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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

Edited By 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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Saviors in the Night (2009): German Loyalty—to the Reich or to Humanity?: Michael Resler


Michael Resler

Even in the midst of ongoing genocide, no single nation or people has a monopoly on either good or evil. For decades, films depicting everyday Germans living under National Socialist rule largely disregarded that simple dictum. The “good German” was only rarely to be seen on the big screen, other than as the focus of an occasional subplot, that is, until close to the end of the twentieth century, when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List came upon the scene in 1993. To be sure, in the earlier post-war years, “interest in altruism in general and the specific individuals who risked their own lives to save Jews already existed.”1 Yet, not at all surprisingly, given the role played in the Holocaust by Germans, it was non-Germans who are portrayed in the central role of selfless savior, with few exceptions. Among others, the 1945 film, The Last Chance and Ich weiß, wofür ich lebe2 from the year 1955 exemplify that initial post-war pattern. And in what is perhaps the most celebrated of such stories, The Diary of Anne Frank,3 it is, once again, non-Germans (the Dutch co-workers of Otto Frank) who shield the family, over a period of just over two years, in a secret warren of rooms located behind and above the father’s place of business in Amsterdam.

By the time of the 1978 American docudrama Holocaust—appearing more than three decades after the end of the war and the liberation of the...

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