Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Opening Soon: Imaginary Witness

Glamour, escapism, and sentimentality—all are strong suits for Hollywood, but completely uncalled for when addressing the Holocaust on film. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the American film industry was long reluctant to dramatize the Holocaust, as director Daniel Anker illustrates in the documentary, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.

Originally broadcast on AMC and soon to screen at art houses and on campuses, Witness is more than a Chuck Workman-like compilation of film clips. Frankly, with its scope limited to American produced dramatic features (excluding documentaries) the list of potential source films is relatively small. Within that list, many films, particularly those produced during or shortly after the war, were clearly uncomfortable in their handling of the historical issues involved. Yet as filmmakers became bolder in their depictions, some like Elie Weisel, would challenge the very morality of any attempts to dramatize the Holocaust.

Witness does document some fascinating episodes in Hollywood history. According to the film, prior to WWII, Germany accounted for ten percent of the foreign market, explaining why few films were produced criticizing the rise of National Socialism. One such film was MGM’s Mortal Storm starring James Stewart, which led to the prohibition of all MGM films in Germany. That Warner (which controls the classic MGM library through Turner entertainment) has yet to make this historic film available on DVD is quite disappointing.

A particular revelation for most viewers of Witness will be the remarkable reception in Germany for the NBC miniseries Holocaust (which again ought to be available on DVD). Evidently, it was eye opening for younger Germans who did not live through the war and led to a legitimate national dialogue. However, Weisel was referring to this miniseries as “morally objectionable and indecent” when he criticized fictionalizations of the Holocaust.

It is ethical questions like this that Witness is particularly interested in exploring. However, some interview subjects offer more to the film than others. Branko Lustig’s interview segments may well be the strongest aspects of the film. Lustig was the producer of Schindler’s List and was involved with the productions of Sophie’s Choice and War and Rembrance. He is also a Holocaust survivor. To say he brings insight to the subject would be an understatement. When he speaks of being the last survivor working in Hollywood who can advise on questions of authenticity, it is a heavy moment. Audiences could probably watch an entire film of his interview.

Also contributing much through their participation are Steven Spielberg, and The Pawnbroker’s Sidney Lumet and Rod Steiger. Although Neil Gabler is an acknowledged authority on the original Hollywood moguls, he is such a glib TV talking head, that he lacks gravitas of other participants and seems to have a disproportionate amount of screen time.

Like the film oeuvre it surveys, Witness is uneven, but it does have some powerful moments, most notably Lustig’s contributions. My greatest complaint might seem trivial—its actual title. People of good conscience can certainly understand the meaning of Imaginary Witness, but there are a frightening number of unhinged deniers in the world today. Putting the words “imaginary” and “Holocaust” together in the same title seems to be handing them a rhetorical device, which is obviously the furthest from the filmmaker’s intentions. That such people are out there reinforces the need for Witness and the films it analyzes. It opens in New York at the IFC Film Center on Christmas Day.