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.

“Beheading” the Horror

Kracauer understood “that the images on the shield or screen are a means to an end; they are to enable–or by extension, induce–the spectator to behead the horror they mirror.” But we are bound to raise the same question as Kracauer: Do such films serve the purpose?

His conclusion was that the mirror reflections of horror are an end in themselves, beckoning the spectator to take them in and thus incorporate into his memory the real face of things too dreadful to be beheld in reality. In experiencing the litter of tortured human bodies in the films made of the Nazi concentration camps, we redeem horror from its invisibility behind the veils of panic and imagination.

In 50 years, the average person will probably not be drawn to source material like archival footage from the camps, or the Warsaw Ghetto diaries of Emanuel Rindelblum or Janusz Korczak. Knowledge of the Holocaust might be filtered through the fictions of the television program Holocaust and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.

This places a special burden on the filmmaker who is trying to illuminate rather than exploit the Holocaust–and on the film critic with a stake in historical truth. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. warned, “Fiction films do live as much by cumulative dramatic convention as they do by fidelity to fact, and addiction to stereotypes dilutes their value as historical evidence.”

Capturing the Whole Truth

Does this mean that more first-person accounts by survivors must be filmed before they die? Certainly, but even survivors’ accounts can provide only a segment of the truth; many of the most courageous victims perished. Each individual story is a sorely needed (and often dramatically rich) piece of the puzzle. Other pieces might never be found. For example, how many of the six million Jews died not as passive victims but as active opponents of the Third Reich?

The issue of anti-Semitism is a case in point: It was not born with the Holocaust. As Bernard Henri-Lévy demonstrates in “The Testament of God,” Jews have always constituted a threat to national authority. Throughout history, they have embodied perpetual resistance to oppression, from ancient Egypt to contemporary Russia.

As thinkers ready to transform governments and structures of life, many Jews represent subversion–in the most resilient and constructive sense of the word. It is not hard to understand why some ideologues of the Argentine military dictatorship singled out three Jews in their verbal assault of Jacobo Timerman (as described in his book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number):

“Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.”

It is significant that this scene comes not from a German concentration camp but from an Argentine prison in the 1970s.

Comparing Genocides

It might appear facile and cheap to compare the destruction of European Jewry with other attempts at genocide. After all, there is no comparison to the rabid persecution of individuals who were a respected and assimilated part of European life, especially after it become strategically unsound for trains to transport concentration camp inmates rather than the soldiers and ammunition needed for battle.

Nevertheless, the impulse behind Nazism–if not the massive scale of its realization–has been shared by other peoples and nations. This has taken the form of synagogue bombings in Paris, marches in Skokie, or witch hunts in Argentina.

As long as there are people like Professor Faurisson in France who proclaim in print that the gas chambers did not exist, there must be active resistance by those who know they did exist. The luxury of forgetfulness is not possible, because the Holocaust is neither a closed chapter nor an isolated event.

As Alain Resnais explained to me about his film, Night and Fog, “The constant idea was to not make a monument to the dead, turned to the past. If this existed, it could happen again; it exists now in another form.”

Films not only commemorate the dead but illuminate the price to be paid for unquestioned obedience to governmental authority. In recognizing our ability to identify with characters, whether Jewish, German, kapo, or Communist, we move one step closer to guarding against that which permitted the Holocaust to develop–indifference. Perhaps the beam cast by film projectors can pierce the continuing willed blindness.

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