Thursday, February 4, 2016

In Shoah's Shadow

"Writing history is an imaginative act. Few people would deny this, but not everyone agrees on what it means. It doesn’t mean, obviously,  that historians may alter or suppress the facts, because that is not being imaginative; it’s being dishonest. The role of imagination in writing history isn’t  to make up things that aren’t there; it’s to make sensible the things that are there." (Louis Menand, Introduction to To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson)

It does not happen - thankfully - very often, but every time a filmmaker attempts to deal with the Holocaust he comes up against two imposing, yet contradictory, obstacles. The first is the objection that any film, especially a fiction film, should touch the subject. This is not just because it is considered sacred by some - by survivors, by Jews, but also (and perhaps more stridently) by artists.

This is an argument that originates in disorganized remarks made by Theodor Adorno in the early 1950s: "After Auschwitz," he insisted, "to write a poem is barbaric," if writing it is intended "to squeeze aesthetic pleasure out of artistic representation of the naked bodily pain of those who have been knocked down by rifle butts. ... Through aesthetic principles or stylization ... the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose. It is transfigured and stripped of some of its horror, and with this, injustice is already done to the victims."

In his essay, "Writing and the Holocaust," Irving Howe examined Adorno's prohibition:

"... The representation of a horrible event, especially if in drawing upon literary skills it achieves a certain graphic power, could serve to domesticate it, rendering it familiar and in some sense even tolerable, and thereby shearing away part of the horror. The comeliness of even the loosest literary forms is likely to soften the impact of what is being rendered, and in most renderings of imaginary situations we tacitly expect and welcome this. But with an historical event such as the Holocaust - an event regarding which the phrase 'such as' cannot really be employed - the chastening aspects of literary mimesis can be felt to be misleading, a questionable way of reconciling us with the irreconcilable or of projecting a symbolic 'transcendence' that in actuality is no more than a reflex of our baffled will."

There have been great literary works by Holocaust survivors like Paul Celan, Primo Levi, and Istvan Kertesz. There have also been great works by filmmakers whose visits to the camps were purely imaginative. And there have been great documentary films as aesthetically distinct as Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (with narration written by survivor Jean Cayrol) and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

Now that the last generation of Holocaust survivors is dying out, the importance of recording every one of their individual testimonies is - for history and humanity - especially urgent. As if in response to this sense of urgency has come the work of Lanzmann and something of a direct offshoot of the monumental film Shoah, Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. While they appear to be engaged in the same pursuit, somewhat curiously (if not inexplicably), both Lanzmann and Istvan Kertesz, Holocaust survivor and author of Fateless (also made into an excellent film) have taken extreme exception to Spielberg and his foundation.

The impact and importance of Shoah is indisputable. Watching it - experiencing it - is unforgettable. It challenges us, like all great art does, to take account for our own lives. In the 70s, Lanzmann had what was probably the last chance to record the eyewitness accounts of so many survivors, and he had the good judgement - and artistic sense - to limit his film exclusively to what his own cameras recorded, avoiding the use of newsreel footage that Marcel Ophuls had done - brilliantly - in The Sorrow and the Pity, The Memory of Justice, and Hotel Terminus.

I use the words "artistic sense" purposely because, on top of all the other things Shoah achieves, it is great art as well. Lanzmann would probably deny this, but if documentary were simply a matter of turning on the camera and the tape recorder (two instruments that Bresson believed had almost incantatory power), every one of the moral choices that a filmmaker makes - like where to point the camera and why - would be eliminated and documentaries would have nothing to tell us.

No one would dream of questioning the enormity of Lanzmann's contribution to the conversation about the treatment of the Holocaust on film. He never intended to, but he set the bar for every subsequent treatment of the Holocaust, documentary or fictional. His insistence, however, that there is no other justifiable way to represent the Holocaust except his way, is not simply disingenuous, but it would lead inevitably to silence. Perhaps silence is the most respectful reaction to the Holocaust,(1) but it doesn't increase our understanding of it, which every new generation greatly needs. That understanding may only ever be incomplete and unsatisfying, but this doesn't make it any less necessary.

Now comes a new film from Hungary, Son of Saul, by a fledgling (38-year-old) director, Laszlo Nemes. And as if in direct response to Lanzmann's challenge to fiction films about the Holocaust, Richard Brody of The New Yorker, while seeming to praise the film because it dramatizes specific events mentioned in Shoah - the use by the Germans of Jewish Sonderkommandos ("special units") who assisted them, under threat of death of course - practically dismisses the film as being "virtually superfluous."

Part of the importance of Shoah is its sheer scope, its encirclement of the inner and outer workings of the Nazi Final Solution, based entirely on the testimonies of people directly involved. But as broad and detailed as Shoah is, it does not - cannot - encompass the entirety of the Holocaust. As similar as all of the stories of Holocaust survivors are, every one of them is a story unto itself, an ineluctable perspective on the unfolding of the event.

Contrary to Western practices, filmmakers in Eastern Europe did not avoid the subject of the Holocaust in the decades immediately after the war. Approaching the subject in explicitly political terms, it was considered as just another chapter in the struggle between communism and fascism. As soon as film production returned in Poland, Wanda Jakubowska, a survivor of Auschwitz, made The Last Stage (Estatni Etap), her attempt to create a film record of her own experiences. Made in a matter of months after the liberation of the death camp, the film is remarkable for its directness and its demands, above all, for authenticity. It makes one wonder what Jakubowska would have made of Lanzmann's somewhat puritanical prohibition of any fictional portrayals of the Holocaust.

Richard Brody mentions how, in Son of Saul, "[Laszlo] Nemes renounces the act of total and transparent representation - he films Saul's experiences and observations as if he can't fully represent them dramatically by actors on sets." Such reticence to show the audience an unprecedented horror is both an old trick of the trade (think of how, in the original The Mummy [1931], Karl Freund creates a heightened atmosphere of terror by never showing us the risen Imhotep - Boris Karloff - but only the actors' terrified reactions to seeing him) as well as a quite telling admission of the limits that filmmakers set for themselves when they touch so sensitive a subject.  

Anyone familiar with former Sonderkommando Filip Muller's powerful testimony in Shoah knows that it is one of the most riveting scenes ever recorded of a man sitting in what appears to be his living room describing things that are all the more incomprehensible for having actually occurred. But are filmmakers who choose to re-create such scenes in danger of making such horrors as Filip Muller witnessed too familiar, almost commonplace?  

In the past twenty years we have been subjected in films to every imaginable horror in every horrible realistic detail. The very existence of a line that some people insist should never be crossed is an invitation to filmmakers to cross it. In the newly released film The Revenant, all every critic can talk about, it seems, is the moment when Leo DiCaprio is mauled by a bear in such graphic detail that some critics found themselves at a loss for words.

Movie mayhem has been a fact of filmgoing life at least since Bonnie and Clyde. But no one, as far as I know, has attempted to exploit cinematic tricks, including CGI, in the detailed representation of the gas chambers. It would be regarded as "going too far." If the representation of a man being shot to death is somehow acceptable realism - even if everyone accepts that no such act has actually occurred - why would an attempt at representing the moment, inside one of Auschwitz's gas chambers, when the Zyklon cyanide pellets are dropped through the air vent and the naked people inside are shown perishing in unimaginable ways, be unacceptable? When Muller, in Shoah, describes how, removing the bodies from a gas chamber, he saw blood and excrement and vomit everywhere, that he saw how the bodies of some of the women showed signs of menstrual bleeding - why are such terrible details acceptable when they are spoken, but would be considered an outrageous violation of propriety, not to mention taste (in his opening paragraph Brody calls Son of Saul "daring but tasteless") if a filmmaker tried to show them to us?

Irving Howe went further in his examination of Adorno's remarks on representing the Holocaust:

"Adorno might have had in mind the possibility of an insidious relation between the represented (or even the merely evoked) Holocaust and the spectator enthralled precisely as, or perhaps even because, he is appalled - a relation carrying a good share of voyeuristic sadomasochism. Can we really say that in reading a memoir or novel about the Holocaust, or in seeing a film such as Shoah, we gain the pleasure, or catharsis, that is customarily associated with the aesthetic transaction? More disquieting, can we be sure that we do not gain a sort of illicit pleasure from our pained submission to such works?"

There is, of course, an enormous difference between the spoken testimonies of Holocaust survivors in Shoah and a fiction film's dramatic representation of such events. The difference is not just a simple matter of form. In his 2003 review of Susan Sontag's book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Tzvetan Todorov wrote:

"One of the great platitudes of our epoch is that images, in particular photographic or filmed images, transmit messages that are much clearer and stronger than words, which disguise the truth more than they reveal it. But in truth nothing could be less certain: a photograph can stun us, but taken out of context it may not convey any significant meaning. You see a mutilated corpse, you are moved and overcome by shock or pity; but you do not yet know who this corpse is, nor why this person has been killed, nor by whom; nor whether this is a case that warrants an appeal to vengeance, or on the contrary an appeal for peace, or whether it is only an incitement to meditate on the fragility of human existence. Sentences have a subject and a predicate, a part that delimits what is being discussed and another part that says something about it. But images are subjects without predicates: they evoke the world intensely, but they do not tell us, of themselves, what we should think about it." (Tzvetan Todorov, "Exposures," The New Republic, April 21, 2003)

When the sexual revolution was upon us in the 1970s, Charles Thomas Samuels called for a retreat, arguing that "sex needs words in order to be creative." The presentation of sex in a film is virtually invariable. Like a childbirth scene, it is made up of the same props, sounds and gestures. Any creator of images has to work hard to avoid visual cliches; and yet the particularization of human experience is limited by a finite number of repetitious gestures.

Richard Brody argues that, in Son of Saul, Nemes is referring us to the words spoken by survivors in Shoah by choosing to avoid representing events chronicled in his film directly: "The enormity of the events defies dramatization without utterly eluding it. Yet the muffling of the image suggests another mode of transmission - the word, in the future tense. The events that Saul sees and the actions that he takes will survive, if they survive at all, through Saul's eventual verbal testimony. The fullest access to what Nemes doesn't and won't show clearly will be through the culled word - will be when Saul, or other members of a Sonderkommando, speaks with Lanzmann, and when Lanzmann composes a film on the basis of that word."

As I mentioned earlier, there are two obstacles that every film about the holocaust must overcome. The second is how to avoid being - or seeming to be - crassly exploitative. Of course, there are obvious examples of how a filmmaker should not approach the Holocaust. Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, while it was quite popular and it got Benigni some awards (and an excuse to be his insufferble self in accepting them), was a misguided and dishonest attempt to inject humor, however emotional, into the least funny subject imaginable. And there is some speculation over a film Jerry Lewis made more than forty years ago that he called The Day The Clown Cried that no one has seen because Lewis himself knew that people would have found it too objectionable.

So, too, when Hollywood took a rather good East German film called Jakob the Liar, made in 1975 by Frank Beyer, and remade it into a star vehicle for Robin Williams in the lead role of a compulsive liar who momentarily relieves the suffering of his fellow inmates in a Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Poland with false (or fantastical) reports about the progress of the war and the imminence of their liberation - in every way except commercially the remake was a mistake. In "Writing and the Holocaust, Irving Howe delivers a funny aside:

"(I think here of a story that I have on the highest authority. The producers of the television serial called Holocaust first approached Leo Tolstoy with a tempting offer to write the script, for they had heard he was the author of some good books. After listening to them politely, the Russian writer turned pale and mumbled, 'No, no, there are some things that even I cannot do. For what you want, you should turn to Gerald Green.')"

The very real danger that the Holocaust can be used as a by-word for a traumatic experience that misguided filmmakers might use to prop up a character was borne out by the spectacularly stupid X-Men films, in which one character, named Magneto, is shown to have discovered his powers when he was a boy in a Nazi death camp. When he is separated from his parents and they are herded, in the usual driving rain, towards an ominously smoke-belching chimney (the imagery is reduced to mere emotional cues) he cries out and the barbed-wire gates that separate them are pulled apart by invisible forces. I find it difficult to believe that all those people - actors and technicians - who made the film were put through the motions of re-creating in minute detail a moment in history's biggest human catastrophe to add some depth to a comic book movie without one of them questioning its propriety. But it illustrates the extent to which the Holocaust has become, to some of the more crass producers in Hollywood, a kind of thematic punch line.

When the film Schindler's List was released in late 1993, it was attacked in some quarters because it was made by Hollywood's P.T. Barnum, Steven Spielberg. Viewed as another "Hollywoodization" of the Holocaust, Stanley Kauffmann was one of the first to come to its defense. While he wondered if there was a need for "another film about the Holocaust . . . especially after Shoah," he argued that "presumably there are at least some people who have never seen a Holocaust film and may see this one because it's by Spielberg and will have mainstream promotion. Let's hope there are many such." (The New Republic, December 13, 1993)

In a piece written for the New York Review of Books, John Gross agreed:

"As a contribution to popular culture, it [Schindler's List] can only do good. Holocaust denial may or may not be a major problem in future, but Holocaust ignorance, Holocaust forgetfulness, and Holocaust indifference are bound to be and Schindler's List is likely to do as much as any single work can to dispel them." (John Gross, "Hollywood and the Holocaust," New York Review of Books, February 3, 1994)

Richard Brody claims that the spoken testimonies in Shoah make the dramatized events in Son of Saul - and virtually every other film depicting the Holocaust - "superfluous." According to Kauffmann, "Claude Lanzmann, who made Shoah, believes that re-creating the Holocaust is impermissible, 'is tantamount to fabricating archives.'" But if it is a duty, and I think it is, to revisit, if only occasionally, the Holocaust in memorials, in novels and films, and even in silence, I think it is also a duty to look at it anew, with new eyes and from new angles. As Primo Levi said in 1979, "If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again."

(1) In the words of the Yiddish poet Aaron Tsaytlin: "Were Jeremiah to sit by the ashes of Israel today, he would not cry out a lamentation. ... The Almighty Himself would be powerless to open His well of tears. He would maintain a deep silence. For even an outcry is now a lie, even tears are mere literature, even prayers are false."

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