Author Archives: Annette Insdorf

Annette Insdorf

About Annette Insdorf

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.

Power to Teach. Power to Prevent?

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.

Holocaust Films

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

Filmmakers and film critics confronting the Holocaust face a daunting task–finding an appropriate language for that which is mute or defies visualization. How can we lead a camera or pen to penetrate history and create art, as opposed to merely recording events? What are the formal as well as moral responsibilities if we are to understand and communicate the complexities of the Holocaust through its filmic representations? 

Growing Genre

Such questions seem increasingly pressing, for the number of postwar films dealing with the Nazi era is steadily growing. I had seen at least 60 such films from around the world by 1980; when I completed the first edition of Indelible Shadows in 1982, another 20 had been produced; and by 1988 there were approximately 100 new films–40 fiction, 60 documentary–that merited inclusion.

schindler's list

Schindler’s List is arguably
the most famous Holocaust film.

My point of departure is therefore the growing body of cinematic work–primarily fiction–that illuminates, distorts, confronts, or reduces the Holocaust. Rather than prove a thesis, I wish to explore the degree to which these films manifest artistic as well as moral integrity. A number of central issues have emerged from this rapidly expanding body of films:

1) the development of a suitable cinematic language for a unique and staggering subject. I contrast Hollywood’s realism and melodramatic conventions with the tense styles and dialectical montage of many European films, as well as present notable American exceptions;

2) narrative strategies such as the Jew as child; the Jew as wealthy, attractive, and assimilated; characters in hiding whose survival depends on performance; families doomed by legacies of guilt;

3) responses to Nazi atrocity, from political resistance to individual transformations of identity, to the guilt-ridden questions posed by contemporary German films;

4) a new form–neither documentary nor fiction–that shapes documentary material through a personal voice. Here, attention is paid to the films made by survivors, their children, and especially to the works of Marcel Ophuls.