Representations of genocide victims and perpetrators in the history of cinema

Author: Molly Lidgerwood

Sub-editor: Zack Goutzoulas

CW: Genocide, the Holocaust, Death

Cinematic representations of genocide have recently emerged as a cultural phenomenon that encourage people to inform themselves of these historical atrocities, but can also become sites of genocidal justice, remembrance, and memorialisation. While some films, such as the popular Schindler’s List, use a melodramatic framework to analyse the role of actors of genocide, other films such as Jojo Rabbit explore other avenues of memorialising genocide and representing actors, for example through satirising the genocidal governments. Through examination of several films as case studies, I will argue that cinema has been largely successful in portraying the varying roles of actors in genocide, including the often-blurred binary between victims and perpetrators, such as witnesses and other ordinary citizens.

Cinema has played a significant role in representing a spectrum of victim experiences of genocide. While films such as Schindler’s List achieved commercial success and have been praised for their representations of victim survival and parallel trauma, I want to emphasise that cinema is only a reconstruction of history and genocidal memory, and thus can only represent a limited scope of victim experiences. Scholars Brown and Rafter have proposed a distinction between two different types of genocidal films: the melodramatic and commercially successful film (akin to Schindler’s List) and the documentary style, such as Shoah, which is more archival based. I will use this framework in my analysis of actor experiences of genocide as it will illuminate the purposes of the genocidal films, and their roles in memorialising the individual and collective memories of genocide.

Schindler’s List is largely successful in highlighting both the trauma and agency of Holocaust victims in resisting the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’. In the early moments of the 3-hour long film, the Krakow Jewish population is seen trying to evade being escorted away by the Nazis. To avoid transportation to a concentration camp, Jews are encouraged to hide. While most of the Jewish characters are willing to hide to aid their safety, one Jewish lady proclaims she does not want to “hide like an animal”. Here, director Steven Spielberg reminds the audience that not all Jewish experiences of resistance were homogeneous. Schindler’s List also highlights labour as a mechanism of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. For example, one scene shows a Jewish woman in Oskar Schindler’s office, begging him to employ her elderly Jewish parents, claiming that the elderly are being killed in their Ghetto. Although Schindler rejects her plea, this scene highlights how Jewish people used labour, inside and outside concentration camps, to escape death. For example, Holocaust survivor Ion Butnaru recalled in his 1990 interview how he managed to initially escape being sent to a camp, as “all the former soldiers, they [had] to go to the work”. Hence, Schindler’s List reconstructs several real experiences of Holocaust victims and can effectively represent Jewish agency and resistance in the Holocaust.

In contrast to Schindler’s List, Jojo Rabbit is a film which unusually memorialises victim experiences of the Holocaust through a satirical framework. The humorous representation of Adolf Hitler as young Jojo’s imaginary friend allows for director Taika Waititi to criticise genocidal ideologies. For example, early in the film, Jojo and his imaginary friend version of Hitler have a battle of who can chant “Heil Hitler!” more assertively. This call and response action evokes laughter from the audience, establishing almost immediately that Waititi is aiming to delegitimise Nazi behaviour and ideology through humour. Despite this, Jojo Rabbit does not neglect the traumatic victim experiences of the Holocaust. This can be seen when Jojo and his mother walk through the town square and see the bodies of citizens who resisted Nazis by hiding Jews hanging on display. When Jojo asks his mother, Rosie, what these people did, she replies, “what they could”. Through scenes such as this, Waititi offers sympathy for citizens and victims who try to resist mechanisms of genocide. Therefore, while Jojo Rabbit does not represent concentration and death camps of the Holocaust in the same way Schindler’s List does, it further memorialises the genocide by foregrounding victim agency and ridiculing the genocidal ideology.

The film First They Killed My Father highlights the importance of victims’ individual memory of genocide in creating cinematic representations of the Cambodian Genocide. Director Angelina Jolie claimed that while filming in Cambodia in 2015, she “would meet with different schools and victims”, demonstrating her priority to listen to Cambodian victims of genocide in order to create a film that is both historically accurate and a site of remembrance for victims. Jolie even employed victims of the genocide as extras of the film and brought a therapist on set, revealing the emotional toll the re-enactment had on the genocide victims. I would argue, supported by Screen Studies Scholar Raya Morag, that the effect of victim input in the cinematic process is the continual process of victim rehabilitation in remembering genocide. When David P. Chandler, Cambodian genocide Historian, reviewed The Killing Fields he recalled how when he viewed the film in Melbourne, many victims of the Cambodian genocide were present, praising the historical accuracy and were crying while viewing the film. The emotional responses of these Cambodian genocide victims reveal how films such as these can be powerful in memorialising individual and collective memories of genocide.

Despite the clear representation of genocide victims’ experiences in the history of cinema, the concept of “perpetrator cinema” has emerged globally. These films focus on perpetrators in order to highlight their complex role in genocide. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List unravels perpetrator actions during the Holocaust. In particular, the film juxtaposes Oskar Schindler, the ‘well-intended’ Nazi, and Amon Göth, the genuinely cruel Nazi with little regard for human life. Firstly, Oskar Schindler undergoes a pivotal transition in the film, from the capitalist driven factory owner and Nazi supporter, to sympathetic and humanitarian rescuer of his Jewish workers. Schindler uses his power as a respected Nazi supporter to try to change the cruel Göth’s ideology; he says, “power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t”. This dialogue distances Schindler from his perpetrator connections, resulting in the audience sympathising with his mindset. At the conclusion of the film, Schindler proclaims, “After six long years of murder, victims are being mourned throughout the world. We’ve survived”. Here, Spielberg’s construction of Schindler is further established as a sympathetic and non-cruel Nazi. Since he did not physically kill any Jewish people, and he helped many survive through labour, he places himself in the victim position: “We’ve survived”. Spielberg’s film is also significant in the history of genocide representations as it does not shy away from exposing the cruelty and violence of the Nazi perpetrators during the Holocaust. For example, the characterisation of Amon Göth as a violent Nazi and ladies’ man reminds viewers that Nazis were barbarous, but they were also human. Janine Natalya Clark argues that humanisation of perpetrators is crucial in order to acknowledge the suffering of victims and aid the prevention of future genocides. The cruelty of Göth outweighs the empathetic Schindler, ensuring that Spielberg, in his cinematic representation of the Holocaust, does not position himself as a Nazi sympathiser; instead, Spielberg humanises the perpetrator in order to acknowledge the genuine suffering of victims and contribute to the prevention of future genocides.

While Schindler’s List explores the dark reality of perpetrator behaviours in the Holocaust, Jojo Rabbit satirises the role of Nazis, especially Jojo’s imaginary Hitler, in its effort to humanise perpetrators and delegitimise their ideologies. While some critics may argue that “perhaps Jojo Rabbit is too reassuring”, Waititi’s representation of Hitler as a humorous character is not the first of its kind. Historically, humour has been used to memorialise genocide and achieve a sense of justice for victims. For example, The Producers completely mocks the power of the Nazi regime in its musical number, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany”. By mocking the behaviour of such cruel perpetrators, films such as Jojo Rabbit and The Producers allow victims to reclaim their genocidal trauma, and satirically humanise the perpetrators in a way that removes their dangerous power.

The Killing Fields and First They Killed My Father are both significant films which explore the more ambiguous identification of perpetrators in the Cambodian Genocide. Firstly, In The Killing Fields, the proposition that the behaviour of the Khmer Rouge was partly a result of the American bombings is largely accepted, and thus extends genocidal blame onto Western actors. However, the Americans are not the only perpetrators highlighted in the film. Despite the absence of US military intervention, the genocidal situation did not improve, and thus the film deals with the powerful and destructive control of the Khmer Rouge. Hence, the film moves beyond the assumption that the Cambodian Genocide was purely an internal crisis. Secondly, in First They Killed My Father, Jolie highlights how Cambodian people were capable of being perpetrators and victims simultaneously under the “totalitarian” control of the Khmer Rouge. The film is based on the memoir of Loung Ung who was just ten years old when she escaped the killing fields of Pol Pot’s regime. Loung, in the film, is portrayed as an innocent young girl who struggles with the murder of her father and the malnourishing conditions of the labour camp. Loung is eventually trained by the Khmer Rouge leaders to fight the Vietnamese soldiers, creating future child perpetrators. The children are told to repeat ideological chants, including “destroy the Vietnamese!”. The echoing of the Khmer Rouge’s ideology in these scenes reveals “the gradual realisation of the totalitarian nature of the regime”, and how many Cambodians such as Loung Ung and her family were unsure of their place as either a victim, perpetrator or bystander to the Cambodian Genocide. Therefore, the film becomes a site of remembrance for Cambodians such as Loung Ung who were subjected to the perpetrators’ ideologies being ingrained in them.

Ultimately, cinema has been used historically, and continues to be used, as a tool for representing actors of genocide and in the process memorialising genocide for its victims and wider audiences. In the films I have analysed, victims of genocide have been represented in a plethora of ways. From passive victims of brutality to agential survivors, the spectrum of victim experiences in the history of genocide is represented. Furthermore, these films have constructed perpetrators of genocide as comparatively cruel and inhumane, kind and humanitarian, and even satirical. These representations elucidate the individuality of perpetrators and the significance that should be placed on humanising them in order to acknowledge the possibility of future genocides occurring. Cinema has also skilfully represented witnesses to genocide, and how they can both be punished for their resistance to genocidal and totalitarian regimes, and also aid victim survival successfully. Cinema therefore proves itself a useful tool in exploring the complex experiences of genocidal actors, thus assisting in the remembrance process of genocide throughout history.

Image credit

Kimberely French, still from Jojo Rabbit, courtesy of 20th Century Fox, accessed from Owen Gleiberman, “The Love-It-or-Hate-It Trick of ‘Jojo Rabbit’ (Column),” Variety, November 10, 2019.


Primary Sources

Interview with Ion Butnaru, May 3, 1990. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Trial of Amon Goeth: Selected Extracts from the Testimony. Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team.

Ung, Loung. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. United States: HarperCollins, 2000.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Michelle and Nicole Rafter. “Genocide Films, Public Criminology, Collective Memory.” The British Journal of Criminology 53, no. 6 (Nov 2013): 1017-1032.

Carchidi, Victoria. “‘Schindler’s List”: At Home With the Holocaust or, Hollywood Atrocities.” Australasian Journal of American Studies 15, no. 1 (July 1996): 65-76.

Chandler, David P. “Review: ‘The Killing Fields’ and Perceptions of Cambodian History.” Pacific Affairs 59, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 92-97.

Clark, Janine Natalya. “Genocide, war crimes and the conflict in Bosnia: understanding the perpetrators.” Journal of Genocide Research 11, no. 4 (Dec 2009): 421-445.

Ebertz, Roger P. “Is Oskar Schindler a Good Man?” In Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Book, edited by Dean A. Kowalski, 112-128. University Press of Kentucky: 2008.

First They Killed My Father. Directed by Angelina Jolie. 2017; United States and Cambodia: Netflix.

Galloway, Stephen. “Making Of First They Killed My Father.” Hollywood Reporter 423, no. 36 (Nov 2017).

Idelson, Karen. “How the ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Production Team Created a Child’s View of Nazi Germany.” Variety. Published October 18th, 2019.

Jojo Rabbit. Directed by Taika Waititi. 2019; United States and New Zealand: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Morag, Raya. “Big Perpetrator Cambodian cinema, the documentary duel and moral resentment.” Screen 62, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 37-58.

Murray, Noel. “Yes, ‘Jojo Rabbit’ has a funny Hitler. It’s part of a long — and powerful — tradition.” The Washington Post. Published October 20th, 2019.

Schindler’s List. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1993; United States: Universal Pictures.

Shoah. Directed by Claude Lanzmann. 1985; France and United States: PBS.

Tammes, Peter. “Survival of Jews during the Holocaust: the importance of different types of social resources.” International Journal of Epidemiology 36 (2007): 330-335.

The Economist. “‘Jojo Rabbit’ is not really an ‘anti-hate satire’.” Published October 21st, 2019.

The Killing Fields. Directed by Roland Joffe. 1984; United Kingdom: Goldcrest Films.

 The Producers. Directed by Mel Brook. 1967; United States: Embassy Pictures.

Voigtländer, Nico and Voth, Hans-Joachim Voth. “Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112, no. 26 (June 2015): 7931-7936.

Williams, Timothy. “Film Review: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” Genocide Studies & Prevention 12, no. 1 (2018): 113-114.

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