- "The Truth of a Mad Man": Collective Memory and Representation of the Holocaust in The Partisans of Vilna (1986) and the Documentary Genre
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 32, Number 1, 2002
- pp. 38-42
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Zeman & Samuels | "The Truth of a Mad Man": Collective Memory and Representation of the Holocaust in The Partisans of Vilna (1986) and the Documentary Genre U The Truth of a Mad Man": Collective Memory and Representation of the Holocaust in The Partisans of Vilna (1986) and the Documentary Genre Scott C. Zeman, New Mexico Tech Mark Chasins Samuels, Mew Mexico Tech One day you will speak of all this, but your story will fall on deaf ears. Some will mock you, others will try to redeem themselves through you. You will cry out to the heavens and they will refuse to listen or to believe... You will possess the truth, but it will be the truth of a madman.1 -an S.S. officer Fictional, dramatized, and documentary films have attempted to represent and reconstruct the Holocaust. But, can film ever adequately reconstruct something as unimaginable, as unrepresentable , as the Holocaust? The surprising box office success of films such as Sophie's Choice (1982), Schindler's List (1993), and Life Is Beautiful (1997) as well as best selling books like The Diary ofAnne Frank (1952) and Elie Wiesel's Night (1960), indicate that people do want to understand the "truth" of the Holocaust. But, what is the truth that viewers take from film? Elie Wiesel warns of the difficulties and dangers of representation : Auschwitz is something else, always something else. It is a universe outside the universe, a creation that exists parallel to creation. Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently. Auschwitz represents the negation and failure of human progress; it negates the human design and casts doubts on its validity. Then it defeated culture; later it defeated art, becausejust as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz. The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes. Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform Jewish Partisans on Liberation Day in their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so.2 How can film reconstruct something that represents nothing less than the "negation and failure of human progress." This essay, which examines the complex relationship between documentary film and collective memory of the Holocaust, grew out of an interdisciplinary course in psychology and history the authors taught on the topic of memory and historical reconstruction . In part, the course focused on fictionalized and documentary representations of the Holocaust. The main question of that course, and the question addressed by this essay, considers how these representations shape/distort our collective memory ofthe Holocaust. And, more specifically, how documentary films inform our collective memory of the Holocaust. Filmmakers' attempts to create coherent narratives of the Holocaust inherently lead to distortion. Films construct narratives , and narratives by their very nature distort history and memory. Narratives require a beginning, middle, and end. They speak to us because, according to Joyce Appleby, the "human intellect demands accuracy" while at the same time "the soul craves meaning." Narratives cannot apprehend the constellation of simultaneous, contradictory, or ambiguous, historical events. Narrative itself is "a literary form without any logical connection to the seamless flow of happenings that constitute living" and, one might add, dying.3 By necessity, historical narratives, whether written or in film, are as much constructions as reconstructions . They impose hierarchy, causality, and linearity , and they propose meaning . Certainly, the Holocaust must not be trivialized, as Wiesel has argued, but should it be represented in film at all? The filmmaker that does take on the challenge faces an enormous responsibility. Annette Insdorf notes that "filmmakers confronting the Holocaust Vilna, Lithuania, July, 1944.must assume a special respon38 I Film & History Scott C. Zeman & Mark Chasins Samuels | Special In-Depth Section sibility, commensurate with its gravity and enormity."4 Or, as Wiesel states, "in order not to betray the dead and humiliate the living, this particular subject demands a special sensibility, a different approach, a rigor strengthened by respect and reverence and above all, faithfulness to memory."5 In Schindler's List, director Steven Spielberg chose not to portray Oscar Schindler as...