Gore Vidal has suggested that adolescents study the past through film. History teachers, however, are often reluctant to do so when they know-or fear-that Hollywood revisionism produces inaccuracies, ambiguities, and omissions. As Historian Eric Foner opines, "Most moviegoers ... think JFK is true; they think Matewan is true. They basically think whatever they see is true" (23).
Now, Columbia University historian Mark Carnes, sponsored by the Society of American Historians, has published a compilation of scholarly essays on seventy-five films that span human history from The Ten Commandments and Spartacus to All the President's Men. (The book also includes one essay about pre-human life, Jurassic Park, critiqued by Harvard zoologist Stephen Jay Gould.) The films are reviewed by sixty eminent authorities-primarily historians (James Axtell, Gerda Lerner, William Leuchtenburg), scholars (Paul Fussell, Jonathan Spence), biographers (Antonia Fraser, William Manchester, Richard Reeves), and journalists (Frances FitzGerald). As the book jacket attests, experts "skewer, praise, pick apart, and otherwise illuminate ... cinematic portrayals of history, telling us as much about what the filmmakers got right as about where they went wrong." Each critique is accompanied by a short list of recommended background readings and by box stories that elaborate on contemporary culture or events (e.g., soothsayers and portents in Julius Caesar: Jesuit baptisms in Black Robe). Most of the films are from Hollywood, but several titles represent productions from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, or Japan.
Nearly half of the titles are biographies. Anne Boleyn (Anne of the Thousand Days), Catherine the Great (The Scarlet Empress), Danton, Winston Churchill (Young Winston), Freud, and Rosa Luxemburg accompany cultural icons, such as Houdini and Bonnie and Clyde. Several reviews compare celluloid versions of historical figures: two each about Columbus and the young Lincoln and seven portrayals of Wyatt Earp. Columnist Anthony Lewis not only compares Oliver's and Branagh's versions of Henry V, but also elaborates on Shakespeare's own representation of history.
After the Biblical era, world history begins with fifteenth century France (three films about Joan of Arc) and Britain (A Man for All Seasons), then proceeds through to World War II (Tora! Tora! Tora!, PT 109, The Longest Day, and Patton). Asian events of the early 1900s are portrayed in Shanghai Express and The Human Condition. Unfortunately, five films on World War I are given cursory treatment in Tom Wicker's essay that clusters together The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Dawn Patrol (1938 version), The Fighting 69th, and Paths of Glory. Each of these films deserves a separate essay.
Even though Carnes tried to include "as many times and places as possible" (10), the world history repertoire is largely Eurocentric. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is the only film set in South America; Khartoum is the sole film set in Africa; Australians appear only in Gallipoli; and-other than Apocalypse Now, which features Americans in Vietnam-Ghandi is the only film set in post-World War II Asia. None of the titles covers events in Ancient Greece, explorers other than Columbus, inventors and discoverers, the Holocaust, Zionism, apartheid South Africa, or Argentina's Dirty War, to name a few, even though films about those events exist (e.g., Alexander the Great, The Adventures of Marco Polo, Madame Curie, Judgment at Nuremberg, Exodus, Cry the Beloved Country, The Official Story). Other events are neglected because filmmakers to date seem to have doubted their box office potential (e.g., Ancient Egypt, African slave trade, Australia's colonization).
U.S. history begins with films about native tribes (The Black Robe, Last of the Mohicans) and a musical rendering of the American Revolution (1776). Two views of the Battle of New Orleans are critiqued in both the 1938 and 1958 versions of The Buccaneer. One or two films each represent the Mexican (The Alamo) and Civil Wars (Gone with the Wind) while nine titles look at Westward settlement (including They Died with Their Boots On and Fort Apache). The book also considers labor history in The Molly Maguires, the Chicago Renaissance as portrayed in the original version of The Front Page, and the Manhattan Project in Fat Man and Little Boy. It also compares the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to Dr. Strangelove.
Multicultural American history is represented in films featuring indigenous peoples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, several periods of African American history (Glory, The Long Walk Home, Mississippi Burning, Malcom X), and one title about Jewish immigrants (Hester Street). For those who prefer an expanded definition of cultural diversity, Tea and Sympathy represents "a powerful indictment of male tribalism, conformity, and homophobia in Eisenhower's America" (258). Because the essays are limited to big-screen films, they do not cover events such as the Japanese internment or women's suffrage, which have been developed almost exclusively for television or as documentaries.
Used properly, films can be an effective way to study history. Teachers who are not scholars about every historical epoch will find Past Imperfect to be a fine resource for classroom use. It poses questions that can lead students to discover how films distort history and to ponder why such changes were made. Nonetheless, teachers will also want to supplement these reviews with other critiques. Historian James MacPherson, for example, considers Glory to be "one of the most powerful and historically accurate movies ever made about [the American Civil War]" (128). Students might form other judgments if they also watched the PBS documentary "The 54th Massachusetts Black Infantry." Students could decide if they agreed with MacPherson or with Gannett news columnist DeWayne Wickham.1 MacPherson contends that Glory symbolizes the large number of black soldiers who were slaves until they joined the war rather than the actual soldiers in this particular unit. Wickham, on the other hand, charges that the film is misleading and omits important facts about the 54th infantry. He points out that the soldiers in the 54th infantry were in educated, middle-class occupations-barbers, druggists, printers-not the film's country bumpkins who had to be taught left from right. He also questions why only one real-life member of the unit was mentioned in the film, the white officer who received a posthumous Medal of Honor, whereas the unit included a black captain who also received the Medal and was the U.S. military's first black sergeant major.
This collection reviews films produced between 1915 (Birth of a Nation) and 1993 (Jurassic Park). Readers can only hope that future editions will
include more films of the past as well
as more recent titles, such as Stalin,
Hoffa, Schindler's List, Gettysburg, and Pocahontas. A stunning collection, Past Imperfect leaves both educators and film buffs yearning for more.
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan
The Kingdom of Auschwitz
By Otto Friedrich. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. 122 pp. Paperback. $8.00 U.S.; $11.50 Canada.
The Buchenwald Report
Translated and edited by David A. Hackett. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. Hardback, $35.00. 397 pp.
Auschwitz. The very name evokes horror, even for those who have little idea as to what really took place there. Indeed, it constitutes one of the landmarks of horror that have scarred the twentieth century, "this century of genocide" (Charny, 1988, p. 7; Smith, 1987).
In The Kingdom of Auschwitz, Otto Friedrich provides a vividly detailed, and as painful as it is to say, engrossing story of the Nazi death camp (which, in fact, comprised two major camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II or Birkenau, along with 34 outlying subcamps). For the uninformed, it will be a revelation; for those who are more informed and knowledgeable about the Nazi atrocities, it will reveal little known but profoundly significant and telling details. For all, it will cause one to wonder long and hard why and how something so horrific was perpetrated in the middle of twentieth-century civilization.
Woven throughout the history of this death camp are the stories of the perpetrators and their purpose(s) and plan of action, as well as the voices and eyewitness testimony of many victims. Friedrich informs the reader as to why, how, and when Auschwitz was erected in Oswiecim, Poland, and describes its evolution into a death camp whose running was a bizarre technological affair making Auschwitz a "planet" unto itself.
The number of issues, facts and details Friedrich manages to address in this slim volume is little short of astounding. A listing of a mere fraction of the scores of details, issues and topics will provide the reader with a sense of the breadth of the volume: the personality and nature of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess; the viciousness and terroristic tactics of the SS at Auschwitz; the role of the kapos (or trustees) in carrying out the orders of the SS; the abject horror of Auschwitz (as Hoess said, "In Auschwitz everything was possible,"); the role that companies played in outfitting Auschwitz for its manufacture of death; the various victims (primarily the Jews, but also Gypsies, Russians, Poles, and others) incarcerated in and engulfed by Auschwitz; the on-going "refinement" of the gassing techniques in order to streamline the process and make it more "efficient"; the decisionmaking that led to the "Final Solution" (including the infamous Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942); life and death in the camp; the massive killing machine that was Auschwitz-Birkenau ("the four great crematoria... could take in as many as ten thousand prisoners per day" ); the fact the "normaquot; men, for the most part, ran Auschwitz ("not more than five or ten percent were pathological criminals in the clinical sense," ); the role of the Sonderkommando (those Jewish prisoners who were responsible for leading people into and pulling them out of the gas chambers as well as loading them into the crematoria, etc.); and the attempted escapes and revolts in the camp.
For all of its strengths, there are several aspects of the volume that could have been strengthened. First, in numerous places Friedrich uses quotes from semi-fictional pieces by Elie Wiesel and Tadeusz Borowski to serve as testimony about various facts. In light of the vast numbers of first-person accounts that are available, it would have been wise for Friedrich to have used those instead. Second, while Friedrich uses quote marks to set off quotations, he does not, for some reason, provide complete citations (e.g., date, page numbers, etc.). He does include an appendix entitled "A Note on Sources," but even this does not include the names of the publishers of the pieces. Third, while Friedrich includes an "Index of Names," he does not include key events (incidents or locations), both of which would have enhanced the book's usefulness.
The aforementioned quibbles aside, both teachers and students should find this volume highly engaging and enlightening. It is clearly written, extremely interesting, and packed with important information regarding Auschwitz and the Nazi plan of annihilation. Concomitantly, the maps delineating the location of the various concentration camps and ghettos in Poland, as well as the illustration of the Auschwitz complex, should prove extremely useful to teachers and students alike.
Ultimately, what comes through loud and clear in this slim volume is the brutal and overwhelming horror of the systematic, factory-like death that Auschwitz represented. As philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in Jerusalem while attending Adolf Eichmann's trial for his role in carrying out the Holocaust: "What for Hitler was among the war's main objectives...and what for Eichmann was a job, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world" (22).
The Buchenwald Report constitutes a unique document in the annals of historical documentation of the Holocaust. Within days of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, which was located in western Germany, a special team of German-speaking intelligence officers from the U.S. Army compiled an in-depth report on Buchenwald by interviewing the prisoners who had been incarcerated there. The report basically documented the prisoners' knowledge of daily life in the camp, the structure and functioning of the camp, the horrific brutality meted out by the Nazis, kapos, and others against the prisoners, and the severe and ongoing deprivation suffered by the prisoners. Selective portions of the report were subsequently used as evidence at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and the U.S. trials of concentration camp guards at Dachau. Several of the latter trials involved cases against guards who served at Buchenwald.
The Introduction, which is entitled "Documenting the Nazi Camps: The Case of the Buchenwald Report," informs the reader as to how and why the report was produced as well to its value:
The Buchenwald Report stands as a unique document because in no other case were prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp systematically interviewed while still in camp, immediately after liberation [italics in original]. The report was an attempt to document the history, organization, and life of the camp in its entirety. Made with the active collaboration of 104 prisoners who contributed 168 reports, it was a collective effort. It represents the views of people of many nationalities rather than the perspective of any single individual, as do most later memoirs and oral histories (1-2).
The result was the collection of information that was fresh in the minds of the interviewees. As Holocaust scholar Henry Friedlander (1991) has noted, first-person accounts collected shortly after the events took place are particularly valuable in that they contain the undiluted memory of recent experiences, whereas those conducted much later after the war "have often only reflected popular views of the experience" (91).
The detailed description and examination of the camp in the first part of the book and the accompanying first-person narratives in the second part provide readers with numerous and valuable insights into the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. More than anything else, what comes through loud and clear is that the people deemed subhuman (e.g. the Jews) and/or menaces to society (e.g. criminals and social deviants) by the Nazis were-in the Nazis' mindset-simply expendable. They were to be used as fodder for the Nazi machinery, and when they were no longer useful as slave laborers (e.g. no longer able to work the long hours under brutal conditions), they were automatically condemned to "elimination" (death via murder).
Concomitantly, the report makes it amply clear that another purpose of the camp was to purposely create as much misery, pain, and sorrow as possible for the prisoners-and simply for the sheer sake of it. Indeed, the senseless cruelty, brutality and sadism to which the prisoners were subjected is clearly and amply delineated. As a result, one gleans powerful and unforgettable insights into the abject horror and nightmarish conditions to which the prisoners were subjected, as well as the brutishness and savagery practiced by the Nazis at all levels. A few examples begin to provide a sense of what the prisoners faced on an hourly and daily basis:
In the famine of winter 1939..., the square was covered with the dead and dying at every roll call. Anyone who had died in the block or work detail during the day had to be dragged to the square (138).
I once saw how both [two SS officers] armed themselves with truncheons and stormed a latrine that was occupied by twenty prisoners. They beat the prisoners over the heads so that most of them fell into the latrine. The latrines were full of excrement. If one of the prisoners tried to climb out, [they] would beat him with their truncheons again. A large number of the prisoners thus drowned in the latrine (153).
The mass murderer Sommer would place a bucket with chlorinated lime in the cell of his victim, then pour water over it and almost completely seal the cell. The escaping [chlorine] gas then led to a torturous death by suffocation that lasted for hours (216).
One of the most heartening issues raised in the book focuses on the numerous prisoners who "fought" for better conditions and/or actually developed better living conditions in the camp. This involved everything from developing more sanitary conditions in the camp (particularly as it applied to the sewage situation) to "organizing" (i.e. "stealing") medication, blankets, towels and soap and providing it to those prisoners in need. These actions, of course, were carried out under the constant threat of death.
Equally heartening is the description of the solidarity established among the prisoners. For example, prisoners frequently attempted to save lives by appropriating the names of those who had already perished (in most cases, this was a result of having been starved to death or murdered) and giving them to those who were condemned to death or assigned to transports that were headed to gas chambers. In other cases, prisoners who were denied food by the SS were provided with it on the sly by other prisoners.
Also moving is the description of the attempts-many of which were successful-by the antifascist movement to sabotage the war efforts of the Nazis. This involved everything from stealing parts that were essential for manufacturing weapons to making sure that only "those comrades were sent [to work in the armaments factories] who could guarantee the execution of the necessary sabotage in the war industry" (298). In other cases, "prisoner functionaries active [in the antifascist movement] sent good skilled workers off to factories that did not immediately serve armaments production, while primarily unskilled manpower was sent to armament factories" (309).
Also included in the volume is a map of Buchenwald, a useful glossary, a selective bibliography, and a detailed index.
This volume is highly recommended both for those who know little about the Holocaust and those who are well versed in the subject. Its subject matter and detail will likely provide all readers with new and powerful insights into the Nazi goals and mindset, as well as the horror to which so many innocent people were subjected. Particularly ideal for teachers is the fact that the book includes succinct but detailed chunks of key and fascinating information which could be used to highlight innumerable themes and topics germane to a study of the Holocaust.
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville