Holocaust



REPRESENTATION AND THE HOLOCAUST

Ever since the appearance of Steven Spielberg's (b. 1946) Schindler's List (1993), only eight years after Claude Lanzmann's (b. 1925) Shoah (1985), these two films have come to represent the polarities in a debate on how cinema should tell stories about the Holocaust. Lanzmann's film gathers first-person reports that center on the process of systematic arrest, transport, internment, and annihilation of Europe's Jewish population; it eschews dramatization in favor of the setting of these interviews against the contemporary landscapes at the sites in which the tragic events took place. It strategically refuses to recreate past horrors except through verbal tellings, so that the visual in this film rests only on the speakers and on landscapes that are otherwise silent about the events that once occurred there.

These contemporary landscapes mark the terrain of a refusal to fill an absence, a refusal to take us back to a history that in its magnitude exceeds any examples that would partially serve to represent it. The Shoah must be unrepresentable, beyond figuration, beyond parable, or even symbolization. Yet Shoah is a documentary concerned with documents, and with oral history as a form of documentation. Its goal is to highlight the alibis that can distort historical memory, that can allow populations to deny the Shoah. Lanzmann's interviews cover some material already recorded in histories, such as Vrba's testimony. To hear such testimony directly, presented with all its emotional weight for the victims, is newly compelling. The secretly recorded interviews with former Nazis need to be heard in the context of the victims' interviews, to hear in contrast the emotional withdrawal and denial that occurred, especially vivid when the former Nazis report facts that coincide with the victims' accounts. The interviews with Polish peasants and workers reveal not only anti-Semitism and complicity in the past, but lingering anti-Semitism embedded within their narratives. Chillingly, the brunt of this anti-Semitism is steeped in Christian references; the cultural framework through which they view Jews has not changed.

Schindler's List , by contrast, fictionally amplifies a fragment of Holocaust history for emotional affect. In flamboyant mise-en-scène and camerawork often reminiscent of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), Spielberg employs the tropes of Hollywood filmmaking to frame an individual act of resistance on the part of one-time Nazi sympathizer Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) to save the Jewish slave laborers he employed at his armament factory. However late in the war and perhaps self-interested his acts might have been, the film highlights his conversion into hero. Enfolded within this story, images of deportation and a death camp give us the backdrop of the cataclysmic events that surrounded Schindler's Jews, yet even this aspect remains controversial for certain misleading representations. One such instance is a concentration camp shower sequence that the prisoners fear will be a gassing, but it turns out in this case to be only a shower. The sequence is disturbing for how it conforms, however temporarily, to Holocaust denials. Schindler's List met with some critical disdain not only for such narrative moments, but also for the melodramatic style used to connect to a mass audience.

These cornerstones of recent Holocaust representation follow many other documentaries and fiction films that have told various aspects of Holocaust history. The long history of both documentaries and fiction films has a cumulative resonance. The Holocaust as historical trauma that took place at so many different locales and created so many specific and individual tragedies, has not one story to tell, but many.

Alain Resnais's (b. 1922) Nuit et brouillard ( Night and Fog , 1955), filmed at Auschwitz, features a voice-over essay by survivor Jean Cayrol in montage with black-and-white documentary images (both those the Germans took to document their atrocities and those liberators took as evidence) and Resnais's evocative color footage of the deserted remains of the camp. Some of the documentary footage was first shown at the Nuremburg trials and would later be featured in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) by Stanley Kramer (1913–2001). In Resnais's film, it is presented with bitter irony as the film strives for both a poetic discourse and reflexively addresses the dynamic of witnessing itself. Controversially, it does not focus on Jewish annihilation (Cayrol was a Catholic victim), but it is haunting philosophical commentary on evil and responsibility.

Die Mörder sind unter uns ( Murderers Among Us , 1946), a German film made in the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin, may be the first fiction film about the Holocaust. A survivor of the camps, again a Catholic, returns to her apartment only to find that she must share it with the former Nazi soldier who now occupies it. The film's title accuses the guilty, but its narrative works to expiate guilt and offer redemption, strategies that fit a communist agenda for the construction of what would become the German Democratic Republic.

In contrast, it was not until The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), directed by George Stevens, that a US filmmaker produced a major feature about the Holocaust. Adapted from the Broadway hit, the film garnered three Academy Awards ® and was nominated for five others, including Best Picture and Best Director. Capturing the tension of hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, the film also works as a serious family drama about intergenerational conflicts and coming of age, although this aspect, found in Anne Frank's original diary, led some to argue that American filmmakers could only approach the Holocaust in terms that were familiar to families of the 1950s.

East European Jewish survivors were able to write and to film Holocaust narratives for their State industries, with Poland and Czechoslovakia providing particularly stunning works. For example, Obchod na korze ( The Shop on Main Street , JánKadár, 1965) employs a surrealist sensibility to present Slovak townspeople welcoming the Nazis. A microcosmic look at how economic gain can combine with prejudice to engender a Holocaust, the film is set in a dry goods store run by an aged Jewish widow, played by Yiddish theater star Ida Kaminska (1899–1980). Pasazenka ( The Passenger , Andrzej Munk) is another superb film, completed in Poland in 1963, after the filmmaker's untimely death. When a Polish Auschwitz-Birkinau survivor recognizes a German woman on a passenger ship as her former captor, the film's main story enfolds in flashbacks to the camp. Through its calm, complicit witnessing, similar to that of Shoah , this film effectively portrays mass murder in the banal guise of a day's work.

Perhaps influenced by some of this fine European work, Sidney Lumet (b. 1924) made The Pawnbroker (1964) from a novel by Edward Lewis Wallant. This film takes a stunning look at the Holocaust trauma of survivor Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), once a professor of history in Germany (Poland in the novel), now a pawnbroker in New York, whose memories intersperse the narrative. He recalls an incident from the camp in which an escaped prisoner, Nazerman's friend, who has been tracked down by the German guards and their dogs, is tortured and killed in front of the other prisoners. Another flashback memory shows Nazerman's wife being forced to service Nazi soldiers, a memory evoked by a black prostitute's offering her services to him at his pawnshop. Such associative montages set up a metaphoric parallel between the concentration camp and urban poverty, as well as explore the nature of a survivor's guilt and trauma.

American television has played an important role in representing the Holocaust, notably with the mini-series Holocaust (1978) and Playing for Time (Daniel Mann, 1980). Melodramatic tropes structure Holocaust , as they do Schindler's List , but the earlier television serial tries to give a more extensive view of different localities of the Holocaust. By following various members of a Jewish family named Weiss and interweaving their stories with a German lawyer, Eric Dorf, who eventually joins the SS, throughout Hitler's reign in Germany, the serial inter-weaves victims' and perpetrators' perspectives. Only one of the Weiss's sons survives World War II, while the fate of the other family members allows the multi-part drama to portray the Warsaw ghetto and three different camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Terezienstadt. Such multiple-perspective mechanisms are repeated in another television serial, The Winds of War (1983), directed by Dan Curtis (1927–2006) and adapted by Herman Wouk from his novel, as well as by its sequel, War and Remembrance (1988), again by Curtis and Wouk. Across the two serial works (1,600 minutes in total), we follow Jewish characters who become Holocaust victims, Natalie Jastrow-Henry and her uncle Aaron Jastrow (both played by different actors in the second series—Ali McGraw then Jane Seymour, John Houseman then John Gielgud). Later films, such as Sunshine (Istva Szabóń, 1999), used a family melodrama to narrate different perspectives on a sweep of history. Arthur Miller (1915–2005) adapted the autobiography of Fania Fénelon, a member of the Auschwitz prisoners' orchestra, for the TV movie Playing for Time . Scenes of an orchestra also appear in The Passenger ; both films use the existence of the orchestra to underscore the horrendous cultural contradictions in Nazi ideology and practice. These films highlight the ways appreciation of classical music (the Nazis established five orchestras in Auschwitz alone, and each camp had its performing ensembles) coexisted with the ability to commit atrocities, thus underscoring that Western cultural values did not foreclose barbarism. They also highlight the dilemma of the cultural Kapo, the performers who, like the Jewish concentration camp workers, were allowed to live while others died. Against their will, the Kapo were forced to contribute to the running of the camp, to become complicit in genocide. Playing for Time dramatizes the anguish of this treacherous position.

Many documentaries, including numerous Academy award winners, have chronicled many aspects of the Holocaust. Let My People Go (John Krish, 1961) treats the liberation of the camps, as does Ihr zent frei (Dea Brokman and Ilene Landis, 1983). Genocide (Arnold Schwartzman, 1981) attempts a comprehensive overview by combining still images and clips with letters and memoirs read as voice-over. The Long Way Home (1997) by Mark Jonathan Harris (b. 1941) looks at postwar Jewish refugees. His Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kinder transport (2000) joins a more personal retelling in Melissa Hacker's My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports (1996), about the Jewish children sent to Britain in order to survive.



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