The Holocaust has become an ever more present subject on cinema screens. But the ways in which directors present the Holocaust – the type of stories they tell, the images they use, and genres they employ – have shifted considerably over the decades since the end of the war.

Today a film about the Holocaust can appeal to a broad audience. In Germany, for instance, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) was seen by 100,000 people in its first week alone. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) grossed over $320 million worldwide. But the history of the portrayal of Jews in films, and of the Holocaust in film, is a complex one…

Film in the Nazi Period

During the Third Reich (1933-1945), a number of German films used anti-Semitic images and narratives. One of these films, Jud Süss (1940), was a huge success in Nazi Germany at the time. It  combined virulent anti-Semitism with a compelling story. The film was shown to Nazi guards at concentration camps to incite them to violence against Jews.

Süss Oppenheimer (Ferdinand Marian) and Levy (Werner Krauß) in the Nazi feature film Jud Süss (1940), directed by Veit Harlan. The film depicts the attempt by a Jew to take over the duchy of Württemberg in the 18th century (copyright: Deutsche Kinemathek)

The anti-Semitic images in Nazi films showed Jews as money-loving, manipulative, and as a sexual threat to German women. The Nazi “documentary” The Eternal Jew (1940) associated Jews with flies and rats to imply a link between Jews and disease. It claimed that Jews around the world were responsible for class warfare, civil unrest, violence, fraud and corruption. 

1940 poster for the Nazi film The Eternal Jew, directed by Fritz Hippler (copyright Deutsches Historisches Museum)

The Nazi propaganda film, Terezin: A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area, was made in 1944. It was designed to dupe foreign Red Cross representatives and governments into thinking that Jews in German concentration camps and ghettos were being treated well.

A film crew takes motion pictures in the Theresienstadt ghetto during the filming of the Nazi propaganda film (copyright: European Holocaust Research Infrastructure)

Unbeknown to them, all indications of the camp's true purpose were hidden from view. Jewish prisoners at Theresienstadt sarcastically referred to the film as The Führer gives a City to the Jews. It depicts Jewish inmates as happy, well fed and enjoying cultural activities. The Jewish prisoners forced to make the film were subsequently all killed.

1945-1949: Initial Responses

Allied Films of the Camps

After liberation, the Allies made films of what they found in the Nazi concentration camps. These films were used as part of the Allied re-education programme. German viewers were confronted with images of the crimes committed by them and in their name. The films used footage shot by Allied army units in the hours, days, and weeks following the liberation of the camps. They were screened to both prisoners of war and German civilians.

Footage of the camps subsequently shaped how feature film directors depicted the Holocaust. But Allied “atrocity films” often failed to mention the Jewish victimhood of many of the prisoners. German audiences were usually hostile to the message of collective guilt which such Allied films conveyed.

Film clip from Death Mills (1945), an American film about the camps directed by Billy Wilder and Hanus Burger, confronting audiences with the Nazi perpetrators and their crimes (copyright: Department of Defense, Department of the Army. Office of the Chief Signal Officer)

The Last Stage

Wanda Jakubowska’s 1947 Polish film The Last Stage was one of the first non-documentary films to depict a Nazi camp. Set in Auschwitz, The Last Stage focuses on the character of Marta Weiss, a Polish Jew, who helps to organise a female resistance group. Her final words are "Don't let Auschwitz happen again". 

Actor Wladyslaw Brochwicz in a scene from The Last Stage

The film ends with the arrival of the Red Army to liberate the camp – but they are too late to save the heroine. The Last Stage is based on the director's own experiences at Auschwitz.

First German films

From the outset, German filmmakers sought to broach the subject of Jewish persecution under National Socialism. The very first post-war German film, The Murderers are among us from 1946 features the character of Susanne who has returned from a concentration camp. Likewise, Marriage in the Shadows (1947), In Those Days (1947), Between Yesterday and Today (1947) and Morituri (1948) all included Jewish victims of National Socialist crimes.

Posters for Marriage in the Shadows and Morituri (copyright DEFA Stiftung, CCC Film, Deutsches Filminstitut)

However, in these films the persecution of Jewish characters rarely serves as the main storyline. Instead the films tend to centre around Germans’ own wartime suffering. At the same time, responsibility for Nazi crimes is displaced onto a select number of characters. The films rarely question the wider German population’s complicity in the regime’s crimes.

1950s: Onset of the Cold War

Cold War Germany

With the division of Germany in 1949, depictions of the Nazi past in Germany became politicised. In communist East Germany (the GDR), communist victimhood and heroism stood at the centre of these depictions. Nazi anti-Semitism is a theme of Frank Beyer’s Naked among Wolves (GDR, 1963), but the main emphasis here is on the courage of communist prisoners in rescuing a Jew at Buchenwald concentration camp. Jewish persecution plays a more important role in Konrad Wolf’s Stars (GDR, 1959), in which a relationship develops between a Jewish camp prisoner and a German soldier.

Konrad Wolf‘s Stars (copyright DEFA Stiftung)

The past was also harnessed for political purposes in West Germany. In the 1950s, West German films set in the Third Reich often focused on army officers who resisted Hitler’s orders. A “clean” military tradition was created upon which the new, West German army could be founded.

Falk Harnack‘s 20 July (copyright CCC Film, Deutsches Filminstitut)

Falk Harnack’s 20 July and Georg Pabst’s It Happened on 20 July (both 1955) depict the real-life attempt by Claus von Stauffenberg and other conspirators to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944. Falk Harnack’s film 20 July does feature one persecuted Jew, but almost as an aside. A Swiss critic commented sarcastically that the Germans were clearly unable to “take more than one Jew on the stage or on screen at any one time”.

Night and Fog

In 1955, French director Alain Resnais released his thirty-two minute documentary film, Night and Fog. The film depicts the horrors of the camps with footage shot immediately after liberation. 

Night and Fog (copyright: Criterion Collection)

Night and Fog is often categorised as a Holocaust film, yet it has been criticised for not explicitly stating that it was the Jews who were killed in gas chambers. The film implies that all categories of prisoners were treated this way.

1960s: Entering the Mainstream

In the late 1950s and 1960s, films exploring the Nazi persecution of Jews began to enter the mainstream. A key example are the two American films about Anne Frank by George Stevens (1959) and Alex Segal (1967), both called The Diary of Anne Frank. The film by George Stevens won three Academy Awards in 1960. Neither film, however, directly confronts the Holocaust.

Still from the 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank

In the 1960s, victims of National Socialism were often imagined less in terms of their racial, social, or political identity. Their victimhood was represented in universal terms. At the same time, the crimes of the Holocaust were sometimes used to introduce the viewer to more contemporary human rights’ abuses. For example, Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film The Pawnbroker draws parallels between persecution in the Third Reich and the campaigns of the American Civil Rights’ Movement.

 Still from The Pawnbroker (copyright Alamy)

1970s and 1980s: A Generational Shift

The 1970s saw the coming-of-age of a new postwar generation – one that had not personally experienced the Second World War. Filmmakers sought new ways to depict the effects of Nazi anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. The result was often a more direct engagement with perpetration and victimhood, and with the mass killing of the Holocaust. Gradually, film - as other media did – came to portray the systematic murder of Jews as a defining event of the Second World War.

 Death is my Trade

SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf  Höß (1900-1947), Commandant of Auschwitz

Released in 1977, Theodor Kotulla’s German-language feature film Death is My Trade followed the life of camp commandant Franz Lang – modelled on Rudolf Höß, the commandant at Auschwitz. It addresses in detail the genocidal policies and practices of the Nazis.


In 1978, the four-part miniseries Holocaust was broadcast by the American NBC network. It was directed by Marvin Chomsky. The series follows two fictional families, the Weiss family and the Dorf family, as a case study into victims and perpetrators in National Socialist Germany. It depicts the Nazi creation of ghettos and the use of gas chambers.

 Meryl Streep as Inga Helms-Weiss in Holocaust (copyright: Getty Images)

The now widespread use of the term “Holocaust” to describe the mass murder of Jews under National Socialism can be attributed to the impact of the series. When the series was screened in West Germany, telephone lines to the television station were inundated with viewers eager to discuss their reactions. However, the film also provoked controversy. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel accused the filmmakers of trivialising the past by turning the Holocaust into a “soap opera”.


Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a French-British production, dates from 1985. This nine-hour documentary film immerses the viewer in first-hand testimony from victims, perpetrators, and fellow travellers. Shoah suggests that the Holocaust cannot be recreated in the form of a feature film; the only way to convey its horror is to listen to those who participated in it or witnessed it.

1990s: New Ways of Seeing the Past

Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List (1993), a multi award-winning American feature film directed by Steven Spielberg, has possibly had the greatest impact of all Holocaust films.

Poster of Schindler‘s List (copyright: Universal Film)

The film follows the German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over a thousand Polish Jews by employing them in his factories. With its black-and-white footage and carefully reconstructed sets, the film conveyed a level of realism and brutality rarely seen on film.

After the success of Schindler’s List, Spielberg set up the Shoah Foundation. Schindler’s List – like Lanzmann’s Shoah – played a central role in the history of the collection of Holocaust testimony.

Schindler’s List includes a “shower scene” in which prisoners expecting to be gassed are showered with water. The scene was controversial, can you imagine why? Generally, film directors have avoided directly portraying the killing in the gas chambers out of respect for the victims. One of the most powerful indirect portrayals can be found in Costa-Gavras’ Amen (2002), a German-French-Romanian production.

Aimee and Jaguar

With the coming of a third and fourth postwar generation, filmmakers begin to depict previously marginalised Nazi victims as a form of “history from below”. This refocusing led to feature films about, for instance, homosexuals (Bent, 1997), and anti-Nazi resistance figures such as Sophie Scholl (2005).

Felice Schragenheim "Jaguar" ("Aimée and Jaguar") memorial stone at the historical site of KZ Bergen-Belsen (copyright: Freud. CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aimée and Jaguar (1999) tells the story of a Lesbian relationship between Lilly (a German) and Felice (a Jew), which ends tragically when Felice is taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp.


Life is Beautiful

The Holocaust provides the background to feature films that are love stories, family histories, resistance tales – and, recently, comedies…

In Roberto Benigni’s Italian comedy-drama Life is Beautiful (1997), a father protects his son from the horrors of imprisonment in a concentration camp by turning the experience into a game.

But should the Holocaust be the subject of comedy?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

In 2006, John Boyne published The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which quickly established itself as one of the most-read novels about the Holocaust.

John Boyne in Dublin (copyright: Barry O’Donovan. CC BY-SA 3.0)

The son of a Nazi perpetrator, Bruno, befriends a young Jewish prisoner, Shmuel. By accident, Bruno is pushed into a gas chamber along with Shmuel.

Mark Herman directed the 2008 British film of Boyne’s novel. The film was a box office success and is often shown in schools. But, like the novel, it has provoked considerable criticism. At the end, audiences are invited to feel sorry for the son of a Nazi camp commandant, and even for his parents.

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, an American-German production, is an example of “alternate history” (what might have happened, but did not). It is a revenge fantasy in which a Jewish cinema-owner and a group of Jewish-American guerrilla soldiers plan to assassinate Nazi leaders.

Here, the divide between fact and fiction in a Holocaust movie is wider than ever.

Is it simply too wide?

Further Questions

Do directors have a particular responsibility to keep to historical truth when making films about the Holocaust?

Why do you think the Holocaust in film is a particularly controversial topic?

Do you think that the theme of the Holocaust should only be presented in the form of documentaries? If so, why?

Is it unethical to show the gas chambers in a feature film? 

Further Reading

Lawrence Baron, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD, 2005)

Robert Eaglestone and Barry Langford, Teaching Holocaust Literature and Film (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2008)

Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002)

Aaron Kerner, Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films (Continuum: New York, 2011)

Yosefa Loshitzky, Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1997)

Robert Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History (Longman/Pearson: Harlow, 2006)