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  • Trauma Cinema: Documenting Incest and the Holocaus
  • Tom Conley (bio)
Janet Walker . Trauma Cinema: Documenting Incest and the Holocaust. Berkeley: U of California P, 2005. 251 pp. ISBN 0-520-24175-4, $24.95.

This comprehensive and illuminating study of trauma and its relation to cinema uses the principle of disremembering to analyze a growing number of films that cope with the abuses of incest and the aftereffects of the Holocaust. Incest, located within the private and familial realms that home movies, television, and video bring to a public forum, is complemented by work in a variety of media made by witnesses born after the Second World War who cope with the aftereffects of Hitler's "Final Solution." For Walker, disremembering can be imagined as the expression of mosaic and flickering reflections of the past, fleeing memories on the verge of release from the internment of trauma, that allow individuals to begin to work through unbearable events that have crippled their lives. Walker follows Dori Laub's celebrated reading of an ostensibly "erroneous" account a female survivor of Auschwitz made of the explosion of four chimneys in its death-complex. To counter the claims of interrogators who argued that the woman was "wrong" in noting that four and not three chimneys went up in smoke, Laub showed that her mistake crystallized a vital force of truth: it embodied a will to live and a drive to demolish the camp and everything it stood for.

In the realm of cinema, both artists and viewers can mobilize the same creative fallibilities of memory to refashion what is meant by historical truth. Veracity becomes such through the complex process of mediation, oblivion, and remembering. In a welcome return to the ways that psychoanalysis alters, enriches, and "complexifies" the writing of history, Walker shows how subjective documentary film deals with psychic realities that draw their creators and their public into a productive relation of inquiry and ongoing exchange. She discovers how documentaries of trauma underscore that sense of relation where alternative strategies, indeed the building blocks of vanguard cinema, are mobilized to shape new types of documentary. She looks at gaps and delays in voice-over, images that are out of synch with the sound-track, close ups of objects and forms having no immediate bearing on the gist of the film, conflicting accounts of events that are juxtaposed rather than narrated, modes of split representation, evacuation of historical material from stock footage [End Page 493] (as in Shoah) in favor of landscape photography. "They signal," she remarks cogently, "the abjection of supposedly objective forms of film making in the process of disremembering history" (25).

Disremembering becomes both a theory and a practice in five chapters that treat a broad variety of films. Trauma of incest is taken up in three types of cinema in as many chapters. Reaching back to classical Hollywood, she finds Kings Row (1942, dir. Sam Wood) and Freud (1962, dir. John Huston) exemplary for opening onto what they bracket as an unnameable issue that—because it cannot be named, either for reason of cinematic decorum or of the brute fact itself—addresses the very nature of trauma. There follows a study of television documentaries in which, for the first time, realist modes convey narratives of familial abuse. They "engage a fantasy of knowing" a traumatic past. Walker notes well how Ian Hacking's "false memory syndrome," referring to patterned recall of events in an individual's past "that never took place," informs confessions that both assert and deny (or even deny the denial of) sexual traumas experienced in childhood. Programs such as Divided Memories begin to name traumatic situations that also ward off many of the "complications inherent in the subject of traumatic memory" (51). These documentaries use visual archives as varied as home movie footage, tape recordings, and kinescopes to engage documentary reenactments in which victims of abuse are prompted to relive its beginnings or to betray in their reaction to the material a complex relation of disavowal.

The final two chapters, dedicated to post-holocaust documentaries made by children of exterminated families or isolated survivors of the Final Solution, pick up where Claude Lanzmann's...


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pp. 493-495
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