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The film is stunning for the physicality of its images. Often, an image of a survivor fills up the whole screen, with only darkness for a background. The camera does not shy away from close-ups of the old faces, old bodies, old arms; the sight of human flesh is overwhelming. Through Sinai’s remarkable cinematography, people on screen become almost palpably present. Black-and-white still portraits of survivors punctuate the colored moving footage. Not only do we see the stills, but we also witness the very act of photography, when survivors pose for the camera to tell their stories. And then — a burst of a photoflash, a click of a shutter, and a stark image freezes on screen.
Sinai explained why they use still photography instead of voiceover: “We didn’t want a plot, a traditional narrative, so the fact that I am photographing the survivors on screen was the organizing principle of the film.” The physicality and the embodiment of images were so important for Sinai that for this project, he set aside his digital equipment and took pictures on actual film, “so that something physical and concrete will remain as a result of our work.”
But the film is more than just a physical monument. Through its deliberate and emphatic depiction of the filmmakers in the act of creating tangible memories for the future, “Numbered” joins the new generation of Holocaust documentaries that explore how the event might survive through generations. Along with other recent Israeli films, such as “Don’t Touch My Holocaust,” “A Film Unfinished” and “A Documentary About the Holocaust,” “Numbered” does more than tell survivors’ stories — it also pushes us to rethink the very nature of memory and the possibilities of representing national trauma and personal pain.
Olga Gershenson is associate professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her new book about the Holocaust in Soviet films is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.