Visu­al Arts

Cin­e­ma Judaica: The War Years, 1939 – 1949

Ken Sutak
  • Review
By – May 19, 2014

Two visu­al­ly engag­ing well-researched vol­umes that treat aspects of pop­u­lar cul­ture that have used sub­jects which influ­ence pub­lic per­cep­tion of Jews and their his­tor­i­cal presence. 

Cin­e­ma Judaica ana­lyzes the films made in the decade sur­round­ing World War II: the peri­od pri­or to the U.S. entry into the con­flict, the war years, and the imme­di­ate post-war years. Sev­er­al fac­tors influ­enced pro­duc­tion. With the start of Nazi expan­sion­ist activ­i­ty in Europe seri­ous anti-Inter­ven­tion­ist move­ments arose in the U.S. along with sup­port and admi­ra­tion for Hitler. The movie indus­try depend­ed on rev­enues from dis­tri­b­u­tion of films in Europe, so that when the Nazis demand­ed that they get rid of all Jew­ish employ­ees in their Ger­man offices all but two stu­dios com­plied. The author describes the unwel­com­ing atmos­phere when some Hol­ly­wood direc­tors want­ed to make films that would inform the peo­ple of the dan­gers of the Nazi policies.

The motion pic­ture industry’s self cen­sor­ship boards (Pro­duc­tion Code Admin­is­tra­tion – PCA) and the lack of con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tion of free speech” neg­a­tive­ly influ­enced Hollywood’s resolve to pro­duce films that might not pass the code, which includ­ed dis­al­low­ing films that would cause affront to for­eign states.” Only after the rev­e­la­tion of Nazi espi­onage in the U.S. could Warn­er Broth­ers film Con­fes­sions of a Nazi Spy,” released in 1938, expect to pass the code. Oth­er films released dur­ing this peri­od include Espi­onage Agent” and Hitler, Beast of Berlin,” the lat­ter being dis­trib­uted with­out a PCA seal. Some films, such as Pas­tor Hall,” about the Naz­i­fi­ca­tion of Ger­man Protes­tant church­es, was a British film that was delayed in pro­duc­tion while Neville Cham­ber­lin was prime min­is­ter and lat­er rushed into pro­duc­tion by Win­ston Churchill. Because of its vio­lent scenes in the con­cen­tra­tion camps with iden­ti­fi­ably Jew­ish vic­tims, it would not have passed the PCA code in the U.S. had not Elea­nor Roo­sevelt and her son James endorsed it. World in Flames,” The Bat­tle of Lon­don,” and Tyrone Pow­er in A Yank in the R.A.F.,” released in 1940, pre­pared Amer­i­can audi­ences for their prob­a­ble involvement.

Once the U.S. entered the war, the movie indus­try became very active in pro­duc­ing doc­u­men­taries and films that were patri­ot­ic and fea­tured hero­ic action in defeat­ing the evils of Nazism. Hitler’s Chil­dren,” Women in War,” and Hitler’s Mad­man” (about the assas­si­na­tion of Rein­hard Hey­drich, the most vir­u­lent­ly anti-Semit­ic of Hitler’s S.S. offi­cers) were films that kept the pub­lic informed about the evil ide­ol­o­gy on which the Ger­man war machine was based.

Mr. Emmanuel,” based on a 1939 nov­el and fea­tur­ing a well-known British star, was released in Eng­land and the U.S. late into the war and is, accord­ing to Sutak, the first of what would lat­er be called a Holo­caust film because of its Jew­ish pro­tag­o­nist. Sutak also points out that when Auschwitz was lib­er­at­ed by the Rus­sians in 1945 the news­reel foot­age of the camp was so hor­rif­ic that it made the wartime films seem inad­e­quate and irrelevant.

The author pro­vides insights into the film­mak­ing of the imme­di­ate post-war peri­od, point­ing out that some films were tra­di­tion­al Hol­lywood sto­ries that hap­pened to include some wartime doc­u­men­tary footage — films that became known as belong­ing to a genre of World War II noir.” Oth­er films began to deal with anti-Semi­tism, the best-known being Gentleman’s Agree­ment.” Most of the ear­ly Holo­caust films were pro­duced in Europe.

More than fifty films are detailed, mak­ing this an excel­lent ref­er­ence vol­ume for any­one inter­est­ed in media of the peri­od. Sam­ples of movie posters and lob­by cards (some very rare) that were designed to adver­tise to dif­fer­ent audi­ences are repro­duced in col­or through­out the book. This work grew out of two poster exhibits that the author pro­duced for Hebrew Union Col­lege – Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion in 2007 and 2008. While oth­er books have cov­ered the his­to­ry of Jews and films, this is specif­i­cal­ly focused on the films of the war with the graph­ics serv­ing as dra­mat­ic empha­sis of the record.

Hatemail: Anti-Semi­tism On Pic­ture Post­cards is a study of the post­cards depict­ing stereo­typ­i­cal images of the Jew as a vile per­son­age in the gold­en age” of post­cards that is gen­er­al­ly des­ig­nat­ed as from 1890 to 1920. Post­cards began to be pro­duced in 1870 but not until the Paris Exhi­bi­tion that coin­cid­ed with the open­ing of the Eif­fel Tow­er in 1889 did post­cards become a huge­ly pop­u­lar form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Pho­tog­ra­phy was devel­op­ing con­cur­rent­ly and many post­card publish­ers com­mis­sioned orig­i­nal work from artists and pho­tog­ra­phers. Politi­cal satire car­toons repro­duced on post­cards became a pop­u­lar genre, often accom­pa­nied by texts of dia­tribe toward Jews and every­thing con­nect­ed to Jews. (The image was not left to speak for itself.) Accord­ing to the author the more than 250 post­cards repro­duced in col­or in this vol­ume are only a small sam­ple of the thou­sands that were print­ed. They were pro­duced in many dif­fer­ent coun­tries. The ear­li­est use of anti-Semit­ic draw­ings and car­toons were pro­duced in France to sup­port the mis­sion of the anti-Drey­fusards in their news­pa­pers and broad­sides to find Cap­tain Alfred Drey­fus guilty of trea­son against France. Post­cards from the peri­od depict Drey­fus as a large-nosed mon­ey-hun­gry crim­i­nal reveal­ing secrets to the Ger­man enemy.

Each country’s car­toons reflect­ed its par­ticular para­noia — the more vir­u­lent depict­ing them as filthy ani­mals, Jews in con­trol of the world, greedy and cheat­ing. Many focused on phys­i­cal fea­tures — large noses, large hands, and ungrace­ful bod­ies. Some post­cards mocked the pro­hi­bi­tion against eat­ing pork. Many of the post­cards in the col­lec­tion con­tain the per­son­al mes­sages of the sender. Since most of the mes­sages do not con­tain any ref­er­ence to the postcard’s image, one can only spec­u­late on why the sender select­ed the par­tic­u­lar card.

The book also includes a chap­ter on The Lit­tle Cohn” (Der Kleine Cohn) an anti-Semit­ic song of 1902 about a short deformed Jew which was so pop­u­lar that post­cards were pro­duced about it; the spa towns of Karls­bad and Marien­bad, part of Ger­man Sude­ten­land that had signifi­cant Jew­ish tourists engen­der­ing anti-Semit­ic post­cards depict­ing their innate phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al infe­ri­or­i­ty. Con­clud­ing with chap­ters on Nazi-era and anti-Israel post­cards the book’s effect is that anti-Semit­ic slurs have been endem­ic to so-called West­ern civ­i­liza­tion and that the era of the post­card (which Aizen­berg notes has been replaced by forums, blogs, and social web­sites) these post­cards — the text-mes­sages of today — prove that it was accept­able to express such sen­ti­ments open­ly and to send them through the mail.

Both Cin­e­ma Judaica and Hatemail are rec­om­mend­ed for both per­son­al and ref­er­ence col­lec­tions. The images repro­duced in both vol­umes are of the high­est quality.

Relat­ed Content:

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions