- Haunted Images: Film, Ethics, Testimony and the Holocaust
Libby Saxton begins her study of Holocaust film by stating that in the wake of numerous theoretical interventions by thinkers like Jorge Semprun, Gillian Rose, and Giorgio Agamben, the question of the representability of the Holocaust has changed. She argues that "the focus of critical discussion and artistic invention has shifted from the question of whether the event could or should be represented to the question of how it might adequately or responsibly be represented" (p. 2). In fact, the scarcity of documentary visual material has haunted Holocaust cinema by its very absence. In France, in particular, the debate between Claude Lanzmann and Jean-Luc Godard over the ethical efficacy of Holocaust images has put in sharp focus what is at stake, namely "the status of the image as document and trace and the ethics of vision and blindness" (p. 5). Yet, the mediated nature of much of public life demands a critical discussion of the mechanism of representations, and particularly when dealing with major historical events. Saxton emphasizes the significance of the testimonial dimension and agrees with Agamben and others that the alternative option, silence, only brings about a repetition of the initial crime. The ethical nature of such testimonial work creates the necessity to theorize the limits of cinematic representations.
In the first chapter, Saxton offers an interpretive framework for Lanzmann's Shoah that resists the filmmaker's copious comments about his work and instead questions the formal and representational features of the film, in particular its refusal to include archival images from the Holocaust, an aspect discussed under the rubric of the film's implicit "Bilderverbot" (p. 26). Saxton discusses the ethical implications related to found footage and in particular addresses the necessity to include information about the ideological background [End Page 155] behind each frame; otherwise, bias and prejudice are potentially replicated. Shoah's refusal to represent, however, is countered and complemented by its focus on erasure, which invites viewers to search for a past through the traces shown when the camera pans over former concentration camp sites. Saxton nevertheless questions Lanzmann's generic experimentations, which produced a film that combines documentary and fictional formats. In particular, through the director's careful staging of every interview's circumstances, the interviewees are coaxed into a re-enactment of their past. By their verbal and bodily reactions they then represent the past they witnessed. In other scenes, the voice of interviewees is blended with visual footage of the actual sites, in one case even a clay model of the crematoria, thus raising questions of representation and, for the viewer, of identification that, Saxton argues, complicate a simple differentiation between Shoah and fiction films like Schindler's List.
The second chapter compares Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema with Lanzmann's Shoah, focusing on their contrasting views of cinema's power to represent the past. Saxton presents Godard's work as aimed against the forces of amnesia. He creates extended video essays as collages of archival and documentary material that juxtapose images from commodity films with historical footage, raising questions about cinema's history of avoidance of the Holocaust—its missing reel—and its consequential need for atonement. His technique also alludes to the redemptive force of film, if not its power of resurrection (p. 52). In discussing Georges Didi-Huberman's work on the French 2001 exhibition of camp photographs, Saxton suggests that the famous four Sonderkommando photographs further complicate Godard's and Lanzmann's dispute. While they fill the lacuna in visual Holocaust history, they also insist on the possibility of visual representation and hence counter Lanzmann's doubt of the archive. At the same time, images of horrific events run the risk of veiling the very incident, of removing the Real and making it ethically nonexistent. Both Godard and Lanzmann, ultimately, complement each other's cinematic work by offering resistance to Hollywood's appropriation of the memories of others.
The third chapter starts with a discussion of Leszek Wosiewicz's film Kornblumenblau (1988), which includes...