Popular Film and the Holocaust
The horror of the Holocaust challenges the very limits of the imagination; the desperation of what the victims experienced is outside the realm of human speech. Moreover, any attempt to record what one experienced or witnessed threatens the constitution of the self. To represent this trauma one must present it otherwise. Were there even a language to represent what occurred, it would subject the witness to the horror of that trauma once again. The Nazis anticipated this dilemma, repeatedly taunting victims by dismissing the possibility that history would bear witness to what occurred in the camps. Their crimes, the Nazis proclaimed, were too horrible to be believed; the victims and their stories would be deposited, as Hannah Arendt noted, in "ever widening holes of oblivion." Thus arises the absolute necessity, the moral imperative to represent what by definition cannot be represented.
In this course we will examine the strategies various filmmakers have developed to respond to this imperative. We will begin by asking ourselves how one bears witness to the unspeakable, how one captures a history that is toohorrible to return to? But we will also turn a critical eye to how Hollywood in particular has exploited the dimensions of this trauma to pump up the volume, so to speak, on formulaic plots and how the conventions of popular film may respond to this imperative in ways that demean and cheapen the suffering of the victims. Likewise, we will question to what extent even documentary films can be understood to be objective, especially since the memories of the survivors and those of the perpetrators are unreliable.
Texts: Maus I, Art Spiegelman, and The Holocaust: A German Historian Examines the Genocide, Wolfgang Benz. A course reader is available at the Ave. Copy Shop (42nd and University beneath Jimmy Johns). Optional: Maus 2.
Night and Fog.
An Unfinished Film
The Garden of the Finzi Continis.