During the opening montage of Daniel Anker's documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood And The Holocaust, film producer Martin Starger acknowledges that it's all but impossible to make a movie about genocide without being accused of exploiting it for commercial gain, or even cheapening it. But then he asks the key question: "Should you not do it?" After all, Hollywood shares some small blame for what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, if only for the way the studios avoided the subject before and during the war. Germany was a major customer for Hollywood films in the '30s, and though Warner Bros. did produce some anti-fascist films that called Hitler out by name, the preponderance of newsreels, cartoons, comedies, and features framed the conflict in Europe as an issue of property rights, not racial cleansing.
Imaginary Witness traces how American TV producers and filmmakers went from ignoring the Holocaust to detailing it graphically in dramas like War And Remembrance and Schindler's List. In between, writers and directors mainly felt comfortable dealing with the survivors, perhaps because they could be turned into characters with easily communicated backstories. (Just insert a shot of a number tattoo, and the audience fills in the gaps.) Then when NBC helped codify the Holocaust meta-narrative with a four-part 1978 miniseries, the network drew criticism from prominent survivors like Elie Wiesel for simplifying the event, and making money off it. More than a decade later, Steven Spielberg caught flack for making the hero of his Schindler's List a repentant Nazi, and the Jews only supporting players.
Anker should be commended for bringing up the debate over whether "Holocaust movies" are inherently suspect, or if it's worse to avoid the topic altogether. But Imaginary Witness merely mentions the controversies; it doesn't really engage them. Why not ask Steven Spielberg about his reported distaste for Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful? Or talk to noted Spielberg-hater Jean-Luc Godard about Schindler's List? Putting "Hollywood" in the title holds Anker back from mentioning seminal foreign documentaries like Night And Fog and Shoah, or from bringing up the lurid subgenre of independently produced Holocaust sexploitation films. Imaginary Witness works fine as an illustrated history, but the material could've supported something more probing and provocative. Anker shows clips of a gutsy Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, imitating Hitler and kicking a helium-filled globe around, but nothing in Imaginary Witness is nearly as bold.