I help teach a university course on The Holocaust in Historical Context. It is, it should be, impossible to remain unaffected by immersive study of Western Antisemitism and how religious, economic, political, racial, nationalistic, and cultural trends intersected to culminate in the ghastly monstrosity of the Third Reich and its horrorhouse of moral inversions. The Nazi death camps are an evil, upside-down world where pregnancy means death; where rats thrive and humans fester; where doctors kill instead of heal; where your name is replaced by a number; where sportmachen games spread no joy.
I offer optional Holocaust movie screenings for the students. Sometimes a few kids show up and we watch a movie together. When they don’t show up I watch them alone. Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Europa Europa, The Island on Bird Street. Tonight during a screening of Imaginary Witness I had a fleeting thought: am I allowed to show this to my young students? I found myself worrying about their exposure to such graphic material, especially the American documentary footage from 1945 when Allied liberators entered the death camps with cameras. That’s the worst stuff, the bulldozed bodies, the vacant unblinking stares from living skeletons in barracks. I worried about exposing them to too much. I even worried what my liability could be.
But then I realized that Holocaust footage can’t be rated. Usually movie violence can be rated: PG-13 if there’s cursing, R if there’s nudity, NC-17 if things get too colorful. But Holocaust archival footage is unrateable. It is unimaginably, pornographically, paralyzingly disturbing. It transgresses the imagination. And it is real. It is not a fiction.
There are plenty of limits to the camera lens. Footage that seems to objectively represent the world is still pointed in a specific direction by a cameraman with a perspective and an agenda. It cannot represent the whole historical reality. Sometimes Hollywood stagings of the Holocaust seem grotesquely perfect, glamorized. (Or perhaps that is the guilt I feel as I turn such scenes on and off, at will, from the nest of my couch in Boston.)
Nevertheless–given the perspectival limits of documentary film, given the narrative and aesthetic concerns of big budget commercial films–in a way these are the first generation of historical cinematic narratives that have a chance at telling important stories somewhat accurately. Survivors of the Holocaust endure. The Third Reich was ambitious and self-aggrandizing enough to film itself and its victims constantly–yes, often staging scenes and directing “documentary” footage, but we have outtakes to understand certain manipulations (at least from the Warsaw ghetto). That the Reich was filmed on such a large scale and that the survivors are here, still, to bear witness to grave details, means that Holocaust cinema is a category with distinct opportunity–and profound responsibility.
I had seen many of these films before, long before I knew much detail about the panorama of religious and modern antisemitism and its sadistic apotheosis in Hitler’s Final Solution. I don’t know why, but these movies don’t make me cry anymore. I wonder if all of my condensed cinematic exposure to the Holocaust–fiction and documentary–has started to desensitize me. Or maybe my tears seem self-centered. Crying about the Holocaust seems now to be a pitiful token. Instead now I just feel shocked, sad, wordless, dry-eyed. No tears or feelings of mine can obliterate or ameliorate the ashy skies of Auschwitz, the typhoid lungs of the ghettos, the piles of shoes and hair, the demented minds behind Nazi medical experiments. The footage cannot be rated and the tears do not release me from the unimaginable project of the Holocaust and what it did to Jewish people everywhere.
As a teacher of college students, especially in an age where most of them watch video clips online all day, I will say that film is an indispensable teaching tool. My class did not start to pay attention until archival footage called them out of a historical malaise and into a connection to human suffering on the screen. From a dusty pile of dates and increasingly restrictive legislation against Jewish civil rights, property, and person-hood– suddenly they saw a woman crying with a frozen infant in her arms; dead children on the streets; the first mass graves of the ghettos. Suddenly they woke up and started paying attention. They realized that this is an important class. I hope the unrateable terrors that pass before our eyes keeps them aware of the outrageous evil that humans have done to humans.