In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and gradually proceeded to divest German Jews of their citizenship rights, eventually forcing them to reside in Ghettos, and finally concentration camps. How does Hollywood go about making pictures that capture the tragedies of the Holocaust, while appealing to viewers who, quite often, don’t want to submit themselves to the realities of that history? Audiences who, from a historical perspective, ask how this could have happened? Audiences who inquire how folks could not have known?
Over these last decades, several wonderful films have been produced addressing the horrors. Tour our photo gallery ranking our choices for the 15 finest of these movies (no documentaries included) (no documentaries included). Our Holocaust Remembrance list includes classics “Schindler’s List,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Pianist,” “The Reader” and “Life Is Beautiful.”
In the Holocaust, Jewish inmates were denied of food, given only rags to wear in the harshest of winters, taken from their families, mistreated in the most inconceivable of ways and eventually led to “showers,” in which they were gassed. Jewish males were often entrusted with carrying out these procedures against their fellow men. This poison spread throughout Europe, and the ambition for power of one man, and the refusal of many men to do something about it, nearly destroyed our planet, and most surely changed it forever.
Eleven million people were exterminated during the Holocaust, almost half of them were Jewish, and over a million of whom were children. Filmmakers have documented the tragedy of this time, as well as the rare moments of humanity that shone through the darkness, with movies that capture the day-to-day futility of the camps, the severe and lasting trauma faced by survivors and the persistence of the human spirit.
15. The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
This biopic recalls the efforts of Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), the director to the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain), to shelter Jews during the German invasion, and then occupation, of Poland during WWII. As the pair risk their lives to hide immigrants in the zoo’s many tunnels and cages, the Zabinskis must also hold Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a former zoo rival and now a member of the Nazi regime, at bay. The video recounts the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, the tragedies humanitarians like Jan were compelled to not only watch but also to participate in and the damage that the occupation left in its aftermath. The Zabinskis’ travails spared 300 Jews from certain death.
14. Enemies, A Love Story (1989)
Not your typical Holocaust film, “Enemies” follows Holocaust survivor Herman Broder (Ron Silver) to New York, where he ends up in a love quadrangle with his current wife Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), the Gentile Polish servant who hid him during the war; Masha (Lena Olin), the fellow survivor with whom he indulges in a passionate affair; and Tamara (Anjelica Huston), his first wife from Poland he thought had died in a concentration camp. Haunted by the horrors of the Holocaust, Herman lives with despair and survivor’s guilt, reflecting in his moral decisions that effect not just him, but the three women he can’t really love but nevertheless strives to make happy.
13. Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Director Louis Malle discusses his experiences as a boy eternally touched by a friendship that ends in a most horrible way. In 1943 France, upperclass boarding student Julien (Gaspard Manesse) meets, and immediately detests, new student Jean (Raphael Fejto) (Raphael Fejto). However, the two gradually become good friends, and Julien discovers a secret: Jean is one of numerous Jewish youngsters the priest supervising the school is sheltering from Nazi authorities. What unfolds is a lovely story of friendship that is ripped apart when the Gestapo is tipped off, and Julien unknowingly betrays his friend. The film finishes with Malle’s voiceover: “More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”
12. The Reader (2008)
Michael is a law student observing a trial of female Nazi guards and is surprised to learn that an older woman with whom he had affair during his teen years is one of the defendants. During their time together, Hanna had often asked him to read to her, and he deduces a secret that could benefit her in the trial, but opts to stay quiet. What unfolds is a story of the flaws of humans: what some must do in order to survive, the influence of a lack of education and the ways in which we rationalize our wrongs and then look for absolution in the face of our own shame.
11. Denial (2016)
In this biopic, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) (Timothy Spall). In the United Kingdom, the burden of proof is on the defense, and Lipstadt puts up a legal team to prove Irving’s charges incorrect. It’s a slippery slope, though, as British Jews are anxious that Irving will only gain free attention for his preposterous charges – and as the judge points out, it’s tough if Irving actually believes what he writes is true. In the end, Lipstadt prevails, and Irving is exposed as a falsifier of history; although, tragically, there are people who believe this movie is biased and support him.
10. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Retired American Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) oversees the trial of four Nazi judges for war crimes, and endeavors to understand how a peer, renowned Judge Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), could have unfairly sentenced so many people, and how the German people could have ignored what was happening around them. The defendants maintain that they were patriots, upholding the rules of their land as they were sworn to do. Friends and family of the judges’ victims share heart-wrenching testimonies on the abuses these men of law caused (Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift give great performances) (Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift give superb performances). Released just 16 years after the conclusion of the war and largely based on a genuine trial, “Judgment” is a thought-provoking and grim critique . Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won for script and Best Actor for Maximilian Schell (who played the defense counsel) (who played the defense counsel).
9. Defiance (2008)
In Belarus, the parents of the Bielski brothers (Daniel Craig, Live Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay) are slain by Nazi task forces; the four men escape to the jungle, swearing revenge. They uncover fellow Jews in hiding, and organize a camp, foraging for food and moving around to avoid discovery by German authorities. Over the span of years, the brothers and their recruits struggle severe winters, sickness, inter-fighting and the constant fear of being detected. In this fact-based story, there are casualties; yet, the brothers persevere to build a colony in the forest, successfully hiding roughly 1200 Jews.
8. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history at its best, this film depicts parallel attempts to assassinate the top Nazi officials. Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is the only member of her Jewish family to survive an assault by Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) (Christoph Waltz, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Four years later, Shosanna is operating a theatre under an assumed identity, and concocts a great plot to rid the world of the top Nazis when she is “asked” to host the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film. Meanwhile, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads an army of Jewish American soldiers who scalp and kill German soldiers. In a blaze of brilliance, the ills of the world are swept out in this spectacular perspective on what “should have been.”
7. The Pawnbroker (1964)
After witnessing the fates of his wife and children at the hands of Nazis, Holocaust survivor Sol (Rod Steiger, in an outstanding Oscar-nominated performance) has become a bitter and detached man. Now running a pawn shop in Harlem, he suffers flashbacks to his time in the concentration camp, causing an emotional detachment that results in tragedy in the present. Sidney Lumet’s haunting tale is credited with being the first American film to show the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a survivor, and continues to be influential and relevant today.
6. Son of Saul (2015)
Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, concentration camp prisoners tasked with herding other prisoners to the gas chambers and cleaning up afterwards. One day, Saul witnesses a Nazi doctor suffocate a boy who is still alive following a gassing. Saul, convinced the boy is his child, is determined to give the boy a proper Jewish burial, and sets out to do all he can to protect the body. A gripping tale of hopelessness and despair, this Hungarian film earned many accolades, including Best Picture awards from both the Academy and the Golden Globes.
5. Sophie’s Choice (1982)
In 1947 Brooklyn, Stingo (Peter MacNicol) shares many happy times with neighbors Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her manic lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), but struggles to understand why Sophie stays with Nathan despite his abuse and jealous rages. Sophie, a Polish immigrant, recounts the circumstances that landed her in Auschwitz, where she is forced to make a brutal decision and to do unthinkable things to protect her children. Possibly Streep’s greatest performance, she won her second Academy Award (her first as Best Actress) for her poignant betrayal of the haunted Sophie.
4. Life Is Beautiful (1997)
What begins as an idyllic love story between Jewish Italians Guido (Roberto Benigni, who also directed) and Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) turns into a nightmare when they and their son are sent to concentration camps. Guido’s love of life inspires him to comfort his son with games and humor to distract from the horrors of their situation and from their separation from his mother. The film has received criticism for its comedic elements in regards to the Holocaust; however, most have been won over with Benigni’s portrayal of paternal love and human dignity. It became one of the most successful non-English films of all time, winning numerous awards, including three from the Academy (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Benigni) (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Benigni).
3. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
What more can be said about the young Jewish girl who lived in hiding, fearing for her life and the lives of her family members and friends, but also eloquently wrote of hope and belief in the kindness of man? This adaptation of her firsthand account of the events surrounding the Holocaust is considered to be the finest adaptation of her diary, with Millie Perkins giving a poignant portrayal of the inspirational girl, and Shelley Winters winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a fellow Jew in hiding.
2. The Pianist (2002)
Based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), the film chronicles the five-year struggle of the Warsaw pianist to survive during the Nazi invasion of his nation. Szpilman and his family are pushed into the Warsaw Ghetto, and are finally separated. Szpilman later assists a Jewish insurrection, eventually fleeing and generally doing what he can to survive by relying on people to hide him and feed him with food. Nominations for the film were made for seven Academy Awards, with Brody winning Best Actor for his performance in the film.
1. Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture masterpiece, which was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won seven, tells the true story of a man who overcomes his own human flaws to save hundreds of Jews. After seeing the body of a little girl in a red coat among the dead, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is haunted by the memory of that little girl, who was murdered by the Nazis. As a means of ensuring the safety of his Jewish workers, he forms an uneasy alliance with the cold-blooded Nazi lieutenant Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes). Films like Schindler’s List are a fitting tribute to the humanity that persevered through this atrocity, and this one is no exception.