Why Are Holocaust Films The Most Prolific Category in Jewish Cinema? 

Jewish prisoners lining up at Auschwitz.
This emblematic scene from "The Grey Zone" (2001) depicts newly arrived Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz entering the gas chambers. The frame is obstructed by a huge plume of black smoke from the crematorium chimney. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

“The Zone Of Interest” is the latest Oscar-winning Holocaust film, but Hollywood has long had an obsession with Jewish victimhood.

Why are we so obsessed with Holocaust films? According to Rich Brownstein, author of “Holocaust Cinema Complete,” there have been almost 450 Holocaust films made by 45 countries since 1945. Compared to other topics outside the Jewish sphere, Holocaust films aren’t as prolific as they may seem, but as Brownstein explains in his book, “of the 77 American-produced or co-produced Holocaust-related feature films, 21 have won or been nominated for at least one Oscar, with a grand total of 109 wins or nominations.” So despite Holocaust films typically lacking commercial success at the box office, they tend to have a high chance of being recognized for critical acclaim. At this year’s Academy Awards, Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” which tells the story of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss, won the Oscar for Best International Feature, obvious proof that the  phenomenon is still alive and well. 

As it happens, May is Jewish Heritage Month in the United States. For those looking to celebrate with a cinematic experience, you’ll notice that most easily accessible aggregations of Jewish films on the internet are dominated by Shoah features. Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust; in the interest of lexical diversity, I will use both words henceforth. Why, you might ask, would anyone want to “celebrate” Jewish American Heritage Month with a nice, light Holocaust flick? “Anyone in the mood for the walking skeletons of Dachau or should we stick to ‘The Zone of Interest’ for tonight?” That joke works best if you’ve seen the movie. [Note: Dark humor is a defense mechanism I will employ as I hypothesize on the concerning prevalence of films about Jewish death over Jewish life.]

American novelist and essayist Dara Horn articulated this theory quite directly in her 2021 book, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present,” which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The world is captivated, as Horn lays out in her book, by Jewish death. In the book’s introduction, she writes, “I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews. I was very wrong,” Despite the Jewish people having survived for thousands of years, it is curious that the world seems uninterested with the tales of our lives. 

In Brownstein’s book, a remarkably thorough compendium, he uses a pedagogical framework to analyze 400 Shoah films. He uses the “4+1” structure and categorized films into one of the following four groups: Victim films, Gentile films, Survivor films, and Perpetrator films. The plus one category is defined as Tangential. Examples include: “Sophie’s Choice” and “Inglorious Bastards,” which are “not primarily about Jews or the strict definition of the Holocaust, but still, undeniably have significant Holocaust content,” (Brownstein, “Holocaust Cinema Complete”). 

With these distinctive markers, it is easier to conceptualize the conglomeration of Holocaust cinema. I will discuss four films to frame my analysis, but before I do so, I wanted to also mention Brownstein’s subcategories of Gentile films, which he categorizes as either righteous Gentile films or antisemitic Gentile films. As of the publishing of Brownstein’s book in 2021, he counted 86 Gentile films, of which 68 are righteous Gentile films, and 18 are antisemitic Gentile films. Interestingly, of the 18 categorized as such, “exactly none of the antisemitic Gentile films are solo American productions, a clear window into Hollywood’s storytelling preferences.” Though righteous Gentile films may be more uplifting (it’s all relative in the Holocaust, right?) for viewers, many are critical of their portrayals of the Jewish victims themselves.

One of the final scenes from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993) where Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley, left) is uncomfortably forced to comfort Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson, right) upon his realization that he “could have saved more” Jews from the Holocaust.

Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993) is a legend among Holocaust films. It is often the first that comes to mind when one thinks of the category, and it won seven of the twelve Oscars for which it was nominated in 1994. It is certainly a great film. It is also an example of the righteous Gentile subgenre and as such diverges from  the reality of what most Jews experienced during the Holocaust. The scene that churns my gut most intensely is Oskar Schindler’s mental breakdown at the end of the film, after the war has ended. Liam Neeson’s character is saying goodbye to the over 1,000 Jews he has saved from being murdered in the Holocaust, before he flees to avoid capture, as a member of the Nazi party. All of a sudden, Schindler realizes he could have saved more Jews. Duh, Oskar! As Brownstein notes, “righteous Gentile films teach us that some Gentiles saved Jews, which is a hopeful theme, but these films tend to humanize the saviors more than the Jewish victims who are usually one-dimensional cutouts.” While Spielberg offers a relatively fair depiction of Schindler as an imperfect specimen, this moment at the end of the film is deeply troubling as we are confronted, yet again, with the extraordinary strength of the survivors who offer emotional support to their heroic Nazi.

The next film I present falls into the other subcategory of Gentile films: antisemitic. In these movies, Brownstein suggests that they “need fewer contortions to make their point, expressing more common local activities that were prevalent during German occupation when faced with the Final Solution: to participate and/or ignore the genocide and/or profit from the Holocaust.” In Frank Pierson’s “Conspiracy” (2001), no one is saved or rehabilitated. Just when the viewer sees something to suggest that a Nazi officer may be having doubts about the moral defensibility of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, the reality of antisemitism sweeps in. 

Adolf Eichmann (left, Stanley Tucci) and General Reinhard Heydrich (right, Kenneth Branagh) in “Conspiracy” (2001) which depicts the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

“Conspiracy” portrays Nazi officials at the infamous Wannsee Conference in Berlin on January 20, 1942. This was where General Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann introduced the Final Solution to the Jewish Question to the Nazi top brass. The meeting is notorious for lasting only 90 minutes, where participants discussed such matters as who qualifies as a Jew, which Jews should be “evacuated” first, and whether the Nuremberg laws already in place were sufficient legal coverage for such “evacuations.” The sterility with which these decisions were made is eerie, and “Conspiracy” expertly depicts the banality of evil, in Hannah Arendt’s famous words, of the administrative decisions behind industrialized mass murder. As Dara Horn chillingly reminds us, “Eichmann was not a cackling evil genius but rather a boring bureaucratic man, and that this sense of tedium was itself the Holocaust’s prime novelty of horror.”

Also from 2001 is Tim Blake Nelson’s “The Grey Zone” which was released on September 13, causing it to be almost entirely forgotten, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The film is based loosely on the book, “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account,” by Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who was manipulated into assisting the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele in his brutal experiments on camp inmates. The movie depicts two events that actually occurred at Auschwitz II-Birkenau: a teenage girl surviving the gas chamber and a 1944 rebellion that destroyed two of the four main gas chamber/crematoria complexes, which were never rebuilt. The rebellion was led by a group of Jewish prisoners called Sonderkommando, who were special squads of Jewish male prisoners chosen by the Nazis to process the corpses after gassing. By nature of this film’s setting and main characters, it is intensely graphic—a visual assault—but the vulgarity is not purely for shock value, as it sometimes feels in “Schindler’s List.” 

Scene from “The Grey Zone” (2001) depicting special Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz, called Sonderkommando, as they enter the gas chamber to collect and dispose of the victims’ bodies.

Ultimately, “The Grey Zone” is so enduringly powerful because it shows a significant but less widely known element of Nazi dehumanization. By creating a hierarchy of control where some Jews were placed in commanding positions above others, the Nazis systematically extracted the very souls of the living. They removed not just the names, but the personalities, identities and even the humanity of Jewish individuals. In building successive units of Sonderkommandos, the Nazis manufactured husks of people forced to live in hell, breathing rancid air thick with human ash, becoming immune to the smell of burning flesh, numb to the loss of life that permeated their every waking moment until they too, were murdered. “The Grey Zone” tells their story. No frills, no Hollywoodification, no happy ending. 

The final film I want to mention but can’t in good conscience bring myself to recommend despite its several Oscar wins, is Jonathan Glazer’s latest movie, “The Zone of Interest” (2023). This movie tells the story of Rudolph Höss, commandant of Auschwitz. I have watched it several times and can appreciate the artistry as just that: self-indulgent but ultimately unoriginal tactics used by filmmakers to make their art appear more sophisticated. The use of a black screen for three minutes at the beginning of the movie is a waste of time. A montage of close-up shots of flowers in the Höss garden fades to a red screen, all overlaid with a terrifying soundscape of Auschwitz violence and death. Does this hedonistically artsy scene really contribute to the story of Rudolph Höss? “The Zone of Interest” is an anticlimactic and unfortunately mundane Holocaust film that offers an ambiguous interpretation of evil in today’s world. 

Claus Höss (Johann Karthaus) examining gold teeth extracted from Jewish victims of Auschwitz’s gas chambers in “The Zone of Interest” (2023). Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Further, during Glazer’s Oscar acceptance speech for Best International Feature, he tragically tarnished his film’s legacy by addressing the current Israel-Hamas war. His poorly worded, pre-written speech clearly lacked a communications specialist and demonstrated his enduring fundamental misunderstanding of both the ongoing conflict and the legacy of the Holocaust. In a review of the film, Rich Brownstein asserted that Glazer, “obviously has only a glancing comprehension of ‘Judenfrei’ and the Jewish struggle on the other side of the wall.”

Hopefully this analysis provides some new insight into Holocaust cinema for my readers, but my initial question remains. Why do people love Holocaust films? Why is Jewish cinema so dominated by movies about Jews dying? Obviously, Jewish people have found a home in Hollywood, so can we really chalk it up to antisemitism? I say yes. Given the Jewish history of cyclical persecution and exile, there is a certain level of rejection to which we have become accustomed. In fact, the modern state of Israel, where Jews are the majority and do not face discrimination based on shared ancestry, culture, or religious practices, is a historically unique phenomenon that has not been seen in over 2,000 years. All other Jewish populations have internalized some level of antisemitism and have learned to tolerate it, to a point. 

The sheer scale of the Holocaust being un-understandable to most human beings, is one of the reasons, for both Jews and non-Jews, that the Shoah is still perhaps an overrepresented topic for films, and a dominating subject when it comes to movies about Jews. Jewish people were a minority in 1933, when Hitler came to power, and we remain a minority today, but an even smaller one in proportion to global population growth. Prior to Hitler’s extermination attempt, there were about 9.5 million Jews in Europe, but by 1945, two out of every three had been killed. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the true scope of the destruction of European Jewry, but it is so deeply human to reach for what we do not understand. The macabre fascination with the German industrialization of mass murder is not so shocking after all. Eighty years later, Auschwitz is holy ground.

Jewish people appreciating and gravitating toward Holocaust films does not negate the probability that there are antisemitic forces at play behind the scenes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, profiting off continued stories of victimized Jews. The rate at which Holocaust films receive critical acclaim versus other movies is rather stunning and I am deeply pessimistic about the driving motives. Rather than truly honoring the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah, I propound that the Hollywood apparatus has an obsession with profiting off Jewish victimhood. Audiences will never get tired of seeing Jews die or of watching infamously ardent antisemites on the silver screen. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences knows that, and has reinforced this target market. 

Part of the survivalism of the Jewish people has depended on our baseline understanding that we are never fully safe. We expect the worst and still, we always hope for the best. We are endlessly pessimistic but never nihilistic. Jewish people like Shoah filmography because on the whole, it is a reminder of what we have overcome, what we have survived. Hitler ultimately failed and the Jewish people live on. Each film also represents the further solidification of collective Holocaust memory and a new opportunity to teach future generations in creative ways. Holocaust denial is alive and well, despite the Shoah being the most well documented genocide in human history given the Nazis’ mechanical processes by which they registered, numbered, tallied, photographed, and collected copious amounts of information on the unfoldings of the Final Solution.

An excellent example of the difference between how Jews view ourselves versus how the world views the Jewish people is in memorializing the Shoah. International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated by the United Nations in 2005, (a terrifyingly recent induction, but that’s a different article) is on January 27, which was the day the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. The day the mighty allied forces rescued the few surviving Jews of Europe. In contrast, Israel’s commemoration, actually called Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, is celebrated on the 27th of the Hebrew month Nisan, which falls in April or May of the Gregorian Calendar. This day commemorates the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which although ultimately cost about 13,000 Jewish lives, marked the most significant Jewish rebellion against the Nazis of World War II. Despite knowing that victory or even survival was unlikely, the Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto decided to fight back. Rather than celebrating the day we were rescued, the Jewish collective chose to mark Yom HaShoah with a date symbolizing strength and resilience. 

Despite the happy endings Hollywood has attempted to impose on Holocaust cinema, the real story had no such ending. The truth is that millions of Jews were systematically murdered through an industrialized genocide. The world knew what was happening and took far too long to stop the mass murder of European Jewry. The righteous Gentiles who saved Jews are to be commended and celebrated for their bravery, and yet, they account for a statistically insignificant portion of outcomes. Most people did not survive, were not saved or spared or rescued. These are the facts, whether it’s entertaining and marketable for a film, or not. 

In an article for the “Jewish Social Studies” journal from Indiana University Press in 2012, called “The Holocaust and Jewish Identity in America: Memory, the Unique, and the Universal,” scholar Shaul Magid wrote about “the danger of another form of ‘negative Judaism’ in the overemphasis on the Holocaust, especially in a society where the positive content of Judaism, in terms of interest, knowledge, and practice, has largely diminished through secularization and assimilation.” While it is an antisemitic trope that Jews talk about the Holocaust too much and we should “just get over it” (we will get right on that, thanks for the feedback) this is not what Magid is referring to. Instead, he is making the point that by assimilating into American society and therefore increasingly losing elements of distinct Jewish identity, the Holocaust has become an unavoidable characteristic of Judaism. Whether one agrees with this assessment or not, it is certainly an interesting perspective that is not dissimilar from the experiences of European Jews prior to the Shoah. Many saw themselves as secular and assimilated, and yet when the Nazis began their systematic persecutions, all Jews were targeted, regardless of their levels of religious practice or cultural identity. The Jewish people have a rich history and culture from which to draw upon, and perhaps it is time for Hollywood to invest in stories of Jewish life and survival, rather than Jewish death and victimhood. After all, is it not our survival that defines our identity?

“While narrative Holocaust films are diverse in story, and while they span a wide spectrum of intended audiences, Holocaust films do not ‘teach the Holocaust,’ but instead expound upon a few themes and lives that were caught up in the Holocaust,” (Brownstein, “Holocaust Cinema Complete”). This phrase encapsulates a strong feeling that has permeated my thought process throughout this composition, which is that while films are certainly a tool for education and a supplementary material, even the greatest Holocaust film aficionado cautions his readers that narrative films are no substitute for basic Holocaust education. Furthermore, context and conversation surrounding Shoah filmography is just as vital to understanding and internalizing the messaging of each filmmaker. Please keep this in mind the next time you watch a Holocaust film: Viewing these movies without any further thought, dialogue, or independent research, is a strikingly vacuous form of consumption for art that, by all accounts, intends to be the opposite of vacuous.  

Since October 7, antisemitism has skyrocketed. The blaming of Jews for society’s evils cannot go unchallenged. “Never Forget” has become a slogan, rather than a mission, a promise. What we are seeing right now on college campuses has escalated to genocidal views against Jews and calls to mind imagery of 1930’s Germany. It is unfathomable that Jewish students are being scolded for “misunderstanding” their peers who call for the destruction of the Jewish state, and who chant antisemitic rallying cries. Jews survived the Holocaust, yes, but we are still fighting to live freely as self-identifying Jews in the world. As Mark Twain famously said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” If that’s true, Jews have already lived through millennia of annihilationist poems. There need not be another stanza. 

Films Mentioned:

“Schindler’s List” available to stream on Amazon Prime.

“Conspiracy” available to stream on MAX. 

“The Grey Zone” available to stream on Amazon Prime. 

“The Zone of Interest” available to stream on MAX. 


“Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide” by Rich Brownstein, Tim Blake Nelson, Walter Reich, Michael Berenbaum, Edward Jacobs, and David Zucker. Published by McFarland & Company, 2021.

“People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present.” by Dara Horn. Published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2021.

About :

Grace E Rubin is an undergraduate alumnus of Wesleyan University and current graduate student in the Writing and Publishing Master’s program at Emerson College. She concurrently works full-time writing for a nonprofit organization. After spending six years in Washington DC, mostly working on Capitol Hill, she is thrilled to now be back in her hometown of Boston. She loves reading, politics, and her rescue pitbull, Angel.