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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Our Remembrance of Things Past
by Donald Levit

Through Lumière and his lightweight cinématographe, the factual film is older, in ways more limited, than its plot-driven fiction brother. Since by loose definition it records what has happened, selecting, manipulating, recreating, employing archival footage or non-cinematic stills, narration and/or interviews, pure documentary may be hard put to find a thread whose end is not already in the past, not quite our present, and therefore known before it begins.

Regarding the current major movie subject of the Holocaust, a few critics have observed that non-fiction has now done what it can and must yield to fictionalized, if “fact-based,” renderings. Of his landmark Holocaust and Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story, novelist-TV writer Gerald Green pointed out the need “for understandable terms [i.e., story] to personalize history” for a mass global audience whose idea of past and present is in large part formed by the big or small screen.  The worldwide impact of, and debate over, that first mini-series and of Schindler’s List has brought about a succession of fiction accounts, even comedic ones, of this essential fact of modern history.

Documentaries on the subject pour out, occasionally good but often pedestrian. The outstanding ones have tended to adhere to story’s need for beginning, middle and end, for an “audience surrogate” and for a backbone of continuity through development, e.g., Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust and The Nazi Officer’s Wife.  Unique in its slant but none the less rewarding, is director/co-producer Daniel Anker’s Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.

As the title would indicate, this is not another consideration of primary events themselves but, rather, of reactions on the part of American moviemakers and their community to such events and, hence, of the way in which this country, and its world audience, conceives of and “remembers” the inconceivable. What actually happened is static, frozen, while memory and opinion form, expand and change; hence, “story.”  “Hollywood, for better or worse, is the means by which most people come to terms with the Holocaust.”

Anker’s film can well serve as a centerpiece for the Fourteenth Annual (2005) NY Jewish Film Festival, presented (January 12-27) by The Jewish Museum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center, a multi-nation potpourri of features and shorts, premières and oldies.  NYJFF is “about modern Jewish identity,” itself forged in the crucible of 1933-45 which today informs the Middle East but also spills out to engulf policy everywhere.

To Gene Hackman’s solid, non-hysterical narration, the film traces films’ early avoidance of controversy.  The gathering storm was swept under various carpets because of isolationism, conservatism, New World fascism and fear of offending the lucrative market of 1930s Germany. Telling filmclips illustrate Hollywood’s Jewish executives’ refusal even to use the word “Jew.” The Production Code reigned (see Regulation 10, Article 2), newsreels distorted the true situation into a sort of college boys’ pranks, Chaplin’s privately financed The Great Dictator was reviled, and a handful of courageously outspoken films was ignored in favor of lesser, propagandistic efforts emphasizing teamwork, American pluck and war in the Pacific.

Although some directors worked as Signal Corps documentarians and Eisenhower invited a dozen Hollywood moguls to enter Dachau even before the medics, their filmed records were deemed too graphic for a public unwilling “to feel awful about themselves.” For years, sanitized versions of what happened would emphasize, not Anne Frank’s death, but her belief in man’s goodness, or pound home Americans’ saving post-War presence as in the Playhouse 90-based Judgment at Nuremberg. Of particular note here is a clip from a sticky feel-good Holocaust-survivor This Is Your Life episode.

Many dozens of films are mentioned or briefly shown, with unobtrusive interviews with those who made, lived or wrote about them. The balanced, well-integrated list is too long even to begin mentioning, as it builds to a consideration of previously silent survivors’ decisions to speak out, of the effects of repression of memory (a wrenching scene from The Pawnbroker), and of recent and more honest portrayals where actual graphic horror is rendered bearable and yet still effective in being “peripheral” to the human dilemma of the living.

A history, not only of a particular subject and its treatment, but of American policy and image of itself, Imaginary Witness organizes a huge amount of material in making its case about Hollywood’s -- and America’s -- head-in-the-sand bottom-line concerns. Not a pleading movie, it is nevertheless a dash of cold water for both the industry and the public.

(Released by Anker Productions Inc.; not rated by MPAA.) 

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