Denial: How do filmmakers approach the Holocaust?


This video is sponsored by Denial.

Hello and welcome to Making Film—a series where we take a look at everything from the construction of films to film history and how cinema affects how we see the world.

Today, we take a look at how cinema shapes our understanding of an historical event. In this case, the Holocaust.

How do you approach a film related to the Holocaust? How can you even begin to approach a subject so incomprehensibly horrific?

So, I got an email a little while ago asking if I would be interested in making a sponsored video on the subject of the Holocaust in film to help promote the UK DVD release of Denial starring Rachel Weiss, Tom Wilkinson, and Timothy Spall. The film follows the true story in which Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving for libel.

The idea got me thinking about how filmmakers approach the depiction of such an extreme historical event like the Holocaust and how this shapes our understanding of history.

Now, the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people and other groups in Europe during the 1940s is a sensitive subject to tackle. That said, the Holocaust (or Shoah) has been portrayed directly or indirectly in a wide variety of genres including drama, documentary, horror, action, and even comedy.

There is an inherent acceptance that horror, action, and comedy are using the setting and the hatred toward Nazis for storytelling and are not necessarily making an attempt to recreate an authentic portrayal of the Holocaust whereas drama and documentary are. So, let’s take a look at how they do that.

In Denial, Holocaust denier David Irving attempts to put the Holocaust on trial through his libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt, but it is he (and Holocaust denial in general) who is put on trial. There was the risk that, by fighting the libel suit in court and losing, it would be accepted that there are two equal points of view—that some people believe that the Holocaust happened the way we understand it and some do not.

As we’ve seen in other areas, allowing a denialist point-of-view can stagnate progress or undermine the issue all together. In order to combat this with the depiction of the Holocaust in drama and documentary, Aaron Kerner notes a list of guidelines for making a Holocaust film by Terrence Des Pres in Kerner’s book Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives.

First, “The Holocaust shall be represented, in its tonality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history” (Kerner 2).

We see a lot of dramas that deal directly with the Holocaust categorized as “Holocaust films” rather than “historical dramas” “or “war films” like those depicting most other historical events.

Second, “Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason — artistic reasons included” (Kerner 2).

And third, “The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even a sacred event, with a seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead” (Kerner 2).

When we think of Holocaust films, we usually think of those that take place inside the camps and when we think of authenticity in the depiction of the Holocaust, we tend to think of documentary. Documentaries provide visual evidence of the result of the atrocities—photographs that we can see with our own eyes. But whose eyes are we seeing with?

In a documentary titled Night and Fog by Alain Resnais, much of the archival footage we see was filmed by the Nazis themselves, which gives the audience a unique gaze from the point of view of the perpetrators. The archival footage is also intercut with footage of the camps taken decades after the war has ended. Despite harrowing images such as piles of eyeglasses and scratch marks in the shower rooms, Elizabeth Cowie notes that these images “[fail] as visible evidence” without the explanation provided by the narrator (Haggith, Newman 184). And in Claud Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah, the testimony relies almost entirely on the words of those who experienced the Holocaust, which in a way, forces us to see the events they depict through our own mind’s eye.

In 1945, a British documentary, eventually titled “Memory of the Camps,” was made that aimed to show the result of German atrocities in the newly-liberated concentration camps. The film (often wrongfully attributed to Alfred Hitchcock) was made by Hitchcock’s friend Sidney Bernstein and remained uncompleted until February 1984 (Haggith, Newman 50).

During the months following Germany’s defeat, Russia had been releasing newsreel footage of liberated camps and were preparing their own documentaries. This prompted Bernstein to have his producer, Sergei Noldbandov, to begin going through footage from “Russian newsreels, the US Army Pictorial Service, War Office, RAF and the British newsreel companies” in order to collect every piece of available footage showing the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The goal was to compile evidence of these atrocities from all around the world to be screened to audiences in formerly Nazi-occupied territories who [quote] “had been exposed during the preceding four or five years to Nazi propaganda” (Haggith, Newman 52). It was after a visit to Belsen, that Berstein decided to pivot the film from being a [quote] “retrospective compilation” to a full documentary with new and archived footage that would be definitive evidence to quell any possibility for denial that these events took place (Haggith, Newman 53). Bernstein would have the cameramen document, not only the bodies of the dead, the testimony of the survivors and German prisoners, but the company logos and nameplates of the German and foreign companies who contributed resources and construction to this systematic extermination (Haggith, Newman 54).

The objective now was to make a version of the documentary for German citizens and prisoners to show the evil acts that the National Socialist Party committed [quote] “in their name” as a way to prevent any potential terrorist acts by German citizens in the name of the party. The film was also meant to implicate the German audience as complicit in these crimes (Haggith, Newman 54). Most of the German people—including POWs— refused to accept any responsibility for what happened. Many had likened the disturbing images of the camps to the constant publishing of photos in national newspapers of dead Germans due to allied bombings (Haggith, Newman 54). They managed to separate themselves from what they were seeing in the footage of the camps as merely the government’s doing.

We can see something similar in David Irving in Denial. Even when confronted by video evidence of very racist things he has said, he still doesn’t consider himself to be a racist.

“You sued because you said that we had called you a racist and an extremist.”

“Yes… But I’m not a racist.”

While the film footage taken during the liberation of the camps offers us a more objective view of the aftermath of the atrocities, what is missing are the atrocities themselves. This is where dramatic narratives come in—most of what’s depicted in these films is based on witness testimony.

Perhaps the most famous filmic narrative depiction of the Holocaust is Steven Spielberg’s 1993 drama, Schindler’s List, in which a German factory owner uses his status and resources to save many Jewish lives during World War II. Spielberg’s approach was to use an “induced documentary” style similar to William Friedkin’s depiction of the events in The French Connection.

Steven Spielberg: “Many many scenes were hand-held and not planned. I didn’t plan shots. I didn’t sit home at night making shot lists or doing storyboards as I usually do…

And then I would just wander into the scene like I was an eavesdropper with a camera to try to make the existence of the camera very second nature to what was happening in front of the camera.”

Of course, quite a lot of documentaries contain hand-held footage out of necessity—documentary filmmakers often capture events as they unfold without the opportunity for planned camera moves and framing that fictional narratives can afford. Spielberg would take a similar approach with Saving Private Ryan, which, like Schindler’s List, also enlisted the talents of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The hand-held shots coupled with the use of black and white make Schindler’s List appear, at times, disturbingly close to real life captured in a documentary.

In his book, Kerner speaks about the feminization of the Jewish victims in Holocaust films and notes that there is often a sex-crime aspect. In Schindler’s List we see this not only in Amon Goeth choosing Helen Hirsch as his housekeeper, but also in the scenes with nude females being sent to what could have been the gas chambers.

We see this in Denial as well. Irving goes after Lipstadt, a Jewish woman who, in the courtroom, is forced by her own defense to remain passive while the war is fought in front of her. Despite her efforts to defend herself, it is made clear that the only way she can win the case is if the men win it on her behalf. In Holocaust dramas, the Jewish internees lack any ability to protect themselves and can only hope to miraculously survive what often appears as random murder. They require the capable allied soldiers to save them. This utter impotence to have any control of your situation with each moment potentially being your last is what makes Holocaust films far more disturbing than any other.

Holocaust dramas and documentaries aim to inform and create an understanding of the events that took place. Schindler’s List brought the testimonies of survivors to the world’s attention—the film was [quote] “seen by a quarter of the population of Britain [and] nearly a third of the population of Germany” (Haggith, Newman 196).

But what about other genres? One could argue that films like Schindler’s List or The Pianist are horror films. A connection is drawn between Holocaust films and slasher flicks with the Jewish people as the terrorized females and the Nazis as the unstoppable killer possessing “superhuman strength” and lacking any remorse (Kerner).

Something like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards purposefully subverts this structure and depicts a group of Jewish-American soldiers terrorizing and brutalizing the Nazis. Here, we get a cathartic answer to the absolute hopelessness of reality and are allowed to experience a fantasy of justice.

Jerry Seinfeld: “You thought that there was a profound revenge for Hitler’s crimes in making fun of him that, in a way, surpasses everything.”

It seems strange to think of a Holocaust comedy, but they do exist.

“My name is Adolph, I’m on the mic. I’m gonna hip you to the story of the new Third Reich.”

There are plenty of comedies that revolve around Nazi’s—whether it be to make fun or to shock an audience,

“Heil Hitler!”

“Heil myself.”

but there is even comedy in films depicting the genocide. Perhaps the most famous is Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful where a man tricks his young son into thinking that what is going on in the camps is part of a game.

“Sorry if I’m going so fast, but I’m playing hide and seek.

I have to go now or they’ll find me.”

But there is also an interesting film called Genghis Cohn where a Jewish comedian is executed in a concentration camp and comes back as a ghost to haunt a former Nazi in 1958.

It is possible that horror, action, and comedy allow us to explore the Holocaust in a more real way, by requiring our participation through fear, suspense, and laughter and therefore we cope from within as opposed experiencing an outsider’s view based on pity.

A major theme that Denial brings up is the silencing of the Jewish voice. Denial of the Holocaust requires ignoring the testimony of those who experienced it. Lipstadt is recommended by her council not to speak during the trial nor allow any of the Holocaust survivors to testify. This disregards the first-person perspective of the average victim. I believe this speaks to Holocaust films in general. Whereas many Holocaust films are built out of witness testimony, Kerner writes that “as victim, Jewish characters lack agency, and narratives to get played through or around them, as opposed to by them” (Kerner 31). We get a voyeuristic view of the brutality inflicted on the victims from an outside perspective. This is more or less prevalent in Schindler’s List, which revolves around Oskar Schindler, a gentile German businessman, as he transforms from complicit in what is happening to the Jews to a kind of savior for the victims.

Even a film like The Pianist, revolves around Szpilman’s attempt at survival among the backdrop of Jewish suffering. What he witnesses outweighs what is inflicted upon him. Szpilman’s musical talent seems to almost lift him to a higher level than the other victims as if to say that, Szpilman is special and shouldn’t be forced to die like the average people. Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that this is in any way intended in these films, but I would argue that a better example of Jewish agency outside of action films like Inglorious Bastards and Defiance, is in Life is Beautiful. It is unique for a Holocaust film that takes place in the camps to have the quest of survival be secondary to a different objective—in this case, Guido is trying to keep his young son from discovering the horror of their situation by making a game out of it. Similarly, Son of Saul follows a Jewish man forced to work the gas chambers who tries to give a boy believed to be his son a proper Jewish burial.

Roberto Benigni, who co-wrote, directed, and starred in Life is Beautiful, is not Jewish himself despite playing a Jewish man in the film. Seeing as the vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust were murdered for being Jewish, the story of the Holocaust is regarded as a Jewish story. However, is a Jewish heritage required of an author to tell these stories? Often, there is a certain authority perceived in a Jewish filmmaker making a Holocaust film. Roman Polanski, who directed The Pianist, is a survivor himself.

Roman Polanski: “And then they were liquidating the parts of [the] Ghetto. They had lists of people and they would come at night to take people away.”

Steven Spielberg doesn’t have a connection to the Holocaust in his immediate family, but he speaks on wanting to make Schindler’s List because he is Jewish.

Steven Spielberg: “I’m not the son of a survivor. I’m certainly related to survivors and victims of the Holocaust through my grandparents with all the relatives they lost.”

It is argued that critics and scholars tend to impart ownership of the Holocaust to Jewish filmmakers—likely because it is perceived that a Jewish person would be more inclined to use proper care and respect when approaching an event that is so closely tied to their ancestors and heritage.

Steven Spielberg: “Well I tried to get Marty Scorsese in the mid 80s to do Schindler’s List and he felt that he couldn’t do it because he wasn’t Jewish.”

There is something to be said about the David Irving trial being against a Jewish person. Lipstadt becomes not just a defendant, not just arguing against Holocaust denial, but a symbol for Jewish people taking ownership of their own history.

The thing that pretty much all of the mainstream Holocaust-related films have in common is the depiction of good versus evil. Obviously there is no question that the Nazis were evil, but these films allow us to position ourselves comfortably on the side of good without taking into account that, the rise of the Nazis was a failure of humanity. It is hard to wrap your head around the idea that, under the right circumstances, you or I could possibly have been complicit in something so inhuman. A similar theme is depicted in a film titled The Grey Zone, in which Jewish internees help the Nazi’s exterminate their people in exchange for their own lives.

Denial shows its antagonist, David Irving, as human. He is depicted as a loving father who enjoys playing with his child and he even a gracious loser. What’s important to the portrayal of Irving is that he is seen, in part, through his own eyes. Irving sees himself as a logical thinker—someone who is uncovering a conspiracy that heavily benefits the conspirators. He represents himself in the trial— making him the David to Lipstadt’s legal team’s Goliath— and he sees himself as a scholar whose work, person, and legacy is the target of an attack by those who can’t prove their words.

Portraying Irving in this way, as opposed to simply a villain, allows we, the audience, to better understand how a denier is created.

There is infinitely more that can be said on the subject of the Holocaust in film, but I hope you’ve found the subject to be as thought-provoking as I have. And be sure to check out Denial coming to DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on June 5th. Thanks for watching!


This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.


Spielberg Schindler’s List Interview – Eyes on Cinema:

Spielberg on Oprah (1993):

Roman Polanski Interview:



Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives by Aaron Kerner

The Holocaust and the Moving Image: Representations in Film and Television Since 1933 by Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman



X-Men: Apocalypse (2016 dir. Bryan Singer)

Europa Europa (1990 dir. Agnieszka Holland)

Son of Saul (2015 dir. Nemes László)

The Pawnbroker (1964 dir. Sidney Lumet)

Saving Private Ryan (1998 dir. Steven Spielberg)

The Night Porter (1974 dir. Liliana Cavani)

Apt Pupil (1998 dir. Bryan Singer)

Come and See (1985 dir. Elem Kimov)

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee- Single Shot – Hitler

Conspiracy (2001 dir. Frank Pierson)

Genghis Cohn (1993 dir. Elijah Moshinsky)

Defiance (2008 dir. Edward Zwick)

Denial (2016 dir. Mick Jackson)

Downfall (2004 dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel)

To Be or Not to Be (1942 dir. Ernst Lubitsch)

To Be or Not to Be/Music Video (1983 dir. Alan Johnson)

Inglourious Basterds (2009 dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Jakob the Liar (1999 dir. Peter Kassovitz)

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961 dir. Stanley Kramer)

Life Is Beautiful (1997 dir. Roberto Benigni)

Memory of the Camps (2014 dir. Sidney Bernstein)

Night and Fog (1956 dir. Alain Resnais)

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987 dir. Louis Malle)

Roman Polanski Interview – The Hollywood Reporter

The Pianist (2002 dir. Roman Polanski)

Schindler’s List (1993 dir. Steven Spielberg)

Shoah (1985 dir. Claude Lanzmann)

Sophie’s Choice (1982 dir. Alan J. Pakula)

Spielberg on Oprah 1993

Steven Spielberg on Schindler’s List (1994 interview) – Eyes on Cinema

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008 dir. Mark Herman)

The Grey Zone (2001 dir. Tim Blake Nelson)

The Producers (1967 dir. Mel Brooks)

The Twilight Zone: The Movie – “Time Out” segment (1983 dir. John Landis)

X-Men (2000 dir. Bryan Singer)

X-Men: First Class (2011 dir. Matthew Vaughn)

The Great Dictator (1940 dir. Charles Chaplin)

The French Connection (1971 dir. William Friedkin)



Frédéric Chopin

Nocturne in C Sharp Minor performed by Frank Levy

Nocturne Oubliée in C Sharp Minor A1 No. 6-0-Chopin_Nocturne_Oubliee-1969-6800 performed by Markus Staab

Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38-1-Ballade No. 2 in F major

Waltz Op34 No2 in A Minor