Hollywood’s record now, not in the 1930s, is what matters

By Jennifer Lipman, July 5, 2013

It's a plot ready-made for a film classic, one Frank Capra himself could have written. Mr Smith goes to Berlin, perhaps. The major players in a certain industry have for decades cultivated an image of respectability, heroism, of being on the side of the little guy. But then one man exposes them as collaborators; villains working on the side of evil.

Ben Urwand's book Hollywood's Pact with Hitler is not out yet, so although we have been treated to juicy tidbits about how studio bosses apparently bowed to Nazi demands so as to maintain lucrative links with Germany, it remains to be seen just how much the writer has uncovered.

But if true - and his account ha-s been challenged - his findings are shocking. Given that the claim "the Jews built Hollywood" is not much of an exaggeration - think of Louis B Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor and Jack Warner - it's unpleasant to learn of these same men agreeing to censor films to Nazi tastes.

There's undoubtedly value in clarifying the role of showbusiness in the most horrific period of the last century, especially given that Hollywood's reach has hardly diminished since.

But one oft-made criticism of historical films is that the past is told with a modern narrative. As the New York Times noted about Spielberg's Lincoln, the film wasn't just about how the president abolished slavery, it "can also be seen as a critique of Mr Obama's inability to force the opposition to work with him."

To claim ‘the Jews built Hollywood’ is not a stretch

When we look back at history, the Holocaust included, we naturally do so with the benefit of hindsight. We know the righteous gentiles who sheltered Jews in doing so saved them from the gas chambers; we know that those who assumed tales of death camps were exaggerated were tragically wrong. And though not everything that went on was hidden from view - Urwand notes that Hollywood knew something of what was going on in the Third Reich because "it had been forced to fire its own Jewish salesmen" - we also know too well there were Jews who believed keeping their heads down would be enough, that there was no need to flee while they still could.

To accuse the men who ran Hollywood in the 1930s of "collaborating" - rather than the lesser charge of putting business interests above all else - seems unfair, since even now, as Brad Pitt battles zombies, the idea of a systematic attempt to eradicate an entire racial group surely goes to the extremes of what most fiction writers would present as a convincing plot.

Of course Hollywood could have done more - we can only wish the studios had mounted an anti-Nazi propaganda drive - but we should also review its record in subsequent decades. From the 1959 version of The Diary of Anne Frank, to Life is Beautiful, or from The Pianist to The Reader, Hollywood executives have not shied away from portraying the brutalities of Nazism on screen. Do Holocaust films make good money for producers? Maybe so, but it's hardly the point.

In our community, where a premium is placed on discussing the Shoah in our schools, shuls and youth movements, it's easy to overlook the fact that for the majority, the subject isn't necessarily a preoccupation. It might be one topic of many in the history curriculum, the odd documentary might capture attention. But the likelihood is that it is cinema, above all, that has exposed people to what the Nazis did. The average person might not visit Auschwitz, but thanks to Spielberg, they will at least have an idea of what went on inside. Exaggerated though it is, Defiance at the very least put to rest the suggestion that no Jews fought back and told of the resistance movements. Audiences will know from The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas that children were condemned along with adults; Meryl Streep as Sophie emphasised that non-Jews also perished under the Nazis.

Of course, accuracy is a concern, likewise that the facts might become merely a backdrop to an epic love story or the prologue to an X-Men adventure. It's a worry that some might take Quentin Tarantino's version as gospel. But more of a worry is ignorance, or lack of interest in what happened. And with fewer survivors to share their stories, we need the might of Hollywood to ensure the Shoah stays in the public consciousness.

As a tool, it's by no means perfect, nor are rousing scenes featuring young ingénues a substitute for seeing firsthand the piles of human hair, but with the spread of misinformation online, and the fact that Holocaust denial remains prevalent, it is not one to be underestimated.

Did Hollywood let itself down in the 1930s, and put the pursuit of profit above every other consideration? Urwand certainly thinks so. Nevertheless, we have plenty to thank it for since.

Last updated: 10:45am, July 5 2013