- Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany by Frances Guerin
In Through Amateur Eyes, Frances Guerin pursues deeper and more nuanced interpretations than those that are usually gleaned from amateur film and photographs taken by Germans during the Nazi era. Her extensive archival work and ensuing analyses have brought her to the conclusion that such amateur artifacts can act “as agents in processes of witnessing and remembering [End Page 139] anew the events of World War II and the Holocaust” (xvi). The author stresses throughout the book that, as viewers of these still and moving pictures from the Nazi period, we should not fixate on the presumed ideological perspectives of those who were behind the camera to the exclusion of all other meaning. Guerin, while neither lauding the works for their aesthetic value nor exculpating their creators from possible complicity in the crimes of this era, implores us to consider the roles of these images within other contexts of their time, for example, within the discourses of modernism and technological modernity. Guerin’s position is thus at odds with a predominant viewpoint in Holocaust scholarship, namely, “that to look at the German perpetrator’s photograph is to look through his lens, and therefore from his perspective” (14). Guerin argues convincingly against this limited view of these photographic and filmic documents, working to redeem them not as works of art but as aids in keeping alive in the twenty-first century the memory of the Holocaust.
In the first chapter, “Witnessing from a Distance, Remembering from Afar,” Guerin explains her particular use of the term “amateur” to mean that none of the photographs or films discussed were produced with commercial or official purposes in mind (20). Importantly, Guerin also takes the opportunity in this chapter to outline the conditions of amateur film and photography during the 1930s and early 1940s in Germany. This background supports Guerin’s arguments by contextualizing the works as something more than just “Nazi images”; they shed light on developments in amateur photography and film during that time, and in some cases also provide visual evidence regarding little known facets of this historical period.
The second chapter, “On the Eastern Front with the German Army,” explores the photographs taken by soldiers at work, rest, and play during the war. In many cases, the pictures—marked clearly as amateur by their imperfections, and often anonymous to us as well—document unsanctioned events that were not allowed to be photographed. As Guerin notes, soldiers generally did not take heed of the censorship laws and thus “the amateur image opens a window onto an alternative view of history” (51). I would have enjoyed elaboration on this intriguing idea as well as more examples of the new insights that Guerin contends can be garnered from this amateur photography. The chapter ends on a most interesting note, however, with an analysis of the controversies surrounding the 1990s Verbrechen der Wehrmacht exhibition of German soldiers’ photography. As Guerin astutely notes, the potential power of these historical documents “can also be appropriated [End Page 140] and pressed into the service of a history that is nowhere to be found in the images” (91).
The third and fourth chapters are arguably the book’s strongest in terms of Guerin’s analysis and the concrete examples she provides. In the third, “The Privilege and Possibility of Color,” Guerin explores the color photographs taken by the chief accountant of the Lodz Ghetto, Walter Genewein. While the loyal Nazi Genewein was trying to document as thoroughly as possible various aspects of ghetto life, the taking of photographs in these locations was forbidden. Further, he portrayed the Jews as vital to productivity in the ghetto: “Instead of narrating the necessity of obliterating the Jews as vermin, these photographs offer a justification for their continued existence” (110). Guerin reminds us of the Nazis’ connections with I. G. Farben to show how Genewein’s color pictures document the link between industry and the German war efforts. In the fourth chapter, “Europe at War in...