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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

John J. Michalczyk and SJ Raymond G. Helmick

While the ashes of the Holocaust were still fresh, Polish Jewish attorney Raphael Lemkin put a name to the tragedy that had decimated his family – genocide. The twentieth century was brutally scarred by the massive scale of genocide and its manifest forms of ethnic cleansing, massacres, and atrocities. We ask how these horrors can be visually translated to the screen while both maintaining their authenticity and serving as commercial «entertainment». Through an analysis of a series of poignant films on the plight of the Native Americans, the controversial Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and its legacy, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the Hutu-sponsored massacres in Rwanda, the reader can grasp the driving mechanisms of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The oft-repeated, «Never again» rings hollow to our ears in the wake of these tragedies in a post-Holocaust era. The films discussed here, both features and documentaries, are set in an historical context that sheds light on the dark side of humanity and are then discussed with the hope of better understanding our frailty. In the end, however, we ask can the «unrepresentable» ever be represented?
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The Growing Consciousness of the Shoah through Film: For Better or Worse: John J. Michalczyk


John J. Michalczyk

Films attempting to depict the Holocaust or the Shoah have been in great part responsible for educating society about the most horrific genocide of the twentieth century. As we consider the evolution of the Holocaust film in a chronological fashion, we can detect certain patterns as well as certain clichés in an endeavor to represent the unrepresentable. Although imperfect, the films each contribute to a dialogue about the unparalleled phenomenon that drove Raphael Lemkin to put a name to the human tragedy.

The Holocaust can be viewed as the product of a “perfect storm”: the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, the need for a scapegoat after the downfall of Germany in WWI, and the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in 1933, lasting until 1945 with its increasingly racist policies.1 Film, with its new technological developments in the hands of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and director Leni Riefenstahl, brought to the screen Triumph of the Will (1935): marching Nazis, idealistic Hitler Jugend, and crowds in Nuremberg, cheering on their new messiah. Their further collaboration in Olympia (1938) revealed a superior Aryan race in the third “illustrious” empire following those of Greece and Rome. At the same time, the burgeoning political medium also filled the screen with images of virulent anti-Semitic narratives of lecherous Jews in Jud Süss (1940) and rat-like creatures in the pseudo-documentary The Eternal Jew (1940). Both films paved the way for accepted graphic depictions of what...

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