Before I get into what I think is a very interesting question, I need to do a little background. Since January I’ve been auditing a course at UC Berkeley called Film 50: History of Cinema. This is a class that meets once a week for a lecture, a movie screening, and a discussion, and in a praiseworthy bit of forward-thinking, Cal has encouraged public attendance for many years. I’ve long wanted to audit it, but have only been able to this winter and spring, and it is proving just as excellent as I’ve long expected it would. Cal should do this sort of thing more often.
The course on offer this semester has been purposely curated by professor Marilyn Fabe to to trace how cinema represents and deals with memory, so in other words it’s a course on cinema that deals with what is probably the single theme I find most interesting in art and literature. Thus we’ve watched films like Citizen Kane, Spellbound, and Rashomon that attempt to use the idiosyncrasies of the film medium to represent the workings of memory onscreen.
Last week the course dealt with the Holocaust, which obviously offers a number of very particular, perhaps even unique, problems having to do with the matter of memory. How to represent the unrepresentable? (And should it be done?) How to create films that deal with the event as an actual, historic occurrence, but that also invoke enough timelessness to make them something that can sustain the memory of what happened through the ages? And on a very personal level, how to deal with the memories of those who actually experienced it, both as victims and as perpetrators?
That last question is one that Sebald takes up again and again in his writing, and it is a question that stands at the center of the nine-hour documentary Shoah. That documentary is composed solely of a series of interviews, broken up into three categories: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders.
We didn’t watch Shoah in the class last week, nor did we even watch an excerpt from it; what we did watch was an interview that was expurgated from the documentary and released as its own film, A Visitor from the Living, almost 20 years later, in 1997. This interview deals with the thorny case of Maurice Rossel, who was the man sent to Theresienstadt by the International Red Cross to verify that the people living there were doing in in humane conditions. For those who are unaware, Theresienstadt was the so-called model ghetto, and it was given a complete makeover by the Nazis prior to Rossel’s visit for the sole purpose of making him believe that the ghetto was what the Germans said it was: a pleasant place to live for Jews who were no longer permitted to live in the Reich. It must be said that this makeover was all-out: streets were paved, inmates were told to say nothing on penalty of immediate execution, a park was built, a bank was built, even the names of the streets were changed. By most reports, it seems to have been a spare-no-expenses, all-out attempt to completely fool one man.
The interview gets into a number of complicating matters that I don’t have room to discuss here, such as Rossel’s clear anti-Semitism and the context for his visit. (For instance, prior to visiting Theresienstadt he had a much more impromptu and far less whitewashed visit to Auschwitz, a visit that did not result in international outrage at the things that were going on while Rossel was taking tea with Nazis there.)
The question I want to take up here is something that Rossel said in the interview: when asked if he would file the same report today, Rossel says yes, because in the report he had to write what he saw, and that’s what he did. He saw a somewhat crowded but very functional city where people seemed to be living normal lives. For all the particulars of this visit being bound up with one of the blackest events in the history of modern society, this question strikes me as one that can be very broadly applied: does what we believe not come from what we see, and if so, how do we know that what we are seeing are the right things? And how do we know that the things we see are accurately recorded in our memories, so that, years later, we can honestly account for the things we did and thought on any particular day?
These are all extremely Sebaldian questions, and it’s no surprise to find the matter of Theresienstadt all over Sebald’s writing. In fact, he makes a screening of the propaganda film that the Nazis showed to the ICRC to document the acceptable living conditions in Theresienstadt the key moment in the recovering of repressed memories by his protagonist Austerlitz, in the novel of the same name. Although I’ve read much of Sebald, having seen this film I feel that I should read it all again, informed by the matters raised by this very extreme case. Here’s what Will Self had to say about Thereseinstadt in Sebald’s literature:
The echo of the Buna at Auschwitz is certainly intentional, and just as willed by Sebald are the references throughout his books to Theresienstadt, the “model” concentration camp established by Reinhard Heydrich in the Bohemian hinterland. I speak not just of the extended passages concerning the camp in Austerlitz, but of tens and scores of other references to it – far more than to any of the other, more notorious nodes of the Holocaust. I believe that in Theresienstadt, where tens of thousands of “privileged” Jews were crammed into an eighteenth-century fortified town of one square kilometre, Sebald saw the very synecdoche of the Holocaust.
With its theatre company and orchestra, its workshops and its newspaper, Theresienstadt was given a grotesque makeover by the Germans so that it could serve as a Potemkin village for a Red Cross inspection in 1944 designed to allay international suspicions. At the same time a film was made depicting the idyllic existence of those who shortly after the filming stopped were transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, or else forced east on the death marches that claimed 1.5 million more Jewish lives. Theresienstadt is for Sebald only an extreme and specialized form of a Holocaust he sees being perpetrated everywhere and at all times as civilization marches on.
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I only saw the film a few days ago, and the matters at play here go far beyond the scope of what I try to accomplish in a blog post. What I only wanted to do here was to raise them, because they strike me as incredibly important and worthwhile, as well as to promote A Visitor from the Living to anyone interested in these matters, especially as Sebald considers them.
Oddly enough, if you want to watch all of Shoah online, you can do it all here. I’m hoping this is legal.
You Might Also Like:
More from Conversational Reading:
- Time, Speed, and the Modern World I’ve just finished Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, which takes as its rather unambitious thesis the argument that the key ideas underpinning the modern world...
- To The Best of Our Knowledge Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best of Our Knowledge does an hour on The Book Business. Listen here. In the first segment, Sara Nelson, editor...
- A World Without Past Alain Robbe-Grillet discusses his script for the movie Last Year at Marienbad. The universe in which the entire film occurs is, characteristically, that of a...
- Modern Arabic Fiction A couple years ago, Anchor Books published a nice anthology of new American fiction. Now they have struck again, with what appears to be...
- The World Sphere of Literature The book: The World Republic of Letters The contention: There is a "world republic of letters" analagous to the international political system. Entrenched by hundreds...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.