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Documenting the Holocaust in Orson Welles’s The Stranger jennifer l. barker The Holocaust is a massive cataclysm that distorts everything around it. Physicists sometimes speak of gravitational masses as twistings and distortions of the even geometry of the surrounding physical space; the greater the mass, the larger the distortion. The Holocaust is a massive and continuing distortion of the human space. robert nozick, The Examined Life The Stranger, directed by Orson Welles, is a 1946 film featuring Welles as Franz Kindler, an architect of the Holocaust who has erased his past and is hiding out in a small American town biding his time until the Nazis return to power. The Stranger has long been considered “the worst” and least “personal” of Welles’s films, both by auteur critics and by Welles himself.1 Much of the critical dismissal of the film is rooted in auteur theory and its advocacy of Welles and his originality and genius. The Stranger, Welles’s most explicitly political, topical, and conventional film, as well as his biggest box office success, does not mesh well with the auteurist image of Welles as a creative and misunderstood genius.2 The film was an anomaly, unwelcome proof that Welles could be “normal,” that he “didn’t glow in the dark” as he told Leslie Megahey in 45 2 1982.3 Welles himself most clearly began voicing his dislike of the film in the 1950s, when auteur theory was being developed by Cahiers du cinéma critics and filmmakers such as André Bazin and François Truffaut. In fact, it was in a Bazin interview with Welles in the September 1958 issue of Cahiers that his dislike of The Stranger was phrased most clearly in terms of its lack of authorship, as “the one of my films of which I am least the author.”4 A number of critics have furthered the sense of unoriginality by emphasizing the film’s resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.5 Welles, ever the showman, was undoubtedly aware of his key position in theories of film authorship—Citizen Kane was a favorite example— and the film’s rejection has been reinforced by decades of film critics who echo that “there is nothing” of Welles in the film.6 Dismissal of committed or didactic political works during the cold war was a common practice, and this has unfortunately contributed to a critical underappreciation for an intriguing film, one that also clearly reflects Welles’s contemporaneous interests in its themes and style. Its explicit focus on fascism and genocide closely mirrors Welles’s extensive writing and lecturing on the subject in 1944 and 1945, and its pedagogical approach to the documentation of atrocity also represents ideas Welles discussed in interviews at the time. Stylistically, the film represents a particular kind of evolving antifascist style that was common in the 1930s and 1940s. The Stranger may not be Welles’s most “Wellesian” film, but it is certainly a work that merits further analysis, especially as a cultural text that expresses fascination with and fears about fascism typical of Welles and many other Americans immediately following World War II. It also tackles the problem of representing the atrocity of the Holocaust, and those responsible for it, in a way that uniquely addresses American complacency during and after the war. Filmed in the fall of 1945 and screened in the spring of 1946, The Stranger deals specifically with the problem of a renascent fascism and focuses on giving shape to its hidden manifestation in postwar America. Significantly, the film focuses not on the workings of mob justice and the legal system—although they play a part in the action—but rather on the innovative use of filmed documentation of the atrocity of the Holocaust as the ultimate enforcer of social justice. The Holocaust footage— screened for the first time in a Hollywood film—is included in the film as a private screening for Mary Longstreet, a woman who has ignorantly married an infamous Nazi official and refuses to believe in his guilt. The Stranger’s displacement of responsibility and culpability from the law to the individual is an important element of Welles’s ideas about fascism and promotes his assertion that fascism can only be addressed at the level of the individual psyche. The problem of fascism is thus represented in the film primarily within the confines of a personal struggle between Kindler and Mary, or rather, Mary...


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