Hollywood Goes to Auschwitz
Hollywood’s first encounter with the Holocaust came decades before Schindler’s List or any such dramatizations. An exhibit called Filming the Camps, created by historian and film director Christian Delage for the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris and now showing at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, reveals how three iconic American directors, John Ford, George Stevens, and Samuel Fuller, translated the camps into films. Their footage of genocide and its perpetrators shaped not only how we perceive the Holocaust, but also the subsequent development of American cinema—and the directors themselves.
The three men could not have been more different. John Ford was America’s most famous filmmaker, as well an officer in the Naval Reserve. He began his career in the silent movie era and by the eve of the war had directed, written, and acted in over one hundred and fifty films in every genre. But in the fall of 1941, after completing a string of hits that included Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley, Ford went on active duty as head of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA).
Under Ford’s command, highly skilled teams of filmmakers were drawn out of Hollywood and deployed to war zones. Ford himself directed film crews at the Battle of Midway in 1942 (during which he was wounded) and at Omaha Beach on D-Day, where he captured the first wave of landings. Ford’s war was global, stretching from France to Burma.
George Stevens received a more sinister remit. In 1943, the journeyman cinematographer left behind frothy comedies and Fred Astaire musicals to become the head of a Signal Corps unit, charged with documenting war crimes and producing footage for use in psychological warfare. In March 1945, Stevens and his team accessed the underground V-2 factory at Nordhausen with its slave labor camp. On May 1st they reached Dachau.
Stevens was given detailed instructions on how and what to film, which stipulated close-ups of evidence of brutality and witness statements. This was film-making far removed from what Stevens and his team—all Hollywood professionals—had known, but the methods were necessarily the same. Individual shots were turned into scenes and then into stories. Every shot was described briefly in summary sheets, and then more elaborately in caption sheets that described a larger scene: “Static shots from 3 angles on open oven doors in crematorium. Note bone and ashes through open doors of oven.”
The footage captures the overwhelming negation of human dignity and identity. It surveys the empty, spectral faces of the living, and displays the naked, emaciated bodies of the dead—stacked in heaps or tumbling into mass graves under the bulldozer’s blade. This was something entirely new to film, and something that no modern special effects could recreate. Though the team shot in black and white, Stevens himself took color film, which was later presented to the Library of Congress. The contrasts between the black and white and color footage cannot be reconciled; how is it possible that the world of darkness was actually in color?
Stevens’ film Nazi Concentration Camps, compiled from his and other footage, was introduced as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials and stands as one of the most direct visual presentations of the atrocities. Devoid of any aesthetic niceties, only the narration provides a connection with cinema as we know it.
Unlike Ford and Stevens, Samuel Fuller was not conscripted to be a cinematographer. He was also the only Jew of the three. A tough New York newspaperman and pulp novelist, Fuller served in the First Infantry Division, "The Big Red One,” fighting his way through North Africa and Sicily, and then from Normandy to Czechoslovakia. But with a handheld 16 mm camera from his mother, he filmed the war as he saw it, featuring the dismembered corpses of soldiers, and bearing witness to the liberation of the Falkenau camp. Like Stevens’ professionally produced work, Fuller’s amateur coverage provided essential documentation of the slaughter. But his was a distinct perspective. Only he could have filmed German civilians, under orders from American forces, dressing the naked corpses of the Jewish dead - a rehumanization that appears at once tender and brutal.
Unasked by the exhibit is the effect on the dozens of personnel who returned to Hollywood to resume careers as cameramen, writers, and technicians, and then on the course of American cinema. To judge from the three directors themselves, these were deep, if unacknowledged.
Ford returned to make an eclectic mixture of dramas and romances, punctuated by his explorations of the human condition through the medium of the Western. Among his non-Westerns, The Quiet Man, about an American boxer seeking peace in the village where he was born in rural Ireland, testifies to a personal quest for solace and belonging. By contrast, The Searchers, starring John Wayne as a Civil War veteran who spends years tracking his kidnapped niece, explores not only the need for justice but also the deep and corrosive effects of obsession and revenge on the soul. Part of Ford remained irredeemable.
Stevens left comedies and romances behind and directed several masterpieces that told stories of personal conflict against the vast setting of the West. Stevens directly broached the war only once on film, in The Diary of Anne Frank, which focuses on the fugitives’ indomitable strength in the face of persecution, conveying at once a hopeful message of moral resilience and an aestheticized and universalized Shoah.
Fuller proved least able to emerge from the horrors of war. He became a B-movie writer and director, featuring on screen the same gangsters, toughs, and soldiers that he had written about before the war. Along the way he pioneered the new techniques of film noir, which literally cast shadows across moral certainty and thematic simplicity. His war movies like The Steel Helmet and Merrill’s Marauders were violent and unflinching, but his need to shock audiences into awareness increased. He returned to the subject of the Holocaust in 1959’s Verboten!, which saw the postwar German bride of an American GI take her younger brother, on the verge of throwing his lot in with Nazi guerrillas, to the Nuremberg Trial to see Nazi Concentration Camps. The boy, at least, is transformed.
But Fuller’s own demons went deeper. His most mature film, 1980’s The Big Red One, gave him the opportunity to replay his own experiences and rewrite an episode from his past. In an extraordinary and gripping juxtaposition, the exhibit shows Fuller’s wartime footage of a badly wounded German soldier. The Americans attempt to save him, cutting away the equipment from his bleeding and shattered body, giving him a characteristic cigarette, and attempting to carry him to safety. They fumble and fail, his eyes grow vacant, and they gently lay him on the cold forest floor to die. Thirty-five years later in The Big Red One, the grizzled sergeant, played by Lee Marvin, himself a wounded Marine veteran, stabs a lone German soldier in the forest but, upon discovering that the war was over, struggles with his men to save the soldier. Marvin succeeds in hoisting the German on his shoulders and carrying him out of the forest. Here at least, Fuller found respite.
The juxtaposition of film as document and film as art suggests that for Ford, Stevens, and Fuller, redemption was hard won. The tragedy of fictional Holocaust films is that redemption comes too easily.