Memory, Images, History
Monday, September 27, 2010
Post written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
My dad was a concentration camp survivor, incarcerated in Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg. A great uncle of mine was executed by the Nazis at Plötzensee in 1941. As a child growing up in Chicago, I wasn’t aware of these facts, but I did know that leaving food on your plate lead to major family crises and spoiled food in the fridge meant my mother had hell to pay.
Not surprisingly maybe, one of my careers has been as a Holocaust scholar, writing not only my dissertation, but also numerous essays and reviews about the cinematic depiction of the Nazi terror. As a graduate student, I free-lanced as a film archive researcher for films, like Edgar Reitz’s HEIMAT, searching for images of war and persecution. How does one depict the Holocaust in images without exploiting audiences or succumbing to a tourism of evil? How real are images of the Holocaust?
These questions arose again watching Yael Hersonski’s new documentary, A FILM UNFINISHED (2010), which rightly questions the veracity of archive images that have been used repeatedly in Holocaust documentaries. Some of these images come from an unreleased documentary, shot by German Army Propaganda Company cameramen in the Warsaw ghetto in May 1942, simply called “Das Ghetto,” and discovered after the war in the archives. Hersonski argues that these moving images are tainted, because they are a) staged, and b) cut together to make the ideological point that wealthy Jews were exploiting poor Jews. While both facts are undoubtedly true, the filmmaker’s larger argument runs into trouble.
Hersonski analyzses each reel of the film, intercutting the hour long original documentary with interviews of Warsaw ghetto survivors, as well as wholly fictional scenes of a German cameraman being interviewed for a court proceeding and more obviously fictional scenes of the Jewish mayor reading from his diary, which ends with his suicide, as the deportations began in June 1942. Although based on court transcripts, the “post war” footage has not been identified fictional in the film. The oddly cryptic remarks by the cameraman reinforce the notion that this perpetrator not only denies culpability, but is also engaging in a cover-up. And while this may again have been true, it is not proven through the recreation.
The filmed interviews with survivors are also problematic, because the director has decided to capture his subjects while they watch the original footage from THE GHETTO. Since these survivors are all at least 80 plus years old, the “memories” they reproduce are naturally only descriptions of the footage they have just seen. In other words, they corroborate the truth value of the footage, even though it is virtually certain that these survivors were not direct witnesses to the filming; instead they probably felt pressured to “bear witness” as the last survivors to the Holocaust. Or is the point that the survivors continually look away, because the material is too grim to bear?
Does shooting multiple takes actually negate the truth value of documentary footage, when in fact documentary filmmakers going all the way back to Louis Lumière have shot multiple takes and directed their “actors” to move through a scene? Does it matter that the original edit was ideological, if individual shots have been repurposed in a wholly different manner? To her credit, Yael Hersonski keeps pointing to film as a constructed medium, cutting away to the projector, to the reels in the archive, to the process of film construction, so we understand that all images are ideologically ambiguous without context.
Finally, even if the original footage was staged, the images were shot in the Warsaw ghetto, as others have testified. Thus, we see real people who are dying of starvation or are already dead and lying in the street. The horrific images of corpses sliding down a shoot into a mass grave also cannot be perceived as anything but real. Is their truth value really lessened by the knowledge that it was the perpetrators holding the camera? For me, the actual epiphany was that these shots of mass graves in Warsaw in 1942, shot before the systematic annihilation of European Jewry in Auschwitz, was not the work of Allied cameramen liberating the camps, as I had always previously supposed.
Finally, it is clear to me that the Nazis suppressed the film, just as they shelved a similar film shot in 1944 in Teresienstadt and known for decades as THE FÜHRER GIVES THE JEWS A CITY, because the last thing Joseph Goebbels wanted the world to see was visual evidence of genocide.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, UCLA, Los Angeles
Held in Hollywood at the Academy Film Archive’s Linwood Dunn Theater, the 25th iteration of “The Reel Thing” proved to be as innovative and thought provoking as the first, back in October 1995. Indeed, thanks to its two originators and tireless organizers, Grover Crisp and Michael Friend, both of Sony Pictures, “The Reel Thing” has provided us with a seamless documentation of the technological revolution of moving image archiving from the mostly analog era of the mid 1990s to our decidedly digital present in 2010.
That bridge from the analog to the digital was illustrated most convincingly at “The Reel Thing” (2008), when “First Sounds” software programmers digitized charcoal voice recordings, which not even their inventor could playback. Suddenly, through digital technology we clearly heard a voice from an analog imprint, a “phonautogram,” recorded in 1857, thus pre-dating Thomas Edison’s first sound recordings by decades. Check out the website at firstsounds.org
At The Reel Thing just ended, another technologist proposed to capture the electronic data from magnetic media, e.g. 2” Quad video tapes, without using a conventional tape head that puts stress on the tape, but rather by “reading” data on the tape. Possibly more importantly, if this technology proves to work (actual results are still forthcoming), it would eliminate the need to archive all videotape hardware, presently required to access obsolete tape formats. I’m filled with utter admiration at the way Grover and Michael seem to effortlessly wrangle professional colleagues at the cutting edge of new preservation and archiving technologies.
Initially organized as a pre-conference event at the Toronto AMIA conference, “The Reel Thing” has been a part of every conference of the Association since then, but has also traveled to Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, and Bologna. The Association of Moving Image Archivists, but especially its brave office staff, have been an incredibly important support for what is essentially a volunteer effort on everyone’s part.
I can’t remember how many Reel Things I‘ve attended over the past twelve years, but enough to know that every visit has paid off. The consistently illuminating reports from the mostly for profit world of studios and commercial preservation vendors, have shown me the challenges of a technological landscape, which I’m forced to negotiate from the perspective of a poor, non-profit archive. The intellectual exchanges between a community of like-minded but not always agreeing practitioners have been just as important.
The opening night this year featured a 4 K digital projection of an 8 K scan of Dr. Zhivago (1965). Two further evening screenings of new preservation projects, Fantasia (1940) and The Fly (1985) were supplemented by a midday screening of an early Frank Capra silent, accompanied brilliantly by Alan Stark, normally a mild-mannered technologist. On the more serious side, a significant number of presenters discussed ever more efficient algorithms for digital clean ups or faced specific problems in the digitization of films from degraded film preservation masters. Other highlights: Ralph Sargent, whose career goes back decades, gave two extremely informative lectures on the history of optical film sound and early videotape recorders, respectively. Rita Belda discussed Columbia’s historical exhibition strategy in the transition to sound film, as reflected in surviving nitrate elements from 1928-31. Theo Gluck and his team of preservationists introduced a whole program of Disney digital restorations. And Andrea Kalas discussed innovative survey techniques at Paramount to assess the condition of movable digital media. Not the most exciting of topics, especially to outsiders, but certainly just as necessary for our field, if we are to successfully preserve ever more moving image media in the digital realm.