World War II is one of cinema’s favorite eras to tackle on the big screen. Many films have taken the task of tackling one of the most brutal aspects of the war, the Holocaust, with countless characters being depicted on the big screen that have felt the sting of one of the most heinous acts in modern history. With the new film “The Zookeeper’s Wife” hitting theaters this Friday I took a look at ten of the most important and iconic characters in film who were portrayed with the holocaust as a significant aspect of their backstory.
“The Zookeepers’ Wife” focuses on a couple who hide runaway Jews in their zoo during World War II. With that in mind I looked at movie characters, fictional or otherwise, who were impacted by the holocaust either as an onlooker, a sympathizer to the Jews, or a Jew themselves. These can be real-life or made up figures who sheltered Jews, whose lives came to an end because of the holocaust, or characters who survived the Holocaust and feel the aftereffects in later years. I’m not including characters who fought as soldiers or warriors against the Germans on the battlefield, such as actual real-life Jewish soldiers or characters like the Bear Jew in “Inglorious Bastards”. The characters on this list were those who sheltered Jews, experienced the harsh conditions of the time, or were imprisoned in prison camps themselves among other requirements. As such, the list also does not include Nazi sympathizers who were against the Jews throughout the conflict. Those are villains for a future list. ALSO A SPOILER ALERT IS IN ORDER.
Without further a due, here we go and don’t forget to check out “The Zookeeper’s Wife” in theaters March 31 and look for my review this weekend.
Courtesy of Indie Wire
Born Erik Lehnsherr, Magneto is the sometimes-friend, sometimes-foe of the superhero team the X-Men whose Jewish heritage and connection to the holocaust were first explored in depth in “X-Men: First Class”. A powerful mutant with the power to control metal and magnetic fields, Lehnsherr is scarred by the terrors of the Holocaust as he was separated from his mother at Auschwitz and virtually tortured by fellow mutant and Nazi sympathizer Klaus Schmidt, better known as Hellfire Club leader Sebastian Shaw. It’s this troubled childhood that serves as the basis for Magneto’s evil deeds as he fights for mutant rights in a violent and terrorist-like manner after seeing his Jewish brethren stripped of their humanity for being who they were. The only real “villainous” character on this list, Magneto suffers from his loses more in his younger years, when he is portrayed by Michael Fassbender, as we see him lose his family again in “X-Men Apocalypse” and become a full fledged vengeful mutant after Apocalypse brings him to Auschwitz and reminds him of the terror he experienced as a child. Magneto may be a fictional comic book character, but his suffering from the traumas of World War II serve as a humanizing aspect of his history and personality and the driving force behind pretty much everything he does, both good and bad, throughout his complicated life.
9. Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski
Courtesy of Fanpop
The titular character from 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice”, this character can be summed up in one dramatic and heartbreaking scene when she is forced to choose between her two children after being sent to Auschwitz. The scene was a primary reason Meryl Streep won a Best Actress Oscar for the role and today remains one of the most iconic and terrifying portrayals of the harsh realities of the Holocaust. “Sophie’s Choice” actually takes place after World War II and depicts her mental state as a result of the terrors at the camp, especially the movie’s titular heartbreaking decision. Years later she is involved with an unstable lover and falls for an author in Brooklyn, leading to many revelations about her time in World War II, her decisions during life, and her own mortality as she has contracted anemia. All this eventually leads to her committing suicide, a symbolic gesture to herself of sorts as it is the first time her own life was truly in her own hands since her internment.
8. Jakob Heym
Courtesy of Plugged In
We now come to the first character on this list whose story takes place during the Holocaust itself rather than after it. Portrayed by the late, great Robin Williams, Jakob Heym was the lead character in the 1999 film “Jakob the Liar” about a Jewish shopkeeper living in a Polish Ghetto during World War II. After being summoned to German headquarters on a false charge he overhears messages on a German radio and after bringing those messages back to the ghetto others mistakenly believe he has a radio, which at the time was forbidden for the ghettos to keep the residents uninformed. Jakob becomes an unwilling beacon of hope for the ghetto as he embraces the misconception that he has access to the outside world. To that end, the once quiet shopkeeper becomes a hero in his own right before surrendering to the Germans after they demand the keeper of the radio with the threat of killing hostages. Rather than save his own life, Jakob is put to death when he persists to embrace the lie that created hope for so many in a time of darkness and despair.
7. Solomon “Solek” Perel
Courtesy of Alchetron
The lead character of the award winning “Europa Europa”, Solomon Perel is the first real-life individual on this list who was portrayed by Marco Hofschneider in the 1990 film based on Perel’s own autobiography. Perel was a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust by pretending to be a non-Jew and even pretended to be a Nazi youth elite. Perel’s story is an intriguing one as he betrayed his own identity in a way to try and survive. Perel survived World War II and became a public speaker, but as Perel journeys through many countries and backdrops of World War II in the film he avoids his capture as he watches his fellow Jews be rounded up and treated like animals. In the end Solomon is nearly killed due to being mistaked for a Nazi officer, but he is saved by his own brother and goes on to live his life fully embracing his Jewish heritage after the war. While it may seem that Solomon betrayed his identity to save his own skin, his story is one that defines the risks many had to take to preserve their own lives during the Holocaust as he decided to hide in plain sight, literally, and was forced to watch as his people were mistreated knowing that if he helped he too would suffer a dark fate. Solomon is one of those survivors who found themselves deep inside enemy territory and not only lived to tell the tale, but made it their mission to spread the truth about what really took place.
6. Bruno Butterfield and Shmuel Scanion
I’m cheating a bit hear by putting two characters in one entry, but the leading figures from 2008’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” belong together as their fates are intertwined thanks to the outcome of the film’s narrative. The two youths represent different perspectives during the Holocaust, Bruno being brought up in a German family and taught anti-Semitism and other Nazi-themed values, and Schmuel is a occupant at the prison camp near Bruno’s home. Both boys are ignorant to the reality of the camp, a point driven home by Bruno believing Schmuel and other Jews wearing prison stripes are actually wearing Pyjamas, The two young boys spark a friendship over the course of the film but their separate social statuses, one a German whose father is an officer for the Nazi’s and the other a Jew imprisoned in a camp, cause rifts beyond their control but when Bruno decides to help Schmuel find his father inside the camp the two share a dark fate that drives home the central human message of the story. The two boys together represent a brighter message in a dark time as they, younger members of a separated society, find understanding and compassion for one another where their older leaders fail to find the same compassion in their lust for power and embracing of hatred.
5. Leopold Socha
Courtesy of PG Tips On Films
Portrayed by Robert Więckiewicz in the 2011 Polish film “In Darkness”, Leopold Sochas was a real-life Polish Catholic sewer maintenance worker and burglar who helped hide and care for a group of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. The film, “In Darkness”, dramatizes the events as Socha works to hide Jews in the Lwów Ghetto in the wake of a massive liquidation of the area. Socha begins his mission seeking payment, but as the money runs out he embraces his mission for free even as that missions puts him in increasing danger of being discovered as a sympathizer to the Jews. Along with his friend Szczepek Wróblewski and their wives, Sochas became one of many small heroes of World War II and earned recognition as a Righteous Among the Nations recipient. Socha’s real life story is a fantastic one indeed, and one that’s similar to another figure that I’ll talk about later on this list.
4. Guido Orefice
Courtesy of Movieclips.com
One of the most celebrated fictional characters in cinema to experience the Holocaust, Guido Orefice is truly a character worth acknowledging. Portrayed by Roberto Benigni in the 1997 Italian comedy-drama film “Life is Beautiful”, Orefice finds himself at a concentration camp with his young son Giosuè. In order to keep his son from knowing the truth of their situation, Guido incorporates humor into their daily lives at the camp and describes their situation as a game to make life more tolerable for Giosuè. Guido maintains that story throughout the film, giving his son hope and keeping him ignorant of the terror going on around them. In the end Guido makes the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to keep his son safe and reunite with his wife, Dora. Even when being led away to his death he maintains a positive persona for his son’s sake and as an adult Giosuè comes to understand the sacrifice his father made for him and his mother even in the face of terror and death.
3. Władysław Szpilman
Courtesy of DVD.net
The central character of the 2002 award winning film “The Pianist”, Władysław Szpilman was a real-life Polish Jew who was gifted on the piano and becomes an occupant of the Warsaw Ghetto along with his family. Adrian Brody won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Szpilman as the musician who became an ally to a Jewish resistance force during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Forced into solitary hiding during the uprising, Szpilman finds himself alone as he seeks refuge in the wreckage of Warsaw where he meets a German officer named Wilm Hosenfeld. The two bond over Szpilman’s musical talent and Hosenfeld houses the musician until the end of the war. As one of the most celebrated Holocaust films of the modern era of cinema, “The Pianist” itself is a story worth experiencing with the inspirational Szpilman as it’s now iconic central character.
2. Oscar Schindler
The only member of the Nazi party on this list, no list such as this would be complete without this reluctant hero. Oscar Schindler is the real-life German businessman who was the central character in the celebrated 1993 period drama “Schindler’s List”, considered one of the greatest films ever produced. Schindler’s story is a familiar one for many as he begins bringing in Jews to his factory in hopes of making a fortune off their labor. Eventually Schindler goes from selfish business mogul to savior as he brings Jewish workers in to his factory not to produce weapons, but to rescue the Jews from concentration camps in the guise of utilizing them for cheap labor. As his fortune depletes and the war subsides, Schindler becomes a wanted man thanks to his Nazi connections but a savior to the group of Jews that would come to be known as the Schindlerjuden, or Schindler Jews. While some contest just how good of a man Schindler was or how noble his deeds were in real life, the film portrayal of Schindler is what we are focusing on here and he will forever be an iconic figure in cinema and one of films’ most important characters to be portrayed in the Holocaust setting.
1. Anne Frank
Was there any doubt? The titular character of the 1959 film “The Diary of Anne Frank”, which was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play which in turn was based on Frank’s actual diary, Anne Frank is not only one of cinema’s most iconic Holocaust figures, she is one of the most iconic characters and real life figures of that era in general. A real-life Jew who wrote down her experience as a Jew in hiding during World War II and the Holocaust, Anne Frank is a simple character who represents the innocence, fear, and insecurity of life for her and her family at that time. Actress Millie Perkins narrated diary entries throughout the film, giving actual real-life perspective from the source material to a lifestyle many today can’t imagine or fathom. It’s Anne Frank who truly introduced the world to the realities of life during the Holocaust, even if her time in a concentration camp that led to her untimely death is still a mystery after her diary was left behind when she was discovered. Her famous line “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” is one of hope in the face of a harsh reality that should have never been.