Power to Teach. Power to Prevent?

Exploitation and moral responsibility in Holocaust filmmaking

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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.

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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.