Orson Welles and the First Holocaust Movie: A Lasting Legacy

(With a tip of the hat to Mr. Steven Spielberg)
Published: 2014-11-12

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If the pinnacle of the Holocaust Movie genre has been reached, it may have happened in 1993, when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List garnered seven academy awards and untold millions of dollars in royalties for the film magnate who has since declared that the reason he has honored Planet Earth with a personal visit is to ”educate people” about the Holocaust. To this end, he founded the USC Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California and has funded it with many millions of dollars, likely representing but a small fraction of the pelf he has received from other pursuits of his mission in this vale of tears that we are privileged to share with him.

By mid-2014, Wikipedia had compiled a list of 191 “narrative” movies concerning the Holocaust, a number that omits so-called “documentary” movies treating the same subject. Although Spielberg may be the champion among them, what is derisively called “Shoah business” has been good to great numbers of propagandists and other profiteers in addition to Spielberg, perhaps the greatest illusionist of Hollywood.

This avalanche, like every avalanche, must have started with a mere snowball, somewhere. And this one did, of course. But the snowball can still be seen, in its original form, through the miracle of the medium of film, in this case wielded not by Steven Spielberg (who was born in 1946), but by his worthy predecessor (who is not known to have announced the purpose, or reason, for his life), Orson Welles. Welles’s is the first film to appear in the chronological list of 191 cinematographical works treating our present subject, and released in the year of Spielberg’s birth.

By mid-2014, Wikipedia had compiled a list of 191 “narrative” movies concerning the Holocaust, a number that omits so-called “documentary” movies treating the same subject.

Viewing Welles’s The Stranger in the present day can impart the feeling of entering some sort of time warp; the film, released 68 years ago, adumbrates events and attitudes of 2014 in ways that this reporter finds outright stunning. And it does this in a milieu so obviously and clumsily contrived that it could call into question the predicates underlying many, if not most, of the 190 or so moving on-screen experiences that followed in its train.

The anti-heroic hero of this black-and-white classic is played by the Rumanian Jew known to movie audiences as Edward G. Robinson, while his indelibly stained quarry is played by none other than Welles himself, a fugitive Nazi who inexplicably commands the English language not only fluently, but with not the slightest trace of an accent, neither German nor even British. Also inexplicably, our villain, ensconced in a small town in Connecticut as a history teacher who seems to favor subjects such as “Friedrich der Grosse,” has won the hand of a daughter of a Supreme Court justice, who (the daughter) inexplicably is found alone on her wedding day hanging drapes in her imposing future home, the very one somehow acquired by that incognito fugitive villain she marries later in the day. But the intrepid government agent played by Robinson (born Goldenberg) has penetrated this improbable halcyon through the ruse of releasing a lesser criminal and tracking his movements, leading to the small Connecticut town and even the school at which the central villain pursues his evil agenda of infecting young minds with the ideological poison to which he evidently has devoted his twisted, worthless life.

The wedding, of course, takes place, but no more of this cinematic creation is devoted to the ensuing nuptials than the noting of a brief honeymoon to no place of mention, during which the dead body of the hapless “tracer” criminal is discovered, and the search for his killer launched. Our man Robinson is still on the job, his suspicions aroused by an unguarded remark by his target to the effect that Karl Marx was, rather than a “German,” a “Jew.”

And it goes on, complete with a display to the unsuspecting newlywed bride of film footage released the previous year by Billy Wilder of concentration camp inmates’ bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, while Robinson intones his suspicions that her groom is none other than the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the Nazis’ recent horrific genocidal enterprise so graphically portrayed on a home-movie screen. She (Loretta Young) becomes perhaps the world’s first Holocaust denier, by denying that her beloved could have originated any such hellacious scheme, and so was not the person Robinson was so assiduously pursuing.

Welles’s character ends up being spectacularly impaled upon the sword of one his own creations, and falling to his on-camera death several stories below. His death at that time prefigured the executions suffered by hundreds, if not thousands, of Germans accused and “convicted” of heinous crimes such as seen in the footage of British soldiers pushing the bodies of victims who had died only after liberation into trenches. The narrative treats of various “pacification” initiatives then being imposed upon the populace of defeated Germany, no doubt including fuller displays of the footage only glimpsed in this production, and in no way even hinting at the genocidal expulsions being imposed at the same times on the long-standing ethnic German populaces of the Sudetenland and East Prussia.

Perhaps the most forceful thought that this experience of time-travel brought to my mind was, What would Welles have thought if he had known that, in 2014, a Czech guard at a concentration camp would be incarcerated, in his (Welles’s) own USA (Philadelphia) for deportation to Germany, there to stand trial for complicity in the genocidal atrocity that Welles’s film brought for the first time to screens viewed by the moviegoing American public?

Indeed, what might Robinson have thought? Or Young? The matter in reality has much exceeded the bounds of the merely grotesque. We learn today that, in all seriousness, a 93-year-old SS guard who is accused of handling the luggage of persons brought to concentration camps is being hauled before the unforgiving eye of “justice” as it is known in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Welles’s fictional demon was someone whose functional scope appeared to be somewhere between that of the “banal” Adolf Eichmann and, say, Heinrich Himmler. Today’s villains are, perforce, far beneath even the functionary Eichmann’s level—the dregs, one might say metaphorically, of the vast apparatus that ultimately was deployed to extricate Germany from the fate of “unconditional surrender” that had been declared for her by her malefactors.

But it all ended well—very well indeed—for those who managed to hitch their wagons to the star launched in the first year after the War by Orson Welles, he of the vaunted 1938 radio “news” broadcasts of Martian landings as depicted in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

The fiction of Martian landings on earth has long since been dispelled. The fiction of demonic Nazis intent on world domination and the murder of every Jew on the face of the earth, unfortunately, remains alive and quite well, indeed very well, even to the present day, seven decades later. It might be very different had Martians, rather than Nazis, been the reason why Steven Spielberg was put on this earth.

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Author(s): Jett Rucker
Title: Orson Welles and the First Holocaust Movie: A Lasting Legacy, (With a tip of the hat to Mr. Steven Spielberg)
Sources: Smith's Report, No. 210, November 2014, pp. 5f.
Published: 2014-11-12
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 11, 2014, 6 p.m.
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