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Cinematic Narratives of the Holocaust

There are a wealth of documentaries that chronicle the events leading up to World War II, the conditions of camps and ghettos across Europe, and biopics of major Nazi officers and heroic resistors; however, the cut and dry nature of many documentaries fails to convey the emotional and psychological aspects of the war, the politics, and the will to survive. The following narrative films chronicle real-life events that took place during Nazi occupation of Europe, but portray their truths in relatable storytelling and captivating performances.

Stories of Survival

The Second World War brought the world hundreds of stories of rescue, surviving the odds, and brilliant resourcefulness that allowed men, women, and children to escape the grasp of Nazi forces. One of those harrowing stories is portrayed in the Roman Polanski film “The Pianist” (2002), which centers on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist and composer who must put his career on hold to fight for survival amidst the bombings and constant threat of discovery. With his own personal connection to the story, Polanski “who was a Jewish child in Krakow when the Germans arrived in September 1939, presents Szpilman’s story with bleak, acid humor and with a ruthless objectivity that encompasses both cynicism and compassion”. The film stays true to the storyline, not trying to encompass the entire war or genocide, and the singularity of the story works to build the emotional response of the viewer by connecting them with only the characters pertinent to Szpilman’s struggle.

Other stories of survival, some of which detail accounts of resistors actively working against the Nazis, include:

in DARKNESS” is the true story of a sewer worker who hides Jewish children in the town’s sewers for fourteen months in order to save them from the death that awaits them above ground.

Black Book” recalls several true events that took place during Nazi occupation as one woman escapes death only to infiltrate German headquarters as a spy who has her allegiances tested.

La Rafle” examines the Vel’ de’Hiv round up and mass deportation of French Jewish citizens by their government during 1942.

Defiance” is an adventure movie based on the true story of the Bielski brothers who transform from farmers to freedom fighters, inspiring others to join their ranks to fight the Nazis.

The Counterfeiters” is an Academy Award winning film retelling of the true story of Salomon Sorowitsch, a counterfeiter tasked with choosing between survival by helping the Nazis or rebellion that leads death at the hands of the Third Reich.

Rediscovering Your Heritage

Many people enjoy delving into their family’s genealogy, but what do you do when your family past leads you to the ghettos and sites of concentration camps? Several films tackle the emotional journey of rediscovering family through the tragedy of loss in World War II, some taking a sobering tone while others lean toward lightheartedness to console both the protagonist and the viewer. In “Everything is Illuminated,” director Liev Screiber takes “a very weird and delightful book” by Jonathan Safran Foer, “stayed absolutely faithful to its story and style, and made a clinically adequate, occasionally above-average art house film”. This story focuses more on the main character, Jonathan, and his journey to Ukraine to discover more about the woman that rescued his grandfather from Nazis than it does on the atrocities committed to his family and others in Ukraine. While some may view this film as too blithe, the early moments of silly banter are matched by the solemn sobriety of the latter part, or as Roger Ebert said, “The first third of the film could be inspired by Fellini’s “Amarcord,” the last third by Bergman’s darkest hours”.

For more films about discovering a past tied to the Holocaust, check out “Ida,” the story of an 18 year old girl discovering the truth about herself, her heritage, and the sad fate of her family during Nazi occupation.

The Politics of the Third Reich

While some fled occupied countries and others took to hiding, some took to, or were taken to, the courts to speak back against the Nazi regime. One of the most famous anti-Nazi heroes is immortalized in the film “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.” This true story of a girl working with the subversive White Rose group to spread anti-Hitler and anti-Nazi leaflets, “pointedly steers away from unnecessary melodrama and sentimentality to deliver a crisp chronology of events told entirely from Sophie’s perspective”. Other films about Sophie Scholl include “White Rose” and “Five Last Days.”


These are the films you’ve probably seen, but are worth checking out again this April.

The Great Dictator” starring Charlie Chaplin.

The Sound of Music” starring Julie Andrews.

Schindler’s List” starring Liam Neeson.

“Sophie’s Choice” starring Meryl Streep.

Movies to Avoid

The following films are beautiful, but value sentimentality over facts of the war and crimes against humanity that took place in 1930’s and 1940’s Europe.

Sarah’s Key

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

“Shining Through”

For other films that depict the events and people of the Holocaust, be sure to stop by the following branches of the Dallas Public Library for their film screenings this April. Find listings at

Natalie McAdams, Dallas Public Library


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