changing scales of mortality: the Holocaust



Anne Frank Remembered, John Blair, 1996.



Film - especially the Zapruder footage - seems to be a very effective means of documenting or simulating John F. Kennedy's assassination because the event itself was clearly visible and occurred within a matter of seconds. More importantly, there was a single, identifiable victim of historical significance. The Holocaust presents a challenge to the modes of representation we have seen with the Kennedy assassination because of the immense difference in scale in both the number of victims and the timespan of the historical referent. The arresting mortality of Zapruder's assassination images are now imbricate webs of unrepresentable violence. Even if film crews had been present inside the walls of concentration camps, is it possible to document the pain and death of over six million people? Anne Frank Remembered and Images of the World and the Inscription of War address this challenge in very different ways.

Anne Frank Remembered approaches the subject from firsthand accounts of life before, during, and after the camps centering around the young girl. Anne Frank's experiences are related by her own diary writings, her family, and her friends who were as involved in the historical event as she was. By reducing the scale of the larger historical currents to the experiences on an individual scale, the film attempts to deconstruct the binarism between the present Self and the historical Other. Historical narratives are related on their own terms to a greater extent than in JFK through the testimony of the eyewitness. The Holocaust is not a history of Anne Frank, however, and in order to begin to represent historical event, the film necessarily entails the experiences of other individuals. Anne Frank at times leaves the exclusive history of one individual in both its narrative content and historical images. There is no way to directly get at the immense scale of mortality except through representation. The representational "character" of Anne Frank becomes a site where the boundary between Self and Other deteriorates: we are allowed to see directly into her life, but thinking about the greater historical significance then distances us from the direct experience of the Holocaust.

Consequently, our encounter with the historical Other in Anne Frank comes when we try to make sense of the Holocaust on a larger scale than that of the individual. Is it fair or even safe to assume that the experiences of one are reflective of the experiences of other individuals or of the whole? JFK shifts the clear visual representation of an individual victim into a conspiracy theory involving many victims and culprits - many of whom are never discovered. Anne Frank conversely embodies the history of millions of victims in an identifiable individual. The massive historical significance of the Holocaust is cast in the immediate, subjective, and accessible experience of a few identifiable individuals (Nichols, BB, 16).* In this clip, two survivors close to Anne describe what it was like to leave Holland aboard a train, which was eventually headed for Auschwitz.



Anne Frank Remembered, 1996 — 93 sec. clip



Blair presents us with a narrative construction of different threads of historical representation. He gives us two very different voices and uses the footage of the train and the final chilling point of view shot of the grate serve to place their testimonies in a visual context. The first woman mechanically describes the physical conditions of the passengers, that they didn't know when the trip would end, and that people could only sit (or sometimes stand). The second woman relates the travel as a charged emotional experience, of people in a powerless trance, of people who tried to sleep while standing up (a much different account than the observation that there was "no possibility to lie"). The forward narrative motion of the train blends these testimonies to create a beautiful moment in the film, but it is perhaps more significant to note these differences between their accounts of the same historical event.

For the two women in the above clip, the Holocaust has obvious ramifications in each of their present realities. Yet despite the common experience of the historical event, their perceptions of this experience and, indeed, its effects on their lives today differ noticeably. Even they are distanced from the Holocaust to some extent, because the event is fixed in history and the cultural and political contexts of each woman's life has changed dramatically. We begin to see here that even if a unified historical truth does exist, the truth of the Holocaust in the present can not exist as any all-encompassing narrative reality (Williams 18).* The historical reality of the event is fixed, but its realities in the present are both tangible and fragmented. Narrative film's tendency to initiate a discourse of historical event as the Other risks distancing us not only from the historical event but from its present realities as well.

At the end of the film, Blair presents us with the only moving images of Anne Frank known to exist.



Anne Frank Remembered — 57 sec. clip



This astonishingly powerful footage derives its force from our desire to take visual representations of history and put them into motion, as if we have breathed life back into dead images. The cinematography and editing of this sequence recalls the repeated footage of the Zapruder film in JFK, "Back and to the left…" The images of Anne Frank, however, seem to serve a different end. The filmmaker repeats the images but each time slows down their advance until finally we are again left with a still effigy on the screen. The motivation for repetition in JFK was to extract meaning from the event. Anne Frank Remembered reflects our urge to memorialize the visual icon. Once the Amsterdam street has been set into motion, we desire to freeze and preserve the moment and to fetishize the historical figure under our gaze. The image regains some of its aura that it lost in its reproducibility and is preserved in a timeless, ahistorical setting. The historical reality of death, of the Holocaust, is reconciled with the closed narrative form of the film by extracting the individual figure/image from its irretrievable historical place.

Blair illustrates the conflicting desires to both memorialize and explicate the Holocaust. The latter in particular entails our relationship with the Other - a relationship defined by hierarchical difference in representations of the historical event. Anne Frank Remembered in particular tends to memorialize the historical referent. Once an attempt is made to explain it, representation is left as a memorial to the historical event. Similarly, once the narrators have told their stories, the film rests on the timeless images and words of Anne Frank.

Harun Farocki's nonlinear, non-narrative Images of the World and the Inscription of War presents us with a very different kind of image of the Holocaust. He is more concerned with modes of representation and correlates depictions of the Holocaust to representational strategies such as architectural elevations, three-dimensional models, and flight simulators. His images of Auschwitz make use of three primary sources: aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by Allied planes (to identify airstrips), drawings from a camp prisoner, and photographs taken of the camp. The many threads of his stories are presented in complicated fragments which require an active viewing on the part of the audience. Images are put before the viewer without any explicit framework in which to place them in context. Historical events - some shown, some implied - do not unfold in a linear or causal form. Images of dead bodies at Auschwitz do not necessarily follow from explanations of how Allied forces ignored the aerial images of concentration camps because they were told to focus on other targets, but Farocki's editing causes the viewer to make connections such as these. We are forced to reconcile the scales of perception and mortality in the Holocaust. Aerial photographs taken from planes relate the military perspective of removed destruction; Drawings and photographs immediately bring these images down to the scale of immediacy and individuality.

Rather than creating an explicit narrative, however, the collage of visual information invites a reconstruction of history on the part of the audience. Farocki's use of sound works to a similar effect. We hear short, interrupted snippets of classical music (Satie, among others) as if a record is playing but someone is continually fading the volume in and out. When hearing this, we are not sure how to react; the fragments of the composition do not construct any identifiable piece. Farocki encourages a kind of re-composition to take place in our heads. We must fill in the missing information to create a whole, just as we must piece together the broken threads of visual evidence in order to create a reconstruction of historical reality.

Farocki directly acknowledges his engagement with history as the Other. He presents us with pieces of historical evidence which we must, in a dialogue with his film, recompose into a representation of history. By calling attention to representational strategies and requiring the viewer to participate in the extraction of meanings from these representations, the filmmaker has addressed the problem of representing a historical event in a cultural and political context so different than the one in which the historical event took place. He explicitly acknowledges the role that representation plays in a construction of reality and is careful to draw attention to the film medium as a representational strategy itself.

Images of the World is concerned with the representation historical event rather than an explanation of the Holocaust. The film recognizes that the historical event is frozen in the past, but that representational strategies are paramount in constructing our ways of seeing the historical event. Film's way of framing the event can often determine the realities that the historical event can have in the present.