portrayed in movies over the years. Pretty interesting.
July 26, 2012
a well informed movie. that really makes you think about the movies you take for granted
July 23, 2012
Narrated by Gene Hackman and labeled with an unusual title I was intrigued. That's where it stops.

Imaginary Witness is an overview of films made during and after the second world war that relate or perhaps fabricate and other times misstep fiction from truth. The documentator's goal was simple, seed out Hollywoods censorship, and propraganda. For me all it did was tell me what i already knew and what little Americans still don't know. My grandmother was born and raised in Germany during WW2, her stories alone would have made for a better summerization!
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