Noemi Schory, a documentary film director and producer, was the Schusterman Visiting Artist in Residence at the Center for Jewish Studies 2013 Fall Semester. Schory taught The Holocaust in Film: Recent Israeli and German Documentaries Compared and spoke at various film screenings and events on campus and in the community. Schory produced the award-winning documentary film “A Film Unfinished” about the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, which was screened by CHGS on November 12th, 2013 at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.
How does film play a role in shaping Holocaust memory?
Film, fiction or documentary, has become the most important building block of memory-of historic knowledge. The images remain etched in our minds regardless of their veracity, their origins. The little boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, the emaciated prisoners near the barbed wire in Buchenwald (Margaret Bourke White) are iconic representations universally known. Fifty percent of all West German citizens watched the NBC mini series “Holocaust” in 1979 that was criticized by Elie Wiesel for being a soap opera. Today, the broadcast is still considered to have marked an absolute watershed in coping with Holocaust memory in Germany. We are now entering a phase without witnesses, where all that will be left are the images, and our common memory will be shaped exclusively by them and by the films, which will withstand the erosion induced by time.
Are there still limits of representation in Holocaust film?
The limits to representation start from what doesn’t exist. There are no visual documents of the mass, industrialized extermination. It seems that the visual archives are endless; there are only two films, which show the deportation trains and none that show the reality of inside the trains. “The Auschwitz Album,” shot by SS photographers, captures the arrival of deportees from Hungary and some images of the selection, but there are no known images of the daily life of the prisoners in the camps. There is or ought to be self-imposed limit on the use and repeated use of atrocity images(mostly shot after the liberation of the camps), which run the risk of desensitizing the viewer and humiliating the victims (exposing them once more). Repeated use also has the potential of turning the viewers off from dealing with the Holocaust.
How can (especially documentary) films be used for teaching the Holocaust? At what age would you recommend that?
Documentary films are not synonymous with factual representation; they often deal with memory, with the aftermath. Recognizable, three-dimensional accounts of daily life, of coping and the struggle to survive, can contribute to the emotional understanding. One of the neglected fields (partly because of scarcity of visual material) is the life before the Holocaust. I regard understanding the rich fabric of Jewish life in Europe (which was almost entirely wiped out), as of utmost importance but too little touched upon. We are used to see very old survivors telling their memories and are not aware that the experiences they talk about happened to them when they were young, sometimes very young. In a series of short films, which I recently directed, based on diaries, wills and other writings of victims, I insisted on finding voices of the same age as the writers of those documents. I think this brings home, on an emotional level, the enormity of dilemmas, fears and choices. The issue of age is one of the toughest ones to which I have no answer. In Israel since Holocaust Remembrance Day is a national day of commemoration marked by sirens and silence, children are exposed to it from a very young age, often leaving deep scars on their psyches or turning them off from dealing with it.I think that the teaching and for that matter Holocaust remembrance ought to lead to universal, humanistic values and not be its own aim.
How would you define the new/third generation of Israeli films about the Holocaust?
I think that in Israel (as elsewhere) the third generation moves in a more reflective and interpretative direction. The realistic testimonies have been recorded-the survivors are passing away. Emotionally, the third generation moves further away, towards more philosophical interpretations. “A Film Unfinished,”directed by a young director, Yael Hersonski, and produced by me, is an example for that, and so is “Numbered.” Animated films, video art probing the limit of true and false memory – I believe that this is the direction for the future.
Verena Stern is the 2013/2014 BMWF Doctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Austrian Studies/University of Minnesota and a doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna. She is writing her dissertation on migration of asylum seekers from Somalia to the European Union. Stern´s research interests include Human Rights and transnational migration.