Film/Video Testimony Of The Holocaust Essay, Research Paper
Roderick A. Beltran
English 319: Representing the Holocaust
Professor James E. Young
Violent events, such as the Holocaust, are perceived aberrations or anomalies from the cultural norm. Whether reason’s include popular culture’s morbid curiosity, a film director’s desire for a contrived image, or a writer’s need to make credible otherwise incredible events there seems an almost unending need for their retelling. A narration back into the apparent sociological standard which they defy.
Film/Video testimony and written text are two forms of Holocaust representation that have been adopted by individuals to shape, interpret, testify and reflect the “facts” of the Holocaust.
The purpose of this particular inquiry is to explore kind’s of meaning and expression that each of the above mentioned forms create. In addition compare the strength’s and weaknesses of each medium.
If you have ever watched Claude Lanzmann film Shoah it would seem to the undiscerning eye a very atypical form of expression. A question is asked, the victim responds, the viewer assesses the response and subsequently reacts. But is it all so common place? There must be something within the video testimony which causes, in some cases, very strong responses from the viewer.
Film and video narrative is a basic structure with at least two levels of narrative intersect. That of film which consists of its lateral movement, editing, and related images and of the survivor’s own story from which the video medium revolves around.
The purpose of filmed testimony is not to document experiences or present related facts but to preserve broken pieces of memory through the filming of Holocaust survivor’s recollections. Unto that a documentation of the understanding and meaning of events generated in the activity of testimony itself.
In addition video testimony secures time and space, ties continuities through a combination of experienced events (which then creates new perpetuity and new insights), highlights cause and effect relationships, and validates historical meaning.
Holocaust video testimony is dependent on the voice of the individual and the narrative it frames itself around his/her related story. It is these apparent nuances and how they are used which compels us to listen. We can find this in literary testimony but a characteristic that video testimony can give, that literary testimony can not, are the individuals that lies behind them. By showing whole human beings, however inwardly scared they are, video humanizes the survivors. We find the survivors as they are now, which suggests the humanity they had before the attempt to destroy it by the Nazi’s during Word War II.
We can see the victims’ pain through their tears and body language but we also perceive traces of a story the survivors are not telling. In fact it is not even the words that best convey the story. Look at any of the victims in Shoah. Look at their eyes as they swell with tears. Look at the uncomfortable, nervous shifts of their bodies in their chairs as they are retelling their experiences. Hear the uncomfortable silence and pauses in between each heart wrenching line. Non – verbal pain shouts out and in many ways present the victims as a little more three – dimensional than in literal testimony where we can sometimes read the words and take them as a given.
“Because we can watch the speaker as he tells his story, his words draw life from the narrators very breath; they remain animate in the speakers presence.” (Young 169) Rather than becoming separated from his words, the speaker reinvents them with his presence, his authority, and the link between the survivor and story is sustained.
The structure of the medium in itself gives video testimony
its own unique meaning and expression. Recorded testimony is a finite linear form which forces the viewer to pay attention to what is in the in-between. The visual’s become all encompassing and we are under constant bombardment of the individuals story and apparent feelings. In Shoah for example there is an eye witness account by an individual of his mother murder The man’s mother was having difficulty getting on board a cattle car. When she asked an S.S. officer to help her the S.S. officer shot her in the head.
The individual immediately starts to weep incessantly and at that moment the camera closes in on his face (a film technique used to accentuate). The viewer can not escape this pain as the tape rolls on (unless of course somebody stops the film). We must watch and empathize with him as the image of broken man penetrates our walls of apathy and strikes us within our deepest feelings.
Unlike video testimony which shifts the focus onto the individual, written testimony, either diaries or memoirs, has compelled writers to assume the role of witnesses to criminal events. Holocaust writers have assumed that the more realistic a representation, the more adequate it becomes as testimonial evidence of outrageous events.
Like an on the scene reporter with the Holocaust as his “beat”. We read the whole story. From the ghettos in Poland to the final liberation of the Aushwitz and Buchewald camps. Books such as Ellie Wiesel’s Night , Primo Levi’s Survival in Aushwitz , Sara Nomberg – Przytyk’s Aushwitz: True Tales from the Grotesque Land , and The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan are testimonies to that experience.
In fact diaries were intended to record contemporaneous responses and to be used possibly as evidence for war crimes brought up during the Nuremberg trials.
The writer does not want to provide evidence but rather knowledge. The only evidence it may provide is the act of writing itself. The readers do not need proof that the Holocaust happened. We know it did. We want the inside story. We want to know how Wiesel’s mind interpreted and worked in regards to cattle car conditions, Nazi’s, gas chambers, selections, World War II, the daily meal of bread and water, barrack Kapo’s, and the constant death that surrounded him.
His and other writers accounts provide this for us. Again, unlike video testimony which can tend to focus on a victim spoken testimony written testimony can provide a whole picture although limited to the writer perspective.
Written testimony allows for alot of creative writing to present a fuller story due to the fact things can be written time and time again. Colorful metaphors can be developed to give a clearer picture of what is going on, lines adjusted to present a clearer mental image etc. From the book Night by Ellie Wiesel examples include:”The head of our tent was a German. An assassin’s face, fleshy lips, hands like a wolf’s paws. He was so fat he could hardly move.” (45; ch. 4) and ‘”Men to left! and woman to the right!’ Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother.” (27; ch. 3) Unlike video testimony which is basically in your face, written testimony invites interpretation and analysis. We need take not what is given.
So far what has been discussed is what both mediums can do in relation to the meanings and expression they can create. This section will look at the short comings of each which limit the extent of how these two mediums project there own unique message.
Paradoxically, two problems with video testimony stem from two of its’ strengths; the conveyed emotion of the individual’s testimony and the beginning to end uninterrupted format it follows.
It is true that images and pictures of faces affect us in particular, “evoking emotional, parasympathetic responses over which viewers have little control: that is, we respond to pictures of people as if they actually were people.” (Young 163-164) It is by these emotional responses that result in the Catch-22 of the medium. “The more emotive the video text, the more melodramatic it seems to be; and as drama of any sort it loses credibility in historians (as well as viewers) as unconstructed evidence.” (Young 164) Popular culture tends to distrust visual video testimony buried heavily in pathos and so dependent on individual memory alone. This is because hyper emotions seem so clearly constructed and planned. Take for example the stereotypical southern preacher. He may call for his followers to lead a good life, heal others, point out faults that need correction, and to praise god unconditionally all the while using the most extreme forms of communication. Such things as outlandish body language and overly dramatized crying. For alot of the general public we say “please, give me a break!.” The concepts are so far fetched it becomes highly unbelievable. Suspension of disbelief just will not happen.
When unremitting start/stop form of video testimony tends to move laterally away from any given point in the narrative it becomes dependent on movement of the film. “This movement discourages contemplating a particular movement or detail, now embedded in new ones. When we stop, there is no more story, no sound, only the image of the survivor, but now without caption or commentary. The viewer thus tends to ride the movement of the tape, to become absorbed in the medium and pictured, without opportunity to stop and reflect on what is being said.” (Young 164) There are just to many factors, such as an accumulation of impressions, unfinished thoughts, responses, and emotions, juxtaposed with each other in the video stream that the viewer can become overwhelmed. As a result the viewer is not allowed time for pauses or reflection.
Like video testimony, literary testimony weakness in projecting its message arises from an irony within its own structure. “…as nearly all the diarist (writers included) and many of the survivors remind us, their insights, interpretations, and eyewitness descriptions may be less reliable in a ‘factual sense’ because of their proximity to the events.” (Young 33)
Objectivity tends to wain when immersed in the situation itself. You lose that innocent, unbiased “looking through the glass bubble perspective.” Perhaps the environment draws you in to the point you think you are still outside the mainstream. The reality is that you can become so caught up in your present life it gets to the point where you can think that you are yourself but in reality are not. You have just gotten so used to seeing things one way that there is no more room for the other side of the story. In some cases there are higher powers at work which are subtly pulling your strings thereby clouding perspective and reaction.
The eyewitness accounts during the Holocaust suffered from the above mentioned problem. “As authentic as the prisoner’s perceptions were at the time, even these eyewitness accounts were necessarily determined by the ways the Nazi’s orchestrated camp and ghetto realities..” (Young 33) The Germans understood that by encouraging rumor of atrocities then attributing them to Jewish and Allied propaganda on the other, they were able simultaneously able to manipulate the flow and interpretation of such “realities.” This ingeniously occurred even as they sustained the confusion and disorientation these realities brought to the victims.
An example of this master-structuring of events for the benefit of “eyewitnesses” of course, was the naturalized and normalized conditions in the ghettos that the Germans propagated. The Jews affirmed life and humanity in having cultural activities such as coffee houses, theaters, variety shows etc. within the ghettos. Through this normalcy the Jews felt in some way a “spiritual resistance”. Also, an assertion of civilized humanity in the face of Nazi dehumanizing policies.
The truth of the matter was that the Nazi’s were allowing such activity, even encouraging it to destroy its inhabitants all the more completely. Sure writers wrote books and bands continued to play, that is indisputable. But it was the meaning and significance behind these activities by killer and victim that helped perpetuate the perpetration of such activities. As a result real events were both “authored” and “authorized” by the various interpretation and understanding that continued such myths.
This example of Nazi allowed assertion of civilized humanity comes from Night by Ellie Wiesel ;
“Little by little life returned to normal.
The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. We even thought ourselves rather well off, we were entirely self – contained.
A little Jewish republic…. We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an officer for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department – a whole government machinery.
Everyone marveled at it. We should no
longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate – laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers…(9; ch. 1)
Film/Video and written testimony both differing in means and expression bring foreword their own unique way of presenting the tragedy the Holocaust was. But it must be remembered that the Holocaust is the main focus. Not the stylistic start/stop format of Film/Video testimony or the accuracy of writer’s accounts. It is the human issue not the robotic/analytical sense we try to make out of it.