If Imaginary Witness is the most dispassionate account of the Holocaust in the last 20 years that’s because director Daniel Anker recognizes how the gruesomeness of concentration camps have become engrained in pop culture’s collective unconscious, making efforts like the shrill TV movie Anne Frank gratuitous and even exploitive. People know that life under Nazi rule was hell, but not how politics and history made that hell a reality. Anker’s documentary eschews typical Holocaust imagery in order to analyze Hollywood’s ‘30s output as a symptom of the complacency that allowed Hitler’s regime to flourish in the first place. When Jewish studio executives foreshadowed Nazi genocide in productions like Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a British ambassador advised them to stay out of politics for their own interest; only Chaplin, through his own funding, was able to fully evoke the threat of Nazis in a scene from The Great Dictator that has Hitler kicking around a plastic inflated globe. When allied forces finally liberated Jewish prisoners, Americans were shocked at the scale of inhumanity. Perhaps as a result, Hollywood would spend the next several decades reminding everyone exactly how horrific the massacres had been.
So it seems contradictory that Imaginary Witness should use its second half to chide contemporary filmmakers for not treating the Holocaust with enough heed. Via Gene Hackman’s grave voiceover, Anker champions the miniseries War and Remembrance for its crude shocks, confusing Elie Weisel’s call for more careful depictions of the Holocaust to sanctify what is essentially grindhouse cinema. One talking head says that Nazism is something all audiences can agree on as “pure evil,” but to paint recent history in such black-and-white terms only distances the real pain of survivors. (Mysteriously unmentioned is Downfall, which provocatively exposed Hitler’s corruption from inside his own bunker.) In its conclusion, Imaginary Witness says the pressure falls on remaining survivors to certify the authenticity of Holocaust movies (the same backward logic United 93 used to suffocate post-9/11 audiences in unexamined terror), but the art of Downfall and The Great Dictator—or any movie, for that matter—lies in their ability to humanely imagine “unimaginable” horrors.