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.