- On Gershenson’s The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe
Russian film scholar Oleg Aronson writes, “Signs of the films’ times and epochs are fixed both in the cinematic iconography and devices. Apart from images and rhetorical tropes, films contain imperceptible ‘traces of a specific period’ which speak even when all the signs are silent.” In Soviet cinema, he suggests, censorship impacted the perception of films a priori, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks on the level of both plot and imagery. Thus “censorship in cinema in terms of how it operated under the Soviets did possess, despite its ugliness, one positive factor: it imbued absences with a trace of positivity”—in other words, with the audience’s active cultural and social imagination.1
It is useful to keep this framework in mind when reading Olga Gershenson’s valuable pioneer survey of the Holocaust theme on Soviet screens, The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe. While her book discusses only those rare films that include specific references to the Holocaust, as well as a number of unfilmed scripts, the absences in these and other works take on a multilayered significance. We should also be reminded that, in the words of Jean-Michel Frodon, “the ethical thought of the cinema will have been to a large extent the thought for the invisible.”2 In the context of the history of Holocaust [End Page 225] cinema, which painfully fluctuated between obsessing over the documentary image and realizing its inadequacy and insufficiency, the “invisible” becomes both a problem and a solution.
Gershenson warns that her book is not about “theoretical debates about the limits and possibilities of Holocaust representation. . . . Soviet filmmakers might have contemplated whether and how to represent the Holocaust, but the ultimate answer was given by the censor. Theoretical debate was beside the point. . . . This means that film censorship is crucial for understanding Holocaust representation in the Soviet Union” (8). Indeed. Yet if understood broadly, censorship—internal, financial, bureaucratic, and political—is crucial for understanding Holocaust representation globally and large chunks of cinematic history as a whole. It is also clear—and in fact Gershenson’s meticulous research and fine analysis confirm this—that the Soviet filmmakers she discusses absolutely did ponder the question of how to represent the atrocity and aesthetically resolved it, even if often in a truncated version. The multileveled censorship debates at times pondered it as well. The absences, fragmentariness, and incompleteness that were ultimately presented to the viewer can be mourned as the testament to anti-Semitic Soviet policies, but should also be appreciated and theoretically contemplated as indelible parts of the aesthetic texture of Soviet cultural and cinematic products.
Gershenson’s book is structured chronologically: from the “mediocre” (28) prewar films, such as Professor Mamlock (Adolf Minkin, Gerbert Rappaport, USSR, 1938), which depicted early anti-Semitic policies in Germany; to the immediate postwar era films, such as The Unvanquished (Mark Donskoi, USSR, 1945), with its scene of the killings at Babi Yar; to the cinema of the Thaw, represented especially by Mikhail Kalik, Mikhail Romm, and Aleksandr Askol’dov; to the films of the last two decades of Soviet rule. She also discusses the presence of the Holocaust during the Perestroika period and contemporary Russian cinema.
Gerhsenson singles out “universalization” and “externalization” as the two central aspects of the Soviet treatment of the Holocaust. The first approach meant that the Jewish destruction was to be presented as part of the overall Soviet tragedy during the war; this led to the almost complete, but gradual, official obfuscation of the Holocaust and at times its sublimation on screen. The second approach dictated placing the extermination of Jews outside Soviet territories, primarily in camps. There were clear political reasons for this strategy—the impossibility of tackling the role of native collaborators in what has come to be known as “the Holocaust by bullets” in numerous ravines—but also aesthetic and ethical ones. [End Page 226]
Gershenson touches on the impact...