Regressing shades of Grey in the study of prisoner functionaries in popular culture.

In the study of Nazi concentration camps, the understanding of prisoner functionaries, also known as privileged prisoners, is under-developed and in need of much attention. [1] Attention is needed to understand the functioning of daily camp life, the Nazi attempt of dehumanising Jews and others, as well as post-Holocaust effects, such as psychological issues, ongoing problems their position caused when reintegrating into communities, and the guilt they lived with.

Privileged prisoners have traditionally been characterised as either “good or bad”, or as both “victim and perpetrator”. Each of these characterisations were proposed by former prisoners Eugen Kogon and Primo Levi respectively, yet at different times. Kogon wrote The Theory and Practice of Hell immediately after the liberation of the camps under Soviet influence at the start of the Cold War, contributing to the continuing world binary of good versus evil. Levi, however, wrote Drowned and the Saved in 1988, reflecting on his experiences with a greater historical perspective and distance from the Holocaust and the trials of Nazi officers and prisoner functionaries, as well as having influences from the ongoing Cold War; all of which are reflected in his sympathetic view, commonly called the Grey Zone.

As popular culture is a main source for public history, examining how these privileged prisoner’s have been represented in film is a way we can begin to understand these functionaries’ place in the camp system and hierarchy in public Holocaust history. Taking two films as examples, we may observe how prisoner functionaries have been represented in film through their roles and characteristics.

Robert Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) makes no mention of prisoner functionaries. Instead, the SS occupy roles such as supervising labour workers and checking the living blocks of prisoners. The majority of Holocaust films from Night and Fog in 1955 and Kapo in 1959 to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) acknowledge and incorporate the privileged prisoner system into their films. So why reject depicting the known camp functioning system? While definite answers are not available, we may acknowledge possible reasons for the absence of prisoner functionaries.

The most likely reason is Italy’s self-created myth of its underlying anti-Fascism, which is argued by some as a reason Italy uses to absolve itself from the accusation of racism that the 1938 racial laws inferred. [2] By depicting Italians’ as anti-Fascist deep down, and by making Italian prisoner functionaries absent from the Nazi concentration camps – leaving the position to be undertaken by the SS themselves – Benigni continues the notion of Italy as anti-Fascist by creating a distance between Italy and their responsibility created by Mussolini and his alliance with Hitler and Nazi Germany.

The evolution of functionaries in popular culture is revived in Roman Polanski’s 2002 The Pianist, which, like Schindler’s List, extends the concept of the Grey Zone beyond camp life and into the ghetto. It does this through the character Itzhak Heller who acts as a Jewish police officer. Heller is mocked because he has caught the “Gestapo spirit” because he has to “beat up Jews with [his] truncheon”. Heller, however, saves Wladek Szpilman’s life by pulling him out of the line of Jewish people boarding train carriages headed to a death camp.  Reflected in Heller therefore is an ambiguous and complex character that is consistent with Levi’s Grey Zone of functionaries as both victim and perpetrator after first being depicted as “bad”.

Hindsight in action

On the whole, we can see two types of prisoner functionaries being represented in film, or not represented at all. Many recent popular films such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) regress the understanding of functionaries. In this, functionaries undertake their roles but the film does not pay them any attention or attempt to explain why they are doing such things, how they came to be in that position, or the effects that the position caused. But why do prisoner functionaries remain so under-developed?

A few simple reasons can help explain this. First, that very few surviving prisoner functionaries wished to talk of their experiences, or that if they were questioned about their role, they put themselves in a non- incriminating light. Second, prisoner functionaries were ubiquitous with camp life, therefore meaning that they were never discussed directly because it was simply a part of everyday life. [3]

Yet in film there are a number of other motivations, whether political, personal, social or financial, for the degree that prisoner functionaries are explained. The underlying political motivations of Life is Beautiful are noted above, yet in films such as Schindler’s List, for example, prisoner functionaries are not the central focus because Schindler and his factory are, with the survivor testimony focusing on the factory experience and the experience of Schindler himself. Prisoner functionaries are thereby under-developed because there is no film that solely focuses on prisoner functionaries apart from Kapo (1959) and The Grey Zone (2001). In each of these films, the functionaries’ representations move from “bad” to “victim and perpetrator”, in which both films end with a main character sacrificing their life; in Kapo so that prisoner’s can escape, and in The Grey Zone, for the crematoria to explode, destroying it.

It is a shame that films such as Kapo and The Grey Zone are not as accessible, known and referred to as others like Schindler’s List. If they were, more people would have the opportunity to understand prisoner functionaries, their roles, their different characterisations, and the effects that they had not only on other prisoners’ lives but also on themselves, and continued having long after “liberation”. Instead, however, popular culture has regressed the understanding of prisoner functionaries, leaving them under-developed and in need of serious attention.

Next time you watch a Holocaust film, I challenge you to question how prisoner functionaries are represented, and the possible motivations behind it.


[1] Prisoner functionaries were in charge of labour (known as Kapos), the sleeping barracks and the distribution of food (Lager- and Blockälteste), and were forced to facilitate the extermination process, particularly the disposal of corpses, and the transferring of corpses form the gas chambers to the crematoria or mass graves (Sonderkommandos).

[2] Haggith, Toby and Joanna Newman. Holocaust and the moving image: representations in film and television since 1933. London: Wallflower Press, 2005.

[3] Rodriguez, Alison Ann. “Beyond Dichotomies: Representing and Rewriting Prisoner Functionaries in Holocaust Historiography.” MA., Thesis, University of North Carolina, 2007.


1. Former prisoner functionaries at Gusen (picture obtained from Mauthausen Museum,

2. Itzhak Heller in Roman Polanski, The Pianist. Focus Features and Universal Studios, 2002.


One comment on “Regressing shades of Grey in the study of prisoner functionaries in popular culture.

  1. Joanna Irving says:

    What an interesting topic and very unusual. Its true that many films use either good or evil in their depicting the privileged prisoners. Your topic was extremely interesting and how you have shown the effect films have had on how we perceive prisoners is fascinating. I have seen Life is Beautiful and while I love the film I didn’t properly consider how the Italian people were represented as deep down Anti-Facist.
    I really enjoyed reading your blog
    Well done

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