The Ten Best Movies Made About the Holocaust

The Holocaust is a tricky subject to capture well in cinema. Recreations can be weak or unrealistic, but we do have at least a few films which have hit the nail on the head, so to speak. Here are the ten best, ranked down from ten.

10: Sarah’s Key (2011)

This surprisingly well-formed but occasionally weak drama based on the novel, is a compelling work of investigation into the past, the uncovering of hidden secrets and the crumbling effect such events have. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner weaves an intricate web of discovery, revelation and confrontation with the past. Powerful, but not brilliant.

9: The Pianist (2002)

Roman Polanski’s explosive drama about the eventful life of a Jewish pianist is one of the more compelling modern biopics. As a Holocaust piece it works well, but as a piece about a man’s scarred lifetime, it is a masterpiece. The talent of both Polanski and star Adrien Brody are prominent, making this an extremely enjoyable experience.

8: La Vita e Bella (1997)

When the Jews first arrived at the concentration camps, their was a general feeling of optimism which was soon brutally quashed. That optimism seems pertinent to remain in the main character of this film, Guido, whose philosophy seems to live up to this film’s title: la vita é bella: life is beautiful. Optimism in its fullest form is a rare sight in films like these, but in Roberto Benigni’s film, the main character Guido (played suitably by Benigni himself) expresses a rare love for the world around him, in all of its ugliness at the time, which is what makes this film unique.

7: Judgment at Nuremberg (1962)

Anyone with a knowledge of the events spurred on by the Holocaust must surely know about the Nuremberg trials. In this film, much of the trial is fictionalized, but based heavily on true events. This is a gritty and unforgiving look into the harsh genocide that took place, but moreso of the ripples of wordwide reaction it caused.

6: Come and See (1985)

Making a film more violent does not necessarily make it more effective. But in this particular case, it works tremendously. Elem Klimov’s Idi i Smotri (eng: Come and See, a reference to the apocalyptic conclusion of the Bible) is a shocking, disturbing look at a wartorn land fraught with panic, murder and hundreds of thousands of bodies. The camera glides through scenes of mass destruction and some of the images are likely to make you feel sick. Despite the harshness, it is a brilliant film, and not the only one to take a look at war from the perspective of children. Cue #5…

5: Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

It’s hard to address this as Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film, because almost all of his movies are semi-autobiographical. But Au Revoir les Enfants perhaps comes closest to real life. A young man befriends a Jewish boy who is hiding in his school, but the movie is not as soft as is suggested. The harrowing, realistic pace adds to the melodrama, and the film’s chilling eventual conclusion is scary enough without learning that this all happened to Malle.

4: The Sorrow and the Pity (1970)

Not the most accessible documentary about the awful atrocities that occured to the French during the Holocaust, but definitely a powerful one. It contains extended interviews with both sides of the war, from French liberators to Fascist embracers, and reminds us of the fragility of the period and how France has never quite been the same since the war.

3: Schindler’s List (1993)

Containing some of the best acting you’ll see in a Holocaust film, particularly one with American actors, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece is a hellish, realistic and shocking look at a single man’s attempts to save as many Jews as possible by employing them in his factories. The movie is not the most violent on this list, but violence is there. Spielberg wisely does not shy away from it, and if he feels it is necessary, will show death coldly and bluntly. It is the best American film ever made about the Holocaust, by far, and it still shocks and entices with its raw power and silent contemplation.

2: Night and Fog (1955)

A film that somehow manages to be even more shocking than Come and See or Schindler’s List is Alan Resnais’ thirty minute wonder Nuit et Brouillard, which goes through the entire process of concentration camp administration from their initial construction and operation to the dreaded “Final Solution” in all of its gutwrenching solidarity. Francois Truffaut called this film “the greatest movie ever made,” and for many French men and women, it is as frightening as it is rawly compelling. There are images of real death here, some stock footage and images that will heavily disturb, but Night and Fog is a necessary masterpiece, which we close our eyes and try to avoid even as it tells us to keep them open and observe.

1: Shoah (1985)

More than nine hours and not a single piece of footage from the war. Not a frame. No, Claude Lanzmann’s heartbreaking, transfixing documentary is a retrospective work. He doesn’t want us to live in the past, just to briefly dwell on it and remember it. Watching this in a completely silent room from 9pm until 6am, I never got tired or bored for a second. Though there are no dead bodies or gruesome photographs here, Lanzmann presents us with the stuff of nightmares. We see long, lush landscapes, now peaceful and silent, while we learn that the places we are looking at are where the unspeakable atrocities occured. A chill runs down our spine. We don’t need to see the acts to feel their brutal, lasting impact. In a sequence as disturbing as it is awkward, Lanzmann interviews a barber who cut off the hair of Jewish woman. He asks simple, almost irrelevant questions, but slowly begins to wear the man down to the point in which he is unable to answer. Some of the interviews with Nazi officials were recorded in secret, illegally captured, but it is completely worth it. The images evoked by some of their testimonies are haunting, and once they’re in your mind it’s almost impossible to get them out. This is the power of Claude Lanzmann’s documentary: what’s implied is scarier than what’s seen. And for this reason primarily, Shoah is the greatest film ever made about the Holocaust.

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Anything you’d like to add? Thoughts? Which of these have you seen? Which continue to evade you? What films could you add? Leave a comment below.

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About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on July 21, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. Brilliant and very sombre list there Tyler!!

    I have seen a few of these and was actually looking into Sarah’s Key to put on my list yesterday.

    I really do not think that I will see Shoah as I haven’t got the time to invest in that one!! BUT it does look very up your street and can see why it got the top spot!!

    Now I know I am lowering the tone, but, can you really mention ‘The Pianist’ in conversation without giggling? come on man! Admit it!! Ok I am a child….

    • I enjoyed Sarah’s Key, but it felt as if it had been done before. Since I presume you haven’t seen too many Holocaust movies, you should enjoy it.

      Shoah, interestingly enough, is available on YouTube in 59 parts! 59! It does NOT all have to be watched all at once, and I would forgive you if you decided to skim through it and skip a few parts. I imagine it would take up a week’s worth of lunch breaks but it would be very worth it. If you do decide to watch it, spread your viewing out so you’re not overwhelmed by too much melodrama all at once.

      Haha, Custard. You are a child. But I suppose I am too when it comes to movies with titles like “The Pianist,” and more recently, “Snatch.”

  2. I really want to see Sarah’s Key, but I’m too scared to get it out as we only have one copy and someone else (who actually wants to pay for it) might want it. Ah well, I might get it out next week.

    It’s great that you made this list, because I need a war themed movie to watch for an assessment I’m doing. I was going to do Schindler’s List, but since we watched it in drama quite a few people want to do it. As much as I love that movie, I want to do something different. I think Life is Beautiful may just fit the bill. I quite liked that movie.

    I really wanna see The Pianist though. I thought it was next on my Fatso list, but no, Magnolia is. :P

    Night and Fog was absolutely brilliant…it actually gave me nightmares last night.

    If I can track down Shoah (I’m not watching it on the internet though, I don’t have enough space for that) I might watch it. I don’t think I could watch it all in one go, though.

    Anyway, really good list. It’s definitely given me a few ideas

    • Haha, glad to be of service, Stevee.

      Sarah’s Key was nothing too special, but worth a watch I suppose.

      You can rent the Shoah box set, I think Fatso have it, and the great thing about it is that you don’t have to watch it all at once. It can be started and stopped anywhere, and still have the same effect. Although it’s worth watching at night.

      Enjoy Magnolia. You probably won’t love it as much as me, but hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

  3. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Superb list, Tyler!

    ‘Shoa’ deserves its #1 spot. Just for its flat out, in your face honesty that keeps you glued in your seat.

    One or two ‘Honorable Mentions’ for me would be ‘Kapo’ with Susan Strasberg from 1961. About life amongst the women of a camp and the inherent corruption of power. Also, a little known or seen, low budgeted, subtitled masterpiece from 1984, ‘The Wannsee Conference’.

    Not exactly about life and death in the camps, but essential in understanding the mindset, hatred and clinical thought processes that created The Final Solution. The film runs at just under an hour and a half (The exact time allotted for the conference) and the dialogue comes straight from the recovered notes of this sick meeting of the minds. The cast is a list of unknowns who are dead ringers for the characters they portray. Caught it on PBS long ago and have been waiting for it to come out on DVD since.

    HBO did a more audience friendly version of it in 1981. ‘Conspiracy’ with Kenneth Brannagh. Which is quite close, but lacks the original’s power.

    • Hi Jack,

      I tried to watch as many obscure movies as I could for this list but obviously not enough as I haven’t seen your suggestions. But thanks for mentioning them, will try and find them.

  4. Great list. There are so, so many, too. Sophie Scholl, The Diary of Anne Frank (the US one from the 50′s; I haven’t seen it but they have a portion of the Anne Frank house dedicated to it), The Reader, and one of my faves- a great follow up to Schindler’s List- Inheritance.

    There’s also this (potential) abomination, which may never see the light of day:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_the_Clown_Cried

    • I desperately tried to find Sophie Scholl while I wrote the list, because I’d heard so many great things about it, but alas, it continues to evade me.

      While doing research I stumbled upon an article about said abomination, and found myself laughing and wincing that such an idea had almost made it to the screen.

  5. Admittedly, I haven’t seen a few on this list. But of the 7 that I have seen, I wouldn’t put Sophie Scholl ahead of any of them. It’s a very good film, to be sure, but I don’t know that it’s on par with those others.

  6. I would put THE READER in the list too, even though it deals with the time after the Holocaust, but the film has such a strong and deeply profound message and shows things from some totally new perspectives. It was my favourite film the year it was released. And Kate Winslet’s performance in it is just marvelous.

  7. Haven’t seen Shoah, but Night and Fog would be my #1. I’d also say that The Sorrow and the Pity isn’t about the holocaust. It’s one of the issues brought up in the film, but maybe only thirty minutes of the four hour film. It’s more about the Nazi occupation of France.

    • I saw The Sorrow and the Pity in university four years ago, so I don’t remember that much, but I guess it’s easy to associate it with the Holocaust, even if that, strictly speaking, is not the film’s main point. I must watch it again.

  8. Omg thank you!
    I’ve been looking for one of the top best movies of the Holocaust and now i got them :D
    Thankkkkkkkkkkkkk Youuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Thank you. Exactly what I was looking for.

  10. i believe you should add the movie The Devil’s Arithmatic
    it is a heartwarming yet frightful and sad movie about a young girl who is brought into the past to live as her aunts best frend while they were in a consentration camp who sacraficed herself for the 1 she loved

  11. Thanks a ton!

  12. michael simmons

    I AM SEEKING THE TITLE OF A FILM ABOUT CHILDREN OFJEWS WHO SURVIVED WW2. SURVIVING GENERATION WERE GERMAN. THEIR OFFSPRING LIVE UNHAPPY LIVES IN N.Y.CITY. FILM ENDS WITH HOMEMADE MOVIE AND SNAP SHOTS OF HAPPY TIMES IN LATE TWENTIES AND EARLY THIRTIES. V. POWERFUL, WE KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THESE PEOPLE AND THEY DO NOT. MOVIE IS ABOUT 20 YEARS OLD, OR MORE.

  13. Interesting list of very effective films, I remember wathcing Judgment at Nuremberg and being shocked at the camp footage and how realistic it was.

  14. Thanks for the thoughtful list. I would agree with others here that Shoah is the definitive #1 of the films you viewed. This a good start – there are many others. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas & Sophie’s Choice jump to mind. BTW – I had a different interpretation of Life is Beautiful. The father was “optimistic” but he was also conscious of what was happening – and could happen in the concentration camp. He was desperate to preserve his son’s innocence so the child would survive and carry on. The extremes – baseness (nazis) and love (father) – reflect perfectly what makes us human.

  15. fluorovolvo

    Hi there
    Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Korczak’ telling the tragic story of the doctor who ran the orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto is an overlooked classic. Korczak is played by Wojtek Pszoniak, (who played Robespierre to Depardieu’s: ‘Danton’). After seeing ‘Korczak’ you will understand why Spielberg chose black and white for ‘Schindler’s List’, and copied Wajda’s style and approach. I’ve never heard a peep of acknowledgement from Steven on this one……

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