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Philosophy of the Arts

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Rex Bloomstein: KZ

Crimes make images

Perceptions do not produce images, or mental representations, in the mind. The images are out there. We see the things before us and the events which take place around us directly. If we remind ourselves of an event from the past somehow we re-perceive it. Even in such cases, it makes no sense to think that we are watching an image in our minds. Normally, the original events slowly but surely mix with intermediate and present perceptions and lose their hold on us. (I am thinking of Bergson’s much neglected theory).

It makes sense, therefore, to argue that events produce “images”, and that some of these will stick permanently. Someone lies awake at night and cannot stop the events from making him see them again and again. And the events pester him in such a way that they feel incomparably singular—sealing him off from post-processing them, and from integrating them to his present perceptions. They model new perceptions, rather than standing on their own, ready to be mixed in with the next.

…Crimes make images and Nazi crimes are the nastiest and most persistent…

I think the traumatic images produced by the Nazis in the heads of survivors are like that. Crimes leave us with vehement images, and the Nazi crimes are the nastiest and the most persistent. Commentators have reported how victims in the camps were forbidden as well as incapable to watch the events—their experience of the horrors was not a full-fledged normal, thick perception to begin with, not something they could interfere with. (Thick perception is perception which allows the embodied perceiver to stand towards the events, partake in them as an agent; not observe them passively, as if they are represented.)

The Unrepresentability of the Shoah

The issue with art about the Shoah is not the unrepresentability of the Shoah. It is that art always revolves around itself. An art work’s content is always just that: the subject matter of a work. The work precedes its meaning, or referent (there is no need in art for a referent that actually exists). The Shoah, however, is too real to allow for this, art’s lenient ontology.

That is different from saying that the Shoah is too big (in any way) to allow its adequate representation. This unrepresentability of the Shoah is an epistemological issue. But art trumps epistemology in this, as it helps us understand how crimes make images—and, how making images of crimes implicates the audience in those crimes.

…Art explains how making images of crimes implicates you in them…

To deal with the Shoah through representation in 2006 is both instructive with regard to the powers and incapacities of representations, and a challenge in a singularly complex manner.
The complexity stems from several determinants which are well-rehearsed but remain as hard to deal with as ever before: the sheer horror of the planned extermination of Jewry; the scientist fallacies backgrounding the Shoah (Mengele’s experiments; social darwinism—are they as alien to science as we want to believe?); the open-endedness of the events (the murder not just of individuals but of families; the appeal to long histories of anti-semitism; uncontrollable religious backgrounds); the powerlessness inherent in remnant photographic material; the visual arguments therein (who shot the footage? Was “it” really like this?), and so on.

On top of all this, any new representation must count with its predecessors and the flaws and strengths therein, as well as the debates about these. Think of the 1978 Holocaust television series, Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Roberto Benigni’s La Vita e Bella (1997), to name but the most important examples.
If you consider making a film about the Shoah, will you do it like either one of your predecessors did it or are you going to offer a new approach? And how new can it be? Hasn’t everything been done already?

The Truth about the Real

…documentary footage “kills the imagination”…

The Holocaust television series provided a soap opera version of the shoah; it showed the struggle for survival of the Jewish family Weiss—in a typical soap opera way, by showing everything an audience might crave to see. The series was critiqued for its sentimental distortion of the vastness of the shoah by presenting it as a narrative setting allowing closure.
Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah presented testimonials by survivors, moral witnesses (in Avishai Margalit’s terms): no documentary footage because that would “kill the imagination”—as Lanzmann put it in his critique of Schindler’s List—and the imagination is required to connect to the vast horrors of the shoah; no stories of individuals and their individual problems but stories by individuals speaking “for the lot”.
Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a fictional reenactment, reflecting the point of view of a good German, as if such perspectivism might not in itself already involve a distortion of “reality”.

Of course, it is not easy to establish just what that reality was, and I will not try it here—a negative approach might suffice: whenever a representation gives you flawed views, this in itself is an indication of its distortive nature. And Schindler’s List as much as the television series give one the impression that the shoah was something one might be able to convey in nice narratives with a beginning, middle and ending where certain things problematised in the beginning are resolved at the end—a typical Hollywood narrative that most people feel good with.

Reenactment

Secondly, irrespective of the truth-issue, Schindler’s List presents a reenactment by professional actors, doing their best—no doubt about that—to render their characters as plausibly and convincingly as they can. Lanzmann (in the named critique) asks whether actors can convey the horrors of the shoah, and that points to a philosophical, and hence more general question about the transparancy of acting to the enacted. And there is a critical asymmetry here: when a character is to pick up a book, his real-life “counterpart”, the actor—say, Ben Kingsley—picks up a book. So far so good. Even though one may already pose the question whether seeing Kingsley pick up a book is ever bringing to our mind a Jewish victim picking up a book.
Nevertheless, however lenient we may choose to be about the transparency of physical reenactment, a more critical asymmetry surfaces when the character is suposed to go through some or other feeling. This time the question whether the audience succeeds in empathising with the feelings of the character depends on the acting efforts of the actor, Kingsley. The actor Kingsley will always be a determining factor in the success of the expression. For fictions this is, of course, no problem at all, but we are dealing here with the Real.
Lastly, Hollywood conventions dictate that the narrative be closed at the end, so as to provide some katharsis in the audience. Truthfulness becomes a real issue.
Roberto Benigni’s La Vita e Bella, in contrast, seems not to be vulnerable to such criticism, as the film is fictional, and evidently so from the start. The film shows a certain survival strategy, the use of humor and irony without suggesting that this is how things were, generally, or even in some specific case. No truth-valuational assumptions in this film. This opens the question whether fictional renderings of parts and aspects of the shoah is a viable endeavour—but that question is answered affirmatively by this film and other works, such as Polish artist, Libera’s LEGO Concentration Camp (1996), and the puppet play of Hotel Modern, Kamp (2006).

Implicating the Audience in the Image-Making

Benigni’s La Vita e Bella makes us laugh about these horrible events, which implicates us in his manner of representing them. Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO Concentration Camp consists of a LEGO-set with building blocks and puppets allowing players to build their own concentration camp, and, as LEGO-players are used to, to play out the puppets against each other. Children playing with LEGO know that doing it means identifying with the characters. Thus, Libera presents us with our own complicitness in producing the imagery of horror.
A similar artistic strategy is encountered in Hotel Modern’s Kamp. This hybrid and complicated piece presents a life audience with a projection of a puppet play on a screen at the back of a stage where the puppeteers are devoted to bringing the scenes to life, for the sake of the audience’s experience. We see the care with which a puppeteer cicks a puppet from the little crate it was mounted on seconds earlier, to hang it. The puppeteer’s finger hangs the victim; the audience sees the devotion in the tiny movements that lead to the hanging, and no-one in the audience interferes—of course not, but that is not the point: the point is that it was the perpetrators who made the imagery, of the hanging of a Jew. And somehow, they made it for posterity to watch. We are implicated in the image-making that the horror consisted in as well.

…The artists don’t make the images —they remade them— the Nazis did

The artists don’t make the images—they remade them—the Nazis did. It makes one think back to the often emotionally laden testimonials in Lanzmann’s Shoah. E.g. the barber Abraham Bomba is filmed in a barbershop, while Lanzmann interviews him about how they cut the hair of hundreds of women in gas-chambers, minutes before they would be gassed. At a certain point during his story, Bomba feels he can no longer proceed with his tale, and we see how he sees how images of the situation creep back into his memory. Yes, it was the Nazis who made these images, and it is the images which haunt the survivors.

Where are the Images?

Taking it from here, the next question seems to become: how do we acquaint ourselves with the images the Nazis made?
To think that they are in the documentary footage would be a mistake, but a mistake which, to expose it, requires an additional argument—against photography—that is philosophical in nature. That additional argument is this: 1. Photography, on account of its causal origins, proves what it shows. 2. People therefore think that—since we see something in the photograph which the photograph in itself proves to have been real—we see in that same photograph just how it was. 3. But a photograph may prove what it shows—I don’t debate that claim, and surely won’t do so by appealing to contemporary digitalisation (think of Roger Scruton’s objection to that)—yet it doesn’t tell us what that is. Pictures generally, and photographs are no exception, cannot assert anything—just as they are incapable of denying or questioning anything, or of pointing to their own context (Wollheim). 4. This additional argument makes me conclude that the images the Nazis caused are not captured in the documentary pictures. Then where are they?

Rex Bloomstein: KZ (2006)

This is where Rex Bloomstein’s KZ steps in. KZ shows us groups of visitors of the Mauthausen camp, as well as their guides and people living in the camp’s vicinity.

Examples of scenes in the film are groups of tourists being walked through the camp by local guides; we see them listening to guides relating stories they have obviously been recounting numerous times. The guides themselves are interviewed and they tell of their personal devotion to the guiding, and their personal suffering of having to repeat the stories over and over.

The ways in which the guides tell their stories within the historical circumstances where they took place, provides the film with a strange kind of authenticity; comparable, in a way, to how Lanzmann placed the moral witnesses in Shoah within historical contexts—only in KZ those present in these horrible surroundings are not survivors. So how do their stories acquire authenticity, one wonders.
We are also shown the surroundings of the camp, the village of Mauthausen and its present inhabitants engaging in beer-festivities. The locals are asked about the camp, and they state that the camp does not “control” their lives, and that Mauthausen is a village like any other. The spectator has different thoughts, though. Among others one realises that the mere presence of the camp retains and reactivates memories of the atrocities that took place in it.

It is the place itself which archives our memories, even those memories which cannot be said to be ours personally, for instance, because we are too young to have experienced the events. But KZ shows us how they are brought to live—by visiting the site and experiencing the camp, the rooms, the corridor as embodied perceivers. This differs from reading about the Shoah, or from watching documentaries or testimonials. KZ brings that insight home, but honesty bids me to acknowledge that some of this is also central to Lanzmann’s Shoah, which is different in all other aspects, of course.

References

– Alphen, Ernst van. 2005. “Playing the Holocaust.” In Art in Mind. How Contemporary Images Shape Thought, 180–203. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
– Benigni, Roberto: La Vita e Bella (1997). (IMDB)
– Bergson, Henri. 1990. Matter and Memory. Translated by N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer. Zone.
– Bloomstein, Rex: KZ.
– Gerwen, Rob van. 1999. “Representaties waarnemen.” Feit & fictie IV:67–80.
– Hotel Modern: Kamp (online).
– Lanzmann, Claude. 1985. Shoah. An Oral History of the Shoah. New York: Pantheon Books. (IMDB).
____________. 1994. “Holocauste, la représentation impossible.” Le Monde, March 3.
– Margalit, Avishai. 2002. The Ethics of Memory. Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press.
– Scruton, Roger. 1983. “Photography and Representation.” In The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture, 102–126. London, New York: Methuen.
Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain Of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
– Spielberg, Stephen: Schindler’s List (1993). (IMDB)
– Wollheim, Richard. 1993. “Pictures and Language.” In The Mind and its Depths, 185–192. Cambridge (Mass.), London (England): Harvard University Press.

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