Why do you go to the movies? For many people, it is for sheer enjoyment or to escape from life’s pressures for a few hours. One of the things I most enjoy in life is learning something significant about truth and reality. Therefore, I like watching films that are true stories or based upon them, and especially ones that make me think about the deep questions of life.
This year, I want to recommend two films, both released some years ago, for people like me who want to think about the deeper issues of life and history. The great philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) said that human beings were made to reflect on life and that the pursuit of reflection is part of finding a fulfillment and satisfaction that is unique to humans.
Since I am a passionate student of history, both of the films listed here are based on true stories and center on the Holocaust that transpired during the Second World War, which I view as one of the most important events in humankind’s history. I was saddened but not surprised to read of a recent study that reported that 22% of US millennials did not think they had even heard of the Holocaust.1 So as an educator, I want to especially recommend this movie list to those of the millennial age group.
Both of these films contain language and violence, and the second film contains sexual content that some may find objectionable. So, for the most part, these are films for adult viewers. Please use your own discretion in selecting which thought-provoking movies you view in 2018.
1. Conspiracy (2001, rated R)
This BBC/HBO television film depicts the historical meeting and personal psychology of 15 leading Nazis who gather at the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Germany to plan the Holocaust. In the meeting, the brutal SS Nazi leaders Reinhard Heydrich (played by Kenneth Branagh) and Adolf Eichmann (played by Stanley Tucci) charm, entice, argue, bully, and threaten the other officials into accepting Adolf Hitler’s wishes to exterminate the Jews in what is called the “final solution of the Jewish question.”
As the Nazis plan the details of the Holocaust at a beautiful lakeside villa in Wannsee, they often sound like corporate members carrying out a mundane business meeting. The way they casually talk about executing mass murder makes the film truly gripping. Branagh’s dramatic depiction of Heydrich is chilling and earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor. Tucci’s performance as Eichmann, Heydrich’s faithful right-hand man in planning the genocide, brought him a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.
This film raises the question of how a single two-hour meeting of 15 leaders could result in the murder of 11 million people—6 million of them being Jews and 2 million of those being children. Yet history testifies that some big government conspiracy theories can become catastrophically true.
2. Schindler’s List (1993, rated R)
In this classic film directed by Steven Spielberg, the topic addressed is arguably the greatest crime in history: the Holocaust. The movie powerfully and painfully captures the incredible violence and evil of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry from the face of the earth. Yet at the heart of the film is the extraordinary moral transformation of ethnic German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who goes from opportunistic profiteer to Holocaust rescuer.
There is also a dramatic contrast between the film’s two other central figures. Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) is Schindler’s Jewish accountant who balances the tasks of keeping Schindler’s company economically viable and keeping the company’s Jewish laborers from being sent to the gas chambers. SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is the psychopathic commandant whose brutality is difficult to comprehend.
This is truly one of the greatest films that I have ever seen. Spielberg’s agonizing true-life tale won seven Oscars, including Best Picture in 1994.
Humankind cannot afford to forget the Holocaust, nor can we allow our young people to have no knowledge of it. These two powerful films will serve to remind viewers of the Holocaust’s horrific reality.
Join me next week for two more movies to make you think.
Reflections: Your Turn
How did you first learn of the Holocaust? Do you appreciate movies that make you think about historical events?
- JTA, “Twenty-Two Percent of U.S. Millennials Are Not Sure if They Have Heard of the Holocaust, Study Finds,” Jewish World (blog), Haaretz, April 15, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/holocaust-remembrance-day/1.5994426.