To See or Not to See? That is the Question…

ImageCharles Lanzmann directed the documentary Shoah, which is considered one of the foremost films about the Holocaust, in 1985.  Lanzmann’s 9.5 hour film (yes – I said nine and a half hour long film) used only personal testimony and contemporary footage of Holocaust sites.  No historical footage is used at all.  In fact, he is famously quoted as saying the following:

If I had found an actual film, a secret film, since that was strictly forbidden—made by an SS man and showing how 3,000 Jews, men, women, and children, died together, asphyxiated in a gas chamber of the crematorium 2 in Auschwitz—if I found that, not only would I not have shown it, but I would have destroyed it. (Visual Culture and the Holocaust – edited by Barbie Zeilzer – pg 133)

ImageNot ten years after Shoah Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List recreates a scene where the viewer is forced to go through the entry into Auschwitz with a group of women.  We watch their hair being cut.  Being forced to disrobe and then pushed into a shower, but we have heard the rumours along with the women about the gas chambers.  The doors are closed and locked.  The lights go out.  We, like those in the chamber, await the next moment with trepidation.  This scene is on youtube if you are interested in seeing it.  Search for Schindler’s List Shower Scene.

This moment – while powerful – also brings forth so many questions.  Should Spielberg have recreated a moment like this?  Has he truly captured this moment, or does the dramatisation of events like these have the danger of fictionalising truth?

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Night and Fog takes a different approach to both Shoah and Schindler’s List.  Resnais moves between two types of footage – contemporary images of Auschwitz (1950s) and historical footage.  He does not attempt to recreate anything – in fact – the commentary during the contemporary footage refers to how the camera cannot show these moments now.  The camera can only show the outer shell.  The commentary over the historical footage often says little, allowing the power of the image to speak.

Discussion Starter: We spoke in class about the ethics of showing certain images.  Blog about your thoughts about Night and Fog.  Also, what do you think about showing scenes of extreme violence (actually captured on film, or recreated).  Point to examples if you would like.

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If seeing is believing…. How much do we need to see?

This blog entry is going to be slightly different from previous ones.

Last week we watched John Huston’s THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, one of the most important US war documentaries made during the Second World War. Initially the film shocked the military establishment by showing a gritty and realistic view of war that had not been seen on the screen. It is my opinion that Huston wanted to show the futility of war (“more rivers, more mountains, more San Pietros, greater or lesser”) and the cost (the abundance of footage containing the dead and wounded). This film was difficult for audiences to watch because there was plenty of realism in the footage.

But this film was not difficult for many of you to watch. Someone mentioned that this generation had become desensitised to the images. We even mentioned that some of the battle scenes in SAN PIETRO looked like something from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or other war movies. Hollywood filmmakers look to documentaries like this, to their style of capturing reality, and incorporate it into their films to make the moving going experience more realistic. Has the goal to become more realistic made reality on screen more difficult to achieve?

This evening we watched NIGHT AND FOG, which was one of the first documentaries dealing with the Holocaust. One of the many unique features of this film is it’s personal feel. The major focus of the film is not what the Nazis did, or even who they did it to. Rather the focus is on this could happen again, and it could happen to you.

We know that there is truth. Things happen. They happen is a particular way. There are reasons behind it all – Still truth is a hard thing to nail down. Documentary filmmakers have been wrestling with how to do it for a while. What needs to be shown to understand the massive impact of an event like the holocaust? When do we cross the line of our desensitivity? And if we do, are we breaking new ground, or creating a new line?