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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:07AM   |  117 comments
bergen belsen

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.





This blog brings up two points which I find very intriguing: first, the use of post-war footage being used and depicted as real in a documentary leads us [the viewer] to question the validity of still photographs or video. Secondly, when Horak describes the descriptions by Holocaust survivors as being nothing more than recollections of the material they just watched, it leads me to believe that you can use video to manipulate people. If someone views a video, that video is most likely bound to leave some sort of image or ideology in that person, influencing (or manipulating) that person.

One of my favorite quotes, by Jean-Luc Godard, goes as follows:
"Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24 times per second."

While Godard's statement is powerful, you begin to question whether even old, 'true' cinema is really true. Even photos are manipulated in our day and age. Today, not even photography is the truth.

Commenting on Gary's post, it is interesting that Godard's film,Breathless or Out of Breath, to me was all about manipulation. It manipulates the standards of movies and also manipulated what the viewer could expect to see out of films in years to come.

I agree with Harlan, that "Breathless" was very much about manipulation. I find Godard's quote from Gary's post very interesting as well. If the majority of people believe that photography and film are truth, without questioning it at all, then we're setting ourselves up to be misguided almost on a daily basis. It's common knowledge that everything we see on television and the news can't be taken at face value, and applying that thought process to film as well is very important, although I'm sure not many people (including myself until now) even think about the possibility.

One of the ideas I have always found interesting is the question of what more truthful: emotional or factual truth. In history, many people forget that we are all humans and, because of that, we all have emotions. The author Tim O'Brian, a Vietnam War veteran, writes in his book "The Things They Carried" about how he believes emotional truth is much more true then factual truth. In fact, the book "The Things They Carried" is a fictional account of O'Brian's experience in the Vietnam War, but O'Brian that it is more truthful in its emotional depictions then an actual autobiographical work could ever be.

To return to the idea of the Holocaust movie, I believe that if the movie has a very strong emotional tie and makes you feel what you should feel about the horrors of the Holocaust, then it may be just as "truthful" as a extremely factual documentary. Yes, I believe that the filmmakers should have stated that staged scenes were just that. I don't believe that they should let the audience think that what they are watching is actual war footage. However, the footage may have a powerful emotional impact that might otherwise be missed in a simple documentary using just the footage they had.

All the comments made above are quite valid. The fact is that moving images can both reveal and obscure the truth. All films are consciously constructed and in that sense a manipulation, yet they can also evoke deeper emotinal truths through that manipulation. Godard making BREATHLESS as a fiction does all that.
And I'm not necessarily against mixed forms of documentary that also engage in reconstructions (fictions) to reach for deeper emotinal truths.
The problem with the depiction of the Holocaust is that the event itself is a contested historical site, given that legitimate professors have questioned the veracity of six million dead.

Films about the Holocaust must of necessity maintain a higher standard of evidence, if they are not to leave themselves open to criticism for falsification. Lanzman' strategy in SHOAH (1984) was to eschew historical recreations altogether, as well as the use of questionable historical footage, relying solely on testimony of eye witnesses and the contempory views of the original sites of horror. He thereby also embraced the biblical prohibition against graven images. But I do believe fiction films can have a profound effect on society, e.g. the reception of the American tv-series "Holocaust" in Germany, which I witnessed hitting the country like an atom bomb.

Amy Heller sent me over here to read your blog.

I'm struck by a couple of things:

1. Memory is constantly revised, and I think a good comparison can be made of the WPA's oral histories of ex-slaves, and the testimony of elderly Holocaust survivors. Both survived documented and horrific acts of human oppression, but the narratives each tells are probably shaped more by the contemporary moment than by "real" history (i.e., facts). Most ex-slaves were interviewed in the midst of the Great Depression, which certainly made their childhood memories of slavery seem rosier than they might have remembered them if they lived currently in the midst of plenty. I've written about this erosion of memory at some length in Worlds of Hurt, but it always seems important to point out both that memory is malleable, and that, at the same time, the facts of the genocide or of slavery are overwhelming and incontrovertible. My favorite example of this is interviews of Holocaust survivors where documented Auschwitz survivors will often claim that "Mengele" met them on the ramp and chose life or death for them and their families. We know they were at Auschwitz, and often we have the German records of their internment, but we also know for sure that Mengele was not in the camp to meet them at the time they arrived. This is neither "a lie" nor "the truth" -- it's the superimposition of popular culture on individual memory, in an attempt to give some narrative structure or meaning to an essentially random (yet utterly horrific) event, or set of events.

2. This is why the comment of "chris horak" struck me as so disturbing. We have, literally, warehouses of documentation of the Holocaust, including meticulous Nazi records (including, now, the many released by Russia in the 1990s), and endless testimonies, individual documentation, corroborations, etc. That the Holocaust, in all its horror, took place, and that the Nazis & their allies murdered many millions of people, is indisputable, although particular details are (as is usual in the historical record) disputed at one time or another. But there are no "legitimate professors" who are out there questioning the veracity of the "6 million" number (an approximate number, as it always has been, since no one can say if it was 5,934,421 or 6,400,519). The tactic of the deniers has always been to zero in one inaccuracy ("Mengele met me at the ramp") and use the "error" to "disprove" much larger claims (including the absurd claim that Nazis did not use gas to murder Jews wholesale in the death camps).

No one -- no film, no historian -- can maintain the "higher standard of evidence" for which deniers cry out. The preponderance of evidence supports the claims of all who would argue that the Holocaust was a genocidal event (for Jews, for Roma, for Slavs) of enormous proportions, and there is just as much sense in lending credence to deniers as there is in bowing to Flat Earthers. In short: none. The burden of proof is on the deniers and they fail miserably to support it.

In the end, documentary film is not history, though good documentaries should be supported by the historical record. "Emotional truth" should be supported with factual evidence. ("Mengele didn't meet you at the ramp, but you were certainly at the ramp, and someone met you, and what was done to you was terrible and unforgivable, and we can see why you would like to have been chosen by an important person rather than Joe Sergeant, and that's neither a crime, nor a mark against your testimony.")

I haven't seen the film yet, but I will look for it. Thanks for the article.

I couldn't agree more with you and if you thought I believed otherwise, I'm sorry, but my record on this account is unreproachable. I was, of course, referring to the notorious French literature professor, Robert Faurisson, who was eventually dismissed from his academic post in the 1990s. And in the German "Historikerdebatte" of the 1980s, Ernst Nolte certainly flirted with denial, e.g. by claiming that the minutes of the Wannsee Conference in 1942 were fabricated after the war by Jewish historians. We also know the Protocols of Zion are a bestseller in Japan. For me, these are incomprehensible facts, given, as you note, the overwhelming evidence of genocide. That is why I want Holocaust films to be beyond reproach, at least in terms of not trying to manipulate information for the audience, so the Holocaust deniers have no ammunition whatsoever.

I've never been able to grasp why the general populace has taken for granted the "fact" that historical documentaries are perfect pictures of a past time. In reality, the directors have just as much ability to manipulate the advertised truth as in any other movie. Case in point: FARENHEIT 911. This Michael Moore picture is a retrospective look at the events leading up to, surrounding, and caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, it is much easier for our generation to pick out what they believe to be fact and what they believe to be synthesized propaganda, for the simple reason that we were alive while many of the events described took place. In regards to events prior to our birth, we are much more inclined to take all the information as pure, untainted truth. As helpful as such a documentary would be, the makers of such pictures add and subtract certain points as easily as a fiction director manipulates the mise-en-scène of a Hollywood Blockbuster.

Had this been with any other event, the claims made by the author of this article would not be seen as so incredulous, even offensive. But alas, as a result of the hot-button status of the Holocaust, he is branded as a radical and a denier. In fact, he is indeed stripping the bona-fide deniers of their guns by nitpicking. He proves the usual fallibility of archival footage, while simultaneously reinforcing the existence of the Holocaust.

Continuing from Alex's comment, I personally believe that everything captured on film, weather photography or moving picture, has a significant amount of truth behind it. While yes, it is quite easy to manipulate the general populous with visual spectacles, the heart of the project cannot be easily hidden when people are the subject being analyzed. We as humans can detect certain nuances within each other, and therefore the meaning behind the picture remains visible. In the Holocaust footage, it didn't matter who was holding the camera, for the horror and tragedy of the victims cannot be masked by the cinematographer.

What I found most interesting about your post was the danger inherent in works concerning the Holocaust to make them more a "tourism of evil," and it made me also think about two works.

One is the infamous picture of the starving Sudanese baby being stalked by a vulture shot in 1994 by Kevin Carter. Even if we may be disgusted by Carter's actions, can we really say that the photograph does not preserve some truth about famine and starvation and the sheer awfulness that is human existence in some parts of the world that we, like the photographer, ignore? In regard to "Das Ghetto" and "A Film Unfinished," surely multiple and staged takes of genocide does not eliminate the truth.

But, at the same time, we need only look at exploitation movies for the most eloquent and complete counterpoint to that question. Exploitation films used real footage of atrocities and death all the time to shock audiences in what you might call a "tourism of evil." At the same time, their use of staged footage often completed that illusion. Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust" might be the best example of a film that does this. While at it's heart a sick, depraved, movie about cannibals, Deodato's film is as much about audience manipulation as Godard's "Breathless" is. In "Cannibal Holocaust," real footage of executions, war, and genocide are shown as part of a montage from a fictional film within a film. When we are brought back to the "reality" of the film, we are told that what we have just watched was staged. Ironically, within the universe of that exploitation film, we are being told that what is fake is real and that what is real is fake.

When the use of footage not as intellectual engagement but as exploitative tourism of evil is so easy to achieve, can we really afford to take "Das Ghetto" at face value, even if we conclude that its inherent truth about genocide overcomes the construction of its actual footage?

You bring up a very interesting point as to ethics and exploitation. Where are the parameters of good taste, of social responsibility, or historical accuracy? I'm an agnostic in the sense that I don't believe there is any single way to depict the Holocaust, as long as it remains honest. I know, a tricky term. Deodato's film, which I have not seen, is an an extreme, but how different is it really from THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) or Tinto Brass's SALON KITTY, which are sold as art films? On the other hand, for all its melodrama, the American tv series HOLOCAUST, which I mentioned above, provoked a national discussion in Germany. It thereby fulfilled an important role in getting the nation to mourn their victims, rather than themselves, as they had done since the war ended in 1945.
One of the greatest art films, and greatest memorials to the Holocaust is Alain Resnais' NIGHT AND FOG. A film that made me ill when I first saw it as a college sophmore. And yet it has no historical footage, but rather relies on visually documenting the sites of death, accompanied by a highly poetic text.

I agree with Alex and Harlan that Gary's quote is very true. The movie "Breathless" was about using others to get what they want. The media uses this idea to help sell their items. Documentaries may still be all about the turth, but at the end, this is a competeive inudstry and selling your film is just as important as making it. I agree with Chris that I belive that there are many sides and stories to tell regarding the Holocaust and it is important to respect the tragedy. I only care about how valid and honest the documentary is.

What is interesting about this post is that it brings up a question about documentaries in general that has always been in the back of mind, and I would assume the minds of others as well. When an audience views a documentary, especially one dealing with a topic as emotional as the Holocaust, are they able to treat the information with a grain of salt and balance out their reactions as such? Or is the reaction to such a horrendous tragedy so visceral that an unemotional is not even possible? It seems to me that the entire point of these films, whether deemed fictional or documentary are to evoke an emotional response, to take advantage of the knee-jerk reaction. I do not think it is possible to portray an image of the Holoacaust that doesn't raise questions of accuracy, not when every film about this topic tends to raise more questions then it answers.

I agree with what Hallie said. I often find myself questioning the validity of documentaries when I watch them. It seems that whenever a new documentary comes out, people are saying that it is an over exaggeration or it contains false information. Many documentary films seem to be shocking and somewhat unrealistic at times. But documentary film makers do this on purpose. They try to get their point across in the most shocking manner possible. They want the viewers to be angered by what they see, and sympathize. But this of course brings about the controversy; is it right to manipulate footage to get the message across? In some cases i believe so, such as the one written about by Jan-Christipher Horak. I believe that the film maker wanted to shock the viewers and make them sympathize with all of the people who suffered during the Holocaust. IN this situation, manipulating the documentary made this possible.

While there is truth in everything being said above about documentaries, I do find the general attitude a bit cynical. Obviously, documentary filmmakers are usually presenting an argument, but I don't think it is fair to accuse them wholesale of disingenuously applying authoritarian propaganda tactics.

I also strenuously disagree with the notion that Holocaust films "raise more questions than they answer." We can question aesthetic tactics, but this is not the same as questioning the veracity of the historical record, pertaining to the Holocaust which is unambiguous.

One notion that struck me when reading these comments and blog was a realization of the almost symbiotic relationship between violence and film. To relate back to the question of how one depicts the sincerity of evil without overstating and exploiting the emotions of others to get a result, I feel like I want to say that the origin of this problem resides within ourselves. Violence and war, and death are all attractive and of course repulsive to us, not necesarrily because of it's undiniable horror, but also because it is accompanied by this exemplification of humanity and struggle which we recognize. There's almost a beauty to it because it reminds us of who we and and our capabilities, and this dual affiliation with pictures and films that capture this beauty hiding behind a terrible intrusion is the reason why I'd say it can't be mere coincidence that the bloodiest century in human history from 1900 on, was also the century of the movie camera. There will always be this connective tissue and a moral fiber in films of tragic loss, that I would say to have misjudged them or even recreate them would not sacrifice their powerful claims about life.

Can there be pure truth in any cinematic medium? Documentaries serve to capture the truth, at least theoretically they do. Their purpose is to seek and document on film facets of social, political, behavioral (,etc.) truths and expose them to audiences with the purpose of enlightenment. But the objective for many documentary filmmakers may not be enlightenment. In those instances, when the filmmaker seeks not to educate his or her audiences, but to entertain or persuade them, can the film truly be called a documentary? In this situation, the depictions of the Holocaust are altered, possibly to supply the truth that the filmmaker, with the best intentions, believes to be actual. However, one person's version of the truth, especially when he or she could not be present during the actual situation, may not correlate with the versions of others. I think the only way one could present a purely truthful documentary would be to just let the camera roll, without any further interaction with the filmmaker and the subjects, surroundings, etc. But then, couldn't the mere presence of the camera alter the actions that will take place on screen? I suppose the most accurate, truthful interpretation of an event would result from as little interaction or influence of the filmmaker upon what he or she captures.

I recently read a book called "The Things They Carried", by Tim O'Brien. In his book he plays with the concept of truth and tells the reader that everything in his book is fiction, but at the same time states that it is true. The point he was getting across was that fiction can sometimes be more truthful than actual events, because these fictional events that we remember carry feelings with them, feelings that are real. I think that a documentary taking multiple shots and carefully planning the mise en scene in each scene does not devalue its truth. These events did happen, and although the scenes in the documentary were tampered with and cannot be technically construed as "real", they still have truth in them. We were not there, and so we cannot know what it was like exactly, but the feelings and emotions that the documentary display are very real.

A picture tells 1000 words. Video footage tells 100,000 words. After World War 2 ended, Germany had many video footage to show the destruction of the Nazis. A documentary film released in 1946 (?). I cannot remember the name of the film, but it reveals actual footage of the corpse, the graves, and the killings. The film did not have any dialogue at all. It was an observational documentary of the horrid events that took place during World War 2. The film did not do well however.

Video brings change. Video footage can be used to persuade, manipulate, or mainly just to inform. It can be used as a dark art (propaganda), or to unite us as one and mourn lost souls.

This post certainly got me thinking about things I'd never considered before...I always thought of documentaries as the nonfiction of film. It's about actual fact, so that must be what they try to attain when making the film. But it is still a film, as well, that needs viewers that are interested and interviews that are effective.
I think documentary film makers should do all they can to make what they present as truthful as possible. If what they're making a film about isn't interesting enough as is to make a successful film, then don't bother shooting it.
For instance; thoughts on taking multiple takes of an interview. I think this should be avoided as much as possible. I'm sure anyone can agree that even if you have the most captivating story to tell, it gets old after you tell it to a couple people. By even the third time you tell it, you start to skip over details to get to the main point. In an interview, it must be strived for to use the original footage of the first interview, because this will be the most truthful (not to mention the most captivating). Having these Holocaust survivors watching footage of concentration camps seems pretty silly to me too. Why make their memory even more fallible than it already is? (Because they are humans, not because they are old).
Film the truth, then perhaps spice it up with the way you edit and put together the documentary. People expect truth from a documentary, and that's what it should deliver.

I think that doing multiple takes of a documentary does ruin the truth in it, especially if the whole shot is done over and over again. It is fine to do a second take because of something like the sound did not record or any other technical error but these will probably be caught early so the take can be stopped before too much happens which will keep the truth in it. As soon as the director starts telling the "actor" what to do, I believe the truth of the shot is lost. It becomes what the director wants and not necessarily the truth.

"Art is the lie that tells the truth." -Pablo Picasso
This quote was brought up in my story class the other day, as we went on to discuss when is appropriate and not-appropriate to manipulate the truth. Cinema is an art form, a palette for manipulation and creation; but is the Holocaust a proper medium to manipulate? The images shown were clear shots directly from the Warsaw Ghetto, a fact that none can deny. However, the way the producer portrayed the images to the viewers can strongly change our perception of the message. I have found that this happens quite a lot in documentaries and non-fiction films. It is rare to come across a non-biased documentary. This bias and use of manipulation does not take away from the truth of the film, but it does not tell the whole truth. We must ask ourselves when it is appropriate to spark controversy with the works we create? Was it fair to make the survivors watch the clips?

The statement "history is written by the winners" is certainly applicable in this discussion. Almost all film footage of the atrocities of the Holocaust that is available today was taken by actual Nazi soldiers (apart from the material shot by American liberators after the fall of Nazi Germany). There existed certain individuals employed by the Nazi party whose job it was to document, through film and still photography, the events taking place in the concentration camps. These photographs and films were intended to go into a Nazi archive for safekeeping. The material might be used for training new soldiers, among other things. Although the films were not intended to be seen by the general public, we now have access to them and most of the truths of the mid-twentieth century genocide have been unmasked. Although the film operators were the ones perpetrating the events we see take place (evacuations, starvation, and execution), and though they may have set up some of the situations in a particular film or image, the essential truths remain: Jews and other target groups were evacuated from their homes, sent to ghettos and to concentration camps, worked to death, left subject to disease and starvation, or executed. It is irrelevant whether or not victims were asked to stand in a row while a picture was taken, or whether a member of the Einsatzgruppen was directed to stand over a mass grave and peer into it for the desired shot. The conditions of the camps and the suffering of the victims, the most important parts of the history, remain true in the image regardless of the identity of the image maker.

I believe that manipulation of subjects in anyway is ruining genuine documentary genre. If you make someone walk or move a certain way you, the director wants, then it is turning it into fiction. The responsibility for a good shot relies on good camera man/woman and should not rely on the subject.

Leave that to Hollywood! (even thought there are a lot of aspects to famous documentaries that are Hollywood style because documentary is a genre and it needs to sell).

I agree with Marc, violence, war and death is vert apparent in todays cinema and television because on average we don't see this every day. Certain individuals may lose a love one and actually experience war, but for the most part, we only hear about the violence and evils in the world. Every human being has thought about death and wondered what comes after, or if there is nothing at all. This is why death, war and violence often portrayed in movies, we the viewers are enticed to see such horrible images because its a moment of empathy. To put yourself in a holocaust victim/survivors shoes is so abnormal that we find ourselves drawn to it.

Does the fact that the footage of Holocaust victims was shot by Nazis negate the films power? Absolutely not! Regardless of who shot the footage the image of the dead bodies and human beings in suffering is a signifier that portrays a very clear signified. These images portray the victim's pain and the horror of what the Nazis were doing regardless of who the cameraman was. Using the footage is not harming anyone, especially since the majority of people who view the images believe that the verisimilitude of the shots is absolute.If people believe what they see is true, and it benefits society, I see no problem with using the footage. The Holocaust was a horrible event and anything that presents the horror of it and honors the victims is fine by me, even if it's initial purpose was much more sinister.

I never saw how people could ever label documentaries as being "real" in any context. Film is a medium that is based entirely on creating your own narrative, and that includes documentaries. Even if a documentary is showing footage of something that actually happened it is still condensing what is on screen for the purpose of the filmmaker's own thesis. Manipulation is part of the medium. With this in mind, I don't think it's morally wrong to use footage from a documentary with a different thesis in order to prove you own. When somebody watches D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, often the first thing that stands out is how the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as heroic. It's jarring to see them portrayed in that way and only serves to reinforce the racism of that era. That was certainly not the intention of the film, but when viewed today that is undoubtedly the impression that most gather. If we can look at past narrative films and see the skeletons of our nations past, why can we not look at a documentary about the holocaust from a Nazi perspective and not see the horror within? The images on screen do not become less gruesome because those behind the camera didn't see them as that, if anything knowing that there were people with the mindset to see this as not morally reprehensible reinforces how terrible Nazi era Germany was.

When an individual is going to film a documentary, it is his or her job to make that documentary as objective as possible. By definition, a documentary is concerns presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter. To make a documentary without following this criteria is honestly an insult to the genre. To go even further as to try to pass off a film about the Holocaust, one of the most serious violations of human rights in the history of the modern world, as a documentary without being completely objective is disrespectful to everyone who suffered through the Holocaust or was effected by it.

The fact that the filmed interviews with the survivors were tainted makes this even worse. As a filmmaker, I would expect Hersonski to want to provide his audience with a unbiased account of what the actual survivors recall on a deeply emotional and sincere level. Instead he presented them with footage from THE GHETTO before he recorded their recollections of the Holocaust. This obviously created biased accounts of fact for what Hersonski needed in his film.

Obviously, the images of individuals dead or dying in the Warsaw ghetto are real. Was it really necessary then to shoot multiple takes and direct the 'actors' in the death camps? This is not the same as Classical Hollywood Cinema. It is not necessary to perfect the camera angles and mise-en-scene when the point of the documentary is to reveal horrible injustices that occurred in history, not to sensationalize a tragedy.

I agree with a lot of what Peter said. Even though documentaries claim to base on real life, they are just as much manipulated and edited with as any narrative and such. The filmmaker as a certain stance on a given topic and portrays that side. In real life there are always two stories to every situation and documentaries try and prove only one. I really enjoyed his example of Birth of a Nation.

This discussion is incredible and far too rich for me to try and catch up on. I did want to point out one misconception floating through some of the posts.

Most of the direct visual (moving image and photos) evidence we have of the Holocuast was not shot by Germans or Nazis, but rather by the American, Britsh, and Russian liberators of the death camps. There are only two known productions by the Propaganda Ministry: the Warsaw Ghetto film described above, and the documentary, directed by Kurt Gerron (who was then shipped to Auschwitz after finishing the film), TERESIENSTADT, about a ghetto in western Bohemia, a transit camp for Jews to the death camps in the East.

All other snippets were shot mostly by amateurs, either German soldiers or surreptious resistence fighters aand are therefore merely glimpses, rather than complete records.

It was the stated policy of Joseph Goebbels not to directly address the Holocaust in film, but rather only metaphorically in anti-Semitic films like JEW SUESS (1939) or the pseudo-documentary, THE EETERNAL JEW (1940), which ironically documented the life of Eastern European Jewry before the Holocaust.

In Prague, the Germans planned to repurpose one of the ancient Shules in the Jewish quarter as a "Museum to an Extinct Race," carrying together what they had plundered from the rest of Europe.

I have a few questions to pose regarding other posts that have been made.

Kali Tal:
Regarding your first point about revisions of memory, does the superimposition of popular culture on memory detract from the value of that memory?

Do we, as people who have only heard stories of the Holocaust and did not live through the event, need specific and real footage to guide us towards understanding this horrific period of time, or is an accurate re-creation satisfactory? Aren’t the only versions of stories we receive from the Holocaust now re-creations? There are far more secondary sources we have access to compared with primary sources. As time moves on, to some extent, everything becomes a secondary source.

Becca Guldner:
Do the sacrifices that documentarians make to market their product detract from the product itself?

Karla Cote:
I agree that documentaries should be as objective as possible, they ought to be works of hard journalism--not editorials on their topic. However, the role of the press is changing dramatically in America, and hard news outlets are becoming increasingly more partisan and editorialized. The definition of objective story telling is shifting, so doesn’t it make sense that the documentary genre would evolve to become more editorialized as well?

I think that issues of this nature has plagued documentaries and their creditability for quite sometime now. It really takes away from the power of the documentary and it really dulls the emotional edge that is normally given to documentaries, which is saying something if it even draws us away from a film about the Holocaust, an event that is chalk full of emotions already. Not to mention that there is already some, though not even close to widely acknowledged, controversy over the Holocaust, with people such as Mr. Ahmadinejad denying its even existence, any manipulation of archival footage to draw a more emotional response is detestable.

We saw the same thing in Michael Moore's Sicko the documentary about healthcare where he took us to Cuba to witness the huge successes of universal healthcare in Cuba. From the documentary, it seems that the healthcare in Cuba is phenomenal, though it later came out that he took us to the absolute best clinic in all of Cuba, with much of the care given was merely staged and a virtual Potemkin village. Of course this essentially sets the precedence for the manipulation of facts and nullifies any good point that he made in his documentary about the state of healthcare in our nation.

Essentially I agree with Peter Donohue in that documentaries have a the connotation with being truthful and objective, but in reality they are simply the directors narrative about an issue, completely subject to the directors manipulation and should always be treated as such, its just one film makers view on the subject. Everything from the editing to the mise en scène are at the directors disposal to spin the issue which ever way he or she wishes, for example showing the survivors the footage to put memories in their mind or to envoke a more emotional response in them. By choosing to light them in a depressing or energetic light will greatly influence how you receive what they are saying. Even just the choices of what images to place under the dialogue or how they score the film greatly affect the way we feel about the piece of work. We see the effect that simply tinting the film stock can have on our view of film in Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad for example.

I agree with Karla Cote because documentaries are supposed to be informative. They should be unbiased, so therefore they should not force an opinion down the viewer's throat. I am especially annoyed by the idea of fake documentaries because of the effect they have on the ignorant. There is at least one person in the world who could watch "A Film Unfinished" and believe in the fictional cameraman. This issue runs a lot deeper than just falling for a small narrative though, because when a film attempts to mask opinion as truth, then you have propaganda. You have people believing all the lies, and this obviously has the potential to do a lot of damage to society. This debate can go so much deeper, because then the multiple takes argument also comes into play. If an interviewee has time to change their original statement, which take is the truth? This blog post is certainly going to make me reconsider any documentary I ever watch in the future.

in my opinion, i think even when these archives and documentaries have been altered in any way, even when the interviews with the survivors had been manipulated, the evidence of the genocide occurred in WW2 is impossible to deny, and well, the archives just try to corroborate the information.
I have a question regarding these archives:
if these images were not filmed by the allies in their way to rescue the camp survivors, who were responsible for them? who found them, and most important, who FILMED them?

Most cinematic works intend to create a fictional world for the audience to become invested in. The beauty of a documentary, however, is to do just the opposite. Hayward’s cinema studies book says a documentary should be an instrument of information, education, and a creative treatment of reality. When I watch a fiction film, I watch it to be pulled into the story of the characters. Fiction films provide us with what our reality cannot, which is why cinema is a worldwide enjoyment. However, when I watch a documentary, I plan to be provided with real information on a subject and to understand the truth of the matter I otherwise am uninformed about. When a filmmaker blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction while advertising the film to be non-fiction, I find this to be an unsuccessful film. In response to the article, I definitely think shooting multiple takes negates the validity of the footage. A documentary filmmaker should be capturing only the most realistic of images. Personally, the most intriguing part of documentaries to me is the reality of the interviews; we are learning information directly from the mouths of those most fluent on the subject of the documentary. Why should I watch a documentary with fabricated information? I wouldn’t study for a history exam with a book written by a fantasy writer. If I wanted to watch fiction, then I would go to the movie theater.

Holocaust documentaries are a complex and sensitive genre where once again, the role of film ethics comes into play. How does one strike the right balance between showing what occurred without sugarcoating it? I found the part regarding the interviews with survivors very interesting. There is a definite sense of manipulation here that defies the ethics of documentary film making. I find it very unsettling that the survivors have been put in such a situation; they should be credited for their survival, not exploited for their "memories."

Ally Cunningham's post about documentaries are generally true. If someone is watching a documentary, they are likely looking for the truth. However, this is not a matter of audience (most people can agree on what a viewer looks for in documentary film). What is questionable is the use of the documentary format to make people believe something that isn't true. People will not solely dismiss a documentary unless it is eloquently proven false with hard evidence. Propaganda is a powerful tool.

*is generally true

This just goes to show you the power that film can have. A documentary by nature is supposed to depict factual events, yet it is very easy to manipulate viewers by throwing in pieces of fiction. While the holocaust was without a doubt a true historical occurrence, the mass confusion allows opportunities for information to be tainted through film.

i totally agree with Ally Cunningham's statement, documentaries are supposed to be used as a tool to see true information. However, in the case of WW2 (and many other cases, the possibilities to find these kind of films 'authentic' is really difficult, for obvious reasons. Maybe not all of them are original, but they try to show reality and give evidence to the facts. So, in my opinion they can be accepted as long as they are not used to make the audience believe something is not true.

Documentaries are supposed to create a greater truth, or idea. Often times straight shooting is unable to represent how bad it really was. When It comes to the holocaust their is amply historical evidence of the injustices that occurred, so their is no question that the film makers were not trying to pull a fast one making it worse than it really was.

In my opinion, dramatizing isn't the issue here. It's the over emphasis on certain facts while others, eually as important are at times left out. There is no question that there is ample proof concerning the atrocities of the Holocaust, the question i have is how far is too far? when is the said "dramatizing" turning closer to fictionalizing? the line has to be drawn somewhere. if for no other reason then for the sake of those people who experienced these events first hand and deserve truthful representation.

There is no such thing as objective art. Because of the nature of film, elements must always be excluded or selectively included. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote about the deceptiveness of images--what we see, we perceive as reality, even though we are only seeing one representation of that reality. I feel that we do have some responsibility to present historical events as truthfully as possible, though--I'm just not sure how to do that.

I think that many people think of documentaries as solely non-fiction - as films in which real people speak and move without direction or staging. But documentaries are films, and they have directors, screenwriters, etc. just like any fiction film. When we watch a documentary, we are of course seeing real events, but we are also seeing them through the lens of the director's vision. One must always keep this in mind when viewing a documentary. "A Film Unfinished" and "The Ghetto" are no exceptions.

I agree that multiple shots with Holocaust survivors can become fictional. This implies that the film maker is looking for a particular answer to their question, rather than gathering the raw truth. I think a better approach would to as questions responsively and appropriately to what the interviewee is saying. That way, the answer that is wanted has been received while keeping the integrity of the the topic, the interview, and the film.

I found this article really interesting because I have always been fascinated with history and historical documentary films. I always found it strange that even in times as horrible as the holocaust, there always seems to be a camera filming the horrific events. One must always keep in mind who the person behind the camera is and what he or she wants the viewer to see. No documentary is purely "real"; the director always has a vision that he or she is working to accomplish and their visions often require some sort of manipulation. I think archival Holocaust footage is a great example of how images can be manipulated and used as propaganda.

As Hersonski says, film is a "constructed medium." Even films such as documentaries are edited; it is rare to see a film where all of the footage that was shot is used. I think that the question that this begs is how much is too much? Fiction films are heavily edited to reflect perhaps the director's creative view or to imply a message, and this is widely known. But documentaries are often seen as cold, hard truth, reflecting situations onscreen exactly as they are in reality. So what kinds of editing are appropriate when it comes to documentary films? Is it okay to ask an interview subject to be re-interviewed, so that there will be a smoother, more rehearsed take to work with? Should interviewers be allowed to ask pointed questions, which drive the subject towards answering a specific way? And, an even bigger question, how many of the documentaries that we see today are accurately reflecting their subject?

I believe that multiple takes takes away from the spontaneity of the film. However I do not believe that it detracts from the authenticity of the film. There is always a lens of subjectivity that any directer brings to any film, so the idea that a documentary is pure unadulterated truth is slightly ridiculous.

I feel that this old footage amazing. You can go and build and recreate sets but you can’t go out and find anything more authentic. I agree with Kevin Herrick in the sense that it is dangerous because nothing can be, as he says “real.” Even in a documentary something will always be objective, it will always try to get some point across. So naturally things are left out of the shot and framed at a particular angle. The fact that footage like this exists is great for people to want to feel close to their own, however keep in mind that someone is always manipulating something.

I love the idea of factual versus emotional truth. So many people have made such valid points on the validity of certain cinematic works. However, one thing i have always questioned throughout my years is how true is a story when the say "based on a true story"?

Shooting multiple takes doesn't take away from the truth of the content of the video, it does however diminish the impact of the evens portrayed in the video. Yes I believe it to be wrong to use scenes in different ways in a documentary but I also find it to be based on necessity on the directors part and being a film person i tend to side with the director on this one. All documentaries have a stance on the events portrayed in their video. So the objective nature makes it seem necessary to reorder events to fit the "narratives" needs.

Part of the art of documentary is to use found footage, shoot real events/images, as well as compose a consistent narrative in order to evoke a certain feeling. It is true that we (the viewers) are not certain if these images are reality or if they are just manipulations of what the filmmaker wants us to see or believe. So the question is, if documentary filmmakers can easily edit and manipulate images to fit their own agenda, then how can we know if what we are seeing is factual? I'm sure this is the case for many documentaries and i'm sure a lot of them have been disproven and labeled fictional, but that does not mean that all non-fiction film making is a manipulation of edited images. There is always some truth in what we are seeing.

I agree with Alex, "how true is a story when they say 'based on a true story'?" In some films when they say that it is based on a true story, there is some found footage. To strengthen the argument of a film being true, I feel like it's a necessity to have found footage in the piece. Also how much of the story is being left out? In Hollywood films, I feel like they take out the pieces that may appear not to have the same entertainment value as other pieces of the story. However, that is manipulating the audience's point of view on the topic. They must provide all the information to give us a concrete understanding of the events.

So far this dicussion has been about film even though many of the participants are actually talking about moving images which now include digital media. As we all know, manipulation of digital moving images has become increasingly easy. All those CGI movies that look real, are in fact the creation of computers and simple math. Digital images, even those made by cameras, are in fact not imprints of light values (as analogue images were always direct manifestations of physical phenomena on chemical emulsions or electronic photo clls, but calculations that have no direct relationship to physical reality. The question of what is real thus becomes even more difficut to answer.Indeed, using computers, one could now make a movie to prove almost anything, icluding whether and how the Holocaust happened or didn't happen. That is why, ultimately, we must rely on other physical documents to undergirder history. WHile such documents can also be forged, it is much, much more difficult and such frgeries usually quickly come to light, as in the case of the fake Hitler diaries, two decades ago.

I think creators of documentaries should be truthful because their goal is to
educate people on a topic not show them lies. However, responsibility falls on the
audience to educate themselves on a topic as much as possible from many sources
so they can have a better chance at deciphering what is real from what is fake
whether it is a documentary or a book. Furthermore, people have been
manipulating things way before the age of technology so I think people should
know better than to take things at face value. The reason why media was created
was not only to educate/entertain people but to persuade large groups quickly and
effectively. Hence, people should always be careful no matter the time period.

The part of this post that struck me was the fact that the filmmaker interviewed the Holocaust survivors while showing them the staged footage. This brings up the question that everyone as been speaking about which is what can we really perceive as truth? It's become clear that even from the days of early cinema many images that claimed to be nothing but the truth (such as these documentary images) have been staged and manipulated to some extent.

What these filmmakers did while interviewing these survivors was encourage the process of Re-consolidation, which is the psychological process of recalling and restoring a memory, and this can lead to changing the original memory. So now that we have found out we can't completely trust these "truthful documentary images" and now we can't even completely trust memories as the actual truth what do we have to go on?

The only thing that comes to mind for me as indisputable truth (especially concerning events like the Holocaust) are films like Peter Forgacs' "The Maelstrom", a film about a Dutch Jewish families experiences during the holocaust paralleled to that of a Third Reich Nazi General. This film can be taken as nothing but the truth because is is comprised entirely of home videos that have not been staged or manipulated. I believe it is films like "The Maelstrom" that can really give the viewer a sense of the truth.

I believe the validity of documentaries comes from the candidness of interviewees and one take to show the truth. I agree that multiple takes can lead one to believe actions and interviews to be artificial or scripted. This is the complete antithesis of what a documentary is. It almost makes me think, "should there be certain requirements to be called a documentary"?

It brings up many questions about what does an actual documentary mean? I remember having this discussion in one of my classes and a point was given when nature documentarians film a cheetah in the grass then cut to a antelope running away from a cheetah, they sometimes shoot these two scenes completely separate and then place them together. Is this ethical? It does show the process of what happens in real life, even if it's not directly what happened. This can be applied to the holocaust documentary. If it is staged then it should be shown as a staged event. To say this is real life then to be staged is unethical and reminds me of the entertainment of "reality tv" I hope documentaries and reality tv stay away from eachother and keep a line dividing them.

How true is the phrase “based on a true story?” Every film that uses this phrase has most likely manipulated some information or added extra points in. That is why it is remarkable that the new release Fair Game has no false information whatsoever. All of the archival documents used in the film were kept as they were when the real incident happened. This is film is different from those “based on a true story” as this one is just plainly “a true story.”

If this technique of only using true information was used in all films that are “based on a true story,” they would not be as appealing to audiences. The writers manipulate the story to create a more attention-grabbing story to gain a better audience interest.

If film is always a "constructed medium", then using found footage "appropriately" in a documentary is certainly ambiguous. When watching documentaries with archival footage, the viewer should understand that the director has manipulated the footage to evoke a certain feeling or express a point of view. Does expressing a point of view automatically stray a film from portraying the real truth? Is it even possible to express a truth entirely accurately in a film?

While it may not be possible to accurately portray the whole and only truth (as footage must be manipulated in some way), I believe it is possible to accurately express at least one part of the truth in a documentary.

There is no medium that can document with veracity because every method of expressing information requires just that, expression. The filmmaker controls what goes up on the screen and what doesn't, what gets edited in and cut out, and the filmmaker will likely look only for what he wants to find. I noticed Ian West asked, "should there be certain requirements to be called a documentary," but the documentary mentioned does exactly what our lectures described documentaries as. They are rhetorical. They are affective, argumentative, logical, and emotional. Not necessarily true. This concept that documentaries are fact are a cultural construction, but documentaries are direct cinema, not cinema verite. I ask you whose fault is it that the public believes documentaries to be truth?

The question of whether it is legitimate to use "constructed" footage in a documentary reminds me of all those History Channel documentaries in which the filmmakers re-enact true events. Although the actors in these re-enactments aren't really the people in the events, I would say that the fictitious-ness is justified, as long as it's historically accurate and filmed objectively.

Of course, with all documentary, however objective your footage is, it is the filmmaker's decision of what to show and what not to show.

I agree with Jackson because sometimes there just isn't footage so a reenactment with trained actors makes sense. However I still believe that only these reenactments should be directed. Any part of the documentary that is supposed to be real and natural should not be directed at all.

It seems as though for this context, the documentary was not created in its most true form. There is a thin line between creating and documenting, and this is toeing it. There's one documentary that shows a man walking into his house and every time he closes a door, he does it three times in a row. After watching, our professor told us that it was a made up tendency; the director of the film asked the subject to do that to more easily convey his ever-changing mental state.
I don't agree with what that did and I'm not sure if I necessarily agree with what has happened in this situation. The director had the survivors watch the film and recount their experiences, but their experiences were altered by what they saw in the film. Its a question of ethics and how true your documentary is trying to be, on the whole. No documentary is 100% true, but close enough is majorly accepted.

While it certainly doesn't blow my mind to hear that Nazi's may have put a bias into a documentary they were making this but it does certainly raise some questions about documentaries. In my opinion documentaries either aims to record events, or to analyze, with lots in between of course, such as this movie which analyzes what was supposed to be a recording of events. I however am very lose about the definition of documentary, and think of any movies that utilizes unscripted events taking place in the real world to at least some noticeable extent. For instance while Borat had a planned out story and a fictional character the bulk of the humor lied when Borat was in the real world and the unscripted reactions to him made the film.

To comment on the presence of manipulation in documentary film, on re-enactment, and on staging, I must say that all of these tendencies are structurally embedded in the art of film itself. The very act of transposing the afilmic world onto celluloid involves a certain authoritarianism of the eye, a desire to objectify those people and objects in focus. In this sense, it comes as no surprise that the Nazis were meticulous in their documentation of genocide, for both acts are united by a common structural feature: the objectification (the seizing of life)of the Other.

I find difficulty in seeing showing footage of the holocaust as exploitative at all. It is important that those images be shown as much as possible, discussed as much as possible, and have their validity analyzed as much as possible if only to keep fresh in the minds of future generations what could happen if people are not always being proactive about human rights and diplomacy.

Having watched the film Triumph of Will, it's mind boggling the form that propaganda can take, from staged concentration camps to the ultimate glorification of Hitler. This footage must have made tremendous impact at the time since there was so much focus on film by the state, which favored the state. It makes you wonder about looking back on the political footage of our time. How obvious will it be in the future that what we watch on TV or in the theater is fed to us by the government?

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