Jewish Resistance in Movies – Best of

The Jews did not go to the slaughterhouse like sheep. They offered resistance to the Holocaust in a variety of ways: cultural resistance such as schools or theaters are among them, as well as, of course, the documentation of crimes, such as that organized in Warsaw by Emanuel Ringelblum, and, of course, the armed struggle: in the Warsaw Ghetto, in Treblinka, in Sobibor, with the Bielski Partisans – and in countless other places. And isn’t even survival a form of resistance when the state’s goal is the murder of all Jews?

Historians have dealt with all these aspects. They have presented studies, books and essays, and they have advised clever documentary films. But only a few feature films are explicitly devoted to Jewish resistance.

But they do exist. Sometimes they are fictional, sometimes they are based on real facts. It can be humor – where laughter gets stuck in your throat -, it can be an action film with Jewish heroes like Daniel Craig’s „Defiance“, it can show despair. The forms of representation are as diverse as the resistance. We spent a semester watching and analyzing films.

 

Here is our ranking of the best feature films on Jewish resistance:

  1. Son of Saul (a masterpiece of art, the perspective of a prisoner in the Auschwitz Sonderkommando who sets out on the desperate mission of organizing a Jewish funeral for a victim of the gas chambers)
  2. The Pianist (the Warsaw Ghetto and the questions of who is called to resist and when resistance starts; Roman Polanski’s masterpiece about Wladyslaw Szpilman is rightly world famous)
  3. Train of Life (yes, you are allowed to laugh about the Holocaust, and maybe it is the only way to bear the horror at all; a brilliant play with fiction and reality)
  4. The Grey Zone (once again, the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, with a highly reflective film about the limits and possibilities of resistance, and what it can achieve in the face of the overwhelming violence of the Germans)
  5. Run Boy Run (Surviving as a child in occupied Poland: How much improbable luck, how much skill and ability is needed to escape the Holocaust? That too is active resistance)

…and here are three accidents, movies that show what can go wrong:

  1. Walking with the Enemy (Ben Kingsley as the super likeable Admiral Horthy in Hungary, who doesn’t want to collaborate with the Germans at all – many good intentions and a remarkable starting story lead to a disastrous film, which falsifies history, kitsches up resistance to a love story and shows why costumes and hairs are not everything)
  2. Sobibor (the film from 2018 is already the second one dedicated to the uprising in the extermination camp. But where Rutger Hauer has the survivors‘ reports as a basis in 1987, in this version it is a Russian-patriotic heroic saga and a one-man show)
  3. Jacob the Liar (another new film adaptation, this time of a GDR original. Robin Williams tries to breathe the will to live into a ghetto with the power of lies – and flattens the complexity of the original to trivial Hollywood cinema)

Stephan Lehnstaedt

Stephan Lehnstaedt ist seit 2016 Professor für Holocaust-Studien und Jüdische Studien am Touro College Berlin. Er unterrichtet im Masterstudiengang "Holocaust Communication and Tolerance".

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