26 December 2008

Still doing some housecleaning around here. I'm at the end of my long stale-dated drafts. And I'm ending with what would appear on the face to be an inappropriate subject for Christmas, the Holocaust.

I took a documentary film class earlier this year, and along the way saw many incredible films. I gained insight into the importance of documentary filmmaking; into the profound necessity of consuming documentary film. The following essay treats of this insight.

A Draft from 1/26/08:

On Night and Fog and Shoah

In Night and Fog and Shoah we find two very different approaches to essentially the same material. Resnais' work, Night and Fog, is the shorter of the two works and seems more like a summary view of the Holocaust, taking a broader position to present a more easily digested message. Lanzmann's Shoah is much more pervasive in its attempt to seek out the details of individual memory, presenting a much more nuanced viewpoint overall.

For Resnais, it is important to remember just how quickly something as horrible as the Holocaust can occur. From the very first shot of a picturesque countryside, the camera slowly tracks back revealing barbed wire fencing between us ad the endless, rolling hills. This shot is repeated immediately with another vew of grass piles, pulling back to reveal the fencing. And again with a road that disappears in the distance, kept away from us by electrified fences.

By comparison, Lanzmann shows us the never ending freedom of the countryside, of a lazy brook winding through the trees. When we come to the former death camp itself, all we see are the foundation stones. For Lanzmann, the mere act of remembering seems important for its own sake. Yet the way in which he opens this film seems to indicate how banal cruelty can come to be seen. In Lanzmann's film, it is something that must be remembered for fear of losing it; of actually forgetting the very real history of the Holocaust.

In Night and Fog the memories are important so that we can stay armed against such a thing ever happening again. This is stated rather plainly in the narration towards the end of the film. Also, by showing us in graphic detail the massive toll in terms of lives lost, Resnais drives home this importance. It is almost as if he is saying to us "Behold! This is how bad it can become."

In Shoah we must remember again almost as an end to itself. It's too easy to forget, or at least to bury the past. The second survivor Lanzmann interviews protests remembering the horrors. He insists it's better to smile. Lanzmann continues to insist on answers, until the man opens up. Later, a lady in Auschwitz seems blissfully ignorant of what occurred during the war. Lanzmann again pushes, and she admits that the Auschwitz Jews were exterminated, and she knew it was happening.

For Renais, the responsibility for remembering is on all of us. He shows us the bodies. He details the medical experimentation, the arbitrary cruelty. We see all this with our own eyes. It is seared into our memory in graphic detail.

For Lanzmann, it is the responsibility of those who lived through it to remember it, to tell us about it. This may explain why he does not show any archival footage. The oral transmission of this history is vital, as demonstrated by the interview with one of the survivor's dauughters. (As an interesting side note, there is a Jewish Rabbinical tradition of oral history that is as important as the written word of God in the Torah, Talmud, etc. Perhaps Shoah is an extension of this tradition, in some way.)

It could be argued in both cases that Resnais and Lanmann exploit their subjects. Renais doesn't have the right to show the tortured and mutilated bodies, the ghosts of the Holocaust captured on film. Likewise, Lanzmann is irresponsible in his insistence that these people relive the horrors that they were subject to -- and in some cases contributed to. It could be argued that it is unethical to parade these horrors on screen.

I feel that the importance of understanding and knowing what occurred during the Holocaust outweighs any potential harm a movie could do. In truth, the horrors have already occurred. Documenting these horrors, presenting them so that future generations can possess this history on a personal level is the only possible safeguard against such a massive operation of death and degradation ever occurring again. In the case of Night and Fog, we have those images etched in our memory. In the case of Shoah, we add the oral history to our understanding, and perhaps experience just a bit, the catharsis some of the interview subjects obtain.

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