Too Devoid of Light To Capture on Celluloid: The Holocaust in Film

By Saul Austerlitz

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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Saul Austerlitz is a writer living in New York.

Afterimage: Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust

By Joshua Hirsch

Temple University Press, 213 pages.


An astounding and astonishingly little-known fact: Of the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, and the additional slaughter of 4 million Communists, homosexuals, gypsies and others between the years 1939 and 1945, exactly two minutes of motion picture footage exist. Shot by German naval sergeant Reinhold Wiener, an amateur cinematographer, the footage, taken in a park in Liepaja, Latvia, shows German soldiers hustling a truck full of yellow star-wearing Jews into a pit, and shooting them. Considering the overwhelming abundance of film footage taken in the 20th century, it is shocking to realize that the Holocaust is virtually absent from such archives — as if the events of the Shoah were so devoid of light of any kind that they could not be captured on celluloid.

Joshua Hirsch’s book “Afterimage: Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust” argues that the utter lack, aside from Wiener’s work, of documentary footage of the Holocaust’s unimaginable brutalities is a suitable symbol of the complete impossibility of a head-on view of the events in question. Film theorists celebrate the virtues of realism as a more genuine depiction of our world, removing all the filters and masks of modernism (and its sibling postmodernism) in favor of unvarnished reality. But in the case of depictions of the Holocaust, realism is an impossible mode of approach. A realist Holocaust film would shatter the mold of realism, a real event that categorically defies the possibility of being depicted realistically. In the face of this understanding, the preferred method of approach for filmmakers on the Holocaust has been modernism, whose elliptical narration and avoidance of the carefully mandated strictures of realism render it uniquely suitable to the unrepresentable rupture of the catastrophe.

Hirsch shares the anger of Holocaust memorializers like Elie Wiesel, whose bitterness at the 1970s NBC miniseries “Holocaust” stemmed from its absurd willingness to show what fundamentally should not be shown. Hirsch, adept in the language of psychoanalysis, renders the Holocaust a trauma, an event so overwhelming that it cannot be incorporated into one’s perception of the world, and remains a free-floating, unassimilated memory. The Holocaust, then, is trauma on a collective scale, not just for the survivors, but for the entire human race as well, an evil so total it is near-impossible to comfortably situate it within any understanding of the modern world. While Hirsch runs into some trouble when he attempts to compare the experience of personally living through the Holocaust with that of witnessing it through one of its cinematic representations, a notion that trivializes lived experience in the equation (there is, all fanciful intellectualizing aside, absolutely no comparison between surviving the concentration camps and watching nine and a half hours of “Shoah”), there remains a great deal of truth to the notion of collective trauma in this case, and to seeing Holocaust films as a working-through of the ordeal.

Rather than serve as a comprehensive overview of the subgenre, “Afterimage” cherry-picks the most intriguing Holocaust-themed films, including Alain Resnais’s groundbreaking “Night and Fog,” Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List.” In his 1955 documentary “Night and Fog,” Resnais did not try to show us the emptiness at its heart, portraying a bland present instead of an unrepresentable past. And “Shoah,” which took the structural critiques of “Night and Fog” to their logical end by eliminating the use of black-and-white period footage entirely, Lanzmann depicted the Holocaust as a trauma so thorough it can only exist as memory. For both Resnais and Lanzmann, the ultimate sin in Holocaust filmmaking would be any attempt at a realist depiction of the atrocities.

Indeed, “Afterimage” takes Spielberg to task for fudging the boundary between realism and modernism, edging in the direction of a direct portrayal of the workings of Auschwitz in “Schindler’s List.” What Hirsch neglects to take into account in his anti-Spielberg harangue, though, is the movie’s attention to the individual personal tragedies that collectively formed the Holocaust. In contrast with the chilly formality of “Night and Fog,” “Schindler’s List” borrowed from “Shoah” its recognition that in addressing so enormous an evil, the building block of any Holocaust narrative must be that of the individual. Spielberg and the modernists have in common their explicit rejection of Heinrich Himmler’s famous description of the wholesale massacre of the Jews as “the most glorious page in our history, one not written and which shall never be written.” Taking the structure of therapy and expanding it to incorporate an entire society, these filmmakers tell our stories and revisit our collective trauma, because it is those things for which we lack words that retain their power to hurt.

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