Power to Teach. Power to Prevent?

Exploitation and moral responsibility in Holocaust filmmaking


Reprinted with permission from Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, third edition (Cambridge University Press).

The Holocaust is often exploited by those who simply have access to the media. The only versions of Nazi persecution that we see in film are the few that have made it to the screen, and often this is less a question of choice, quality, or logic than of chance: The commercial exigencies of film make it a dubious form for communicating the truth of World War II, given box-office dependence on sex, violence, a simple plot, easy laughs, and so on. 

Nevertheless, it is primarily through motion pictures that the mass audience knows–and will continue to learn–about the Nazi era and its victims. Whenever I show Night and Fog in my courses, students are shocked and profoundly moved, for it is generally their first encounter with the palpable images of Auschwitz.

Filming the Unimaginable

The cinema thus fulfills the function articulated by film theorist Siegfried Kracauer about 30 years ago. In his “Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality,” the morally vigorous German critic recounted the myth of the Gorgon Medusa, whose face, with its huge teeth and protruding tongue, was so horrible that the sheer sight of it turned men and beasts into stone.

When Athena instigated Perseus to slay the monster, she therefore warned him never to look at the face itself but only at its mirror reflection in the polished shield she had given him. Following her advice, Perseus cut off Medusa’s head with the sickle which Hermes had contributed to his equipment.

The moral of the myth is, of course, that we do not, and cannot, see actual horrors because they paralyze us with blinding fear; and that we shall know what they look like only by watching images of them which reproduce their true appearance… the reflection of happenings which would petrify us were we to encounter them in real life. The film screen is Athena’s polished shield.

Kracauer’s analogy is particularly apt for films that show or reconstruct scenes of ghettos, deportation, and extermination. However, his argument includes the belief that “these images have nothing in common with the artist’s imaginative rendering of an unseen dread but are in the nature of mirror reflections.” To merely show the savage surfaces of Auschwitz might not lead to much beyond a numbing of response.

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Annette Insdorf is Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, where she holds the title of Professor as well as Chair of the Doctoral Program in Film Theatre.

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