Conference Report: Screening Atrocity: Cinema, Decolonisation and the Holocaust 

[from Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, Issue 26 February 2014,
Conference Reports‘]

Culture Lab, Newcastle University, 10 January 2013

A Report by Hilary Clixby and Hedley Sugar-Wells, Newcastle University, UK 

This one-day postgraduate workshop was sponsored by the Research Centre in Film and Digital Media, the Newcastle Postcolonial Research Group and the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France.

Organised by Mani Sharpe and Gary Jenkins (both Newcastle University), the workshop aimed to discuss parallel themes such as complicity, testimony, witnessing, nostalgia, trauma and truth in representations of both the Algerian War in 1960s French and Algerian film, and of the Holocaust in German, Israeli and American cinema. Characteristic of existing scholarship considering the two events is the desire to explore texts in which the two histories collide, and the ways in which films dealing with atrocity frequently appropriate formal and narrative techniques from historical sources that might seem initially foreign or distant. It is these processes of cross-referencing, cross-fertilisation and intertextuality that the workshop was set up to explore. The workshop also provided an opportunity for scholars working in either area to share ideas and theories.

In his keynote speech, “The Subterranean Stream and Palimpsestic Memory: Screening Atrocity in Jean-Luc Godard” Prof. Max Silverman (Leeds University), proposed a new model of “palimpsestic memory,” which he defined as the vision of memory taking the form of superimposition and interaction of different temporal traces. These traces constitute a sort of composite structure, so that one layer of traces can be seen through and is transformed by another, producing a chain of signification that draws together disparate spaces and times. Silverman outlined how much post-World War Two research into extreme violence began with Holocaust survivors, the concentration camp interpreted in the immediate postwar period as something specific to the German psyche. However, theorists have since developed different ways of thinking about extreme violence, seeing the Holocaust and other atrocities as interconnected and as integral to the capitalist economic system and to imperialism. Silverman cited the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998) suggests that the concentration camp is not separate to the political space in which we are still living. He also referred to the collection Hannah Arendt and History: Imperialism, Nation, Race and Genocide (2007, eds. Richard King and Dan Stone) as being in the spirit of exploring the “subterranean stream” that linked imperialism in Asia and Africa with the emergence of genocidal, totalitarian regimes in Europe.

Silverman asked how such interconnections work in film and in fiction, and whether there is a particular poetic favorable to theorize them in a specific way. He proposed three possible models for screening interconnections: Freudian condensation of the palimpsest; Benjamin’s “constellation” or “images” (dialectics at a standstill) and the “trace” and “inter-textuality’”(Derrida and Cixous) to define the poetics of overlapping sites. Silverman applied these ideas to a sequence from Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998), a nine-hour, non-narrative, episodic flow of montage. This sequence layers a diverse range of images taken from cinematic archives, including those of extreme violence: a Palestinian soldier, a Rembrandt figure and a Jewish woman with a yellow star. Silverman argued that these images are made not to collapse one into the other, but to connect and comment on each other, challenging specificity and singularity, memories, and the discreet nature of time by suggesting a non-foundational system of links between layers. Meaning is therefore linked to what the image of horror is juxtaposed with. Montage and a non-linear approach open up a different space, wherein images of horror combined with textual images and sounds from elsewhere can shock and propel the spectator into a new relationship with the Holocaust. Thinking in these terms can, Silverman argues, break down binaries between sameness and difference and between unique and comparable, challenging hegemonic discourse on extreme violence and atrocity in the academically divided areas of Holocaust studies and postcolonial studies. This approach further challenges the compartmentalization of metropolitan history, colonial history and the history of European genocide, and re-theorizes languages of race and violence in transcultural and transnational terms.

The event was divided into three panels: “Audience and Affect,” “Testimony and Complicity” and “Presence and Absence.” Panel 1 began with the paper “Hearing Atrocity: Film Music and the Holocaust,” in which Matt Lawson (Edge Hill University) outlined his research into Holocaust film music. Lawson believes that the controversial, ongoing debate surrounding Holocaust representation in film academic literature is generally limited to “pure” film studies, with little academic focus on music. He argued that there is a gap in research focusing on the compositional, ethical and political choices that may be considered when composing for films based around such sensitive narratives. He highlighted the need to challenge the “big name” composer approach, such as John Williams’ controversial score for Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). Lawson proposed that this score, could be seen as Hollywood exploiting the Holocaust by manipulating audience emotion. He offered too the example of the television movie Escape from Sobibor (Jack Gold, 1987), which blends pre-existing music to form a blurred diegetic and non-diegetic underscore. Lawson’s research areas include the appropriateness for a Holocaust film of Hans Eisler’s anti-literal and anti-sentimental technique in Nuit et Brouillard (Alain Resnais, 1955); questions around music’s inherent meanings; if there is a type of music that can be labelled Holocaust music; if audiences are assumed to have knowledge of certain music; and the contextualization of films, such as scoring traditions in French films in the 1950s. To explore these ideas, Lawson highlighted three contrasting scenes — from Schindler’s List, Nuit et Brouillard and Escape from Sobibor — approaching them from the viewpoint of musical representational and noting potential effects on audience reception. His initial list of films for study also includes Life is Beautiful (Roberto Begnini, 1997), Imaginary Witness (Daniel Anker, 2004) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman, 2008).

Panel 2, “Testimony and Complicity,” featured Alex Adams’ (Newcastle University) paper, ‘Torquemada, Vichy, Paratroopers: La Question.Based on Henri Alleg’s 1958 autobiographical account, La Question (1976) describes the author’s experience of torture under French rule in Algiers. The adapted film, which uses historical footage, draws comparisons with Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960) and Nuit et Brouillard because of its documentary authenticity. Adams argued that although the film draws important parallels between French colonialism and the Holocaust and Occupation, it is nevertheless problematic due to its claims of universality and positioning of Algerian nationals as the Other.

For Panel 3, “Presence and Absence,” Dr Ian Biddle (Newcastle University) presented the paper ‘“Zamelt un farshraybt!”: Collecting, Remembering and Forgetting — Discourses on Memory in Early Post-Holocaust Yiddish- Language Cinema.” Biddle focused in particular on Zamler-Kultur, the Jewish “culture of collecting” (or the collecting of culture), in Eastern Europe during and after the Holocaust (as in the Central Jewish Historical Commission’s call to “zamelt un farshraybt” [collect and record]). Biddle employs Gilbert’s term “eleventh hour ethnography,” which both displays a desire to mark the continuity of its culture and to bear witness to the horrors. Taking the last Yiddish feature film, Natan Gross’s Undezere Kinder (aka Our Children, 1947), as his main case study, Biddle explored some of the ways in which memories of the atrocities were enacted in these very early filmic Holocaust responses. He considered the questions of how memory is worked through, thematized or engaged with in the turbulent aftermath of the Holocaust.

Using scenes from Undezere Kinder, in which Dzigan and Shumacher, a comedy double act, stage a play for orphans of the Holocaust, Biddle was able to present some of the issues facing Zamler-Kultur in its depiction/recollection of Yiddish-speaking cultures. He questioned whether the Yiddish traditions of stories, theatre and slapstick comedy should be preserved in the aftermath of such barbarism or whether the more naturalistic portrayal of the children’s accounts should be more highly valued. The orphans of the film tell a more believable story of their experiences than the comedians, whom they heckle for failing to present a real view of the ghetto. The men romanticize and yearn for their mother’s home cooking, while the children’s cry of “I want food coupons” highlights the realities of begging for food. Biddle pointed to the epistemological turbulence of such literature of remembrance as it switches between palliative reminiscing and harrowing flashback memories. This is exemplified as the comedians overhear the children discussing distressing stories of survival, and confess that “we came to collect material, but ended up opening old wounds.”

Kierran Horner (King’s College, University of London) presented the final paper, “Presence and Absence: the Revelation of War in La Jetée and Le Joli Mai.” Horner considered Chris Marker’s 1962 and 1963 films as companion pieces, in which readings of the impact of the Algerian and Second World Wars in French society interact with the inherent absurdity of war. Based on theories of motion and stasis expounded by scholars including Mary Ann Doane, Laura Mulvey and Garrett Stewart, Horner argues that in La Jetée, Marker seeks to reveal not only the static image at the heart of cinematic movement, but also the death, guilt and repressed knowledge of the Algerian War, as denied by those he interviews in Le Joli Mai. To examine this conflict, Horner looked to Jean- Paul Sartre’s existentialist theory of bad faith, arguing that La Jetée is motivated by conflicts between inertia and mobility, life and death, past, present and future, and those of war. He also suggested that Marker combines these polarities to expose the latent bad faith he encountered in Le Joli Mai, the repression of the Algerian War and, by extension, other wars. According to Horner, after Sartre, this conscious denial is tantamount to collusion. Even whilst rejecting responsibility for the crimes committed “in [their] name” in Algeria — the torture, terrorism and deaths — the people of Paris are implicated. Marker’s film betrays this hypocrisy, ignoring the persecution of others in order to proceed blissfully ignorant, by exposing a fundamental paradox in cinema, and, by extension, existence.

The workshop was brought to a close by a screening of La Jetée, composed almost entirely of black and white stills, which depicts a futuristic, subterranean, world post-WWIII. La Jetée has influenced filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Marc Caro and Terry Gilliam, particularly providing the inspiration for Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), and still remains dynamic and rich today. A wide-ranging and thought-provoking workshop, Screening Atrocity ultimately provided a valuable platform from which further academic research can be pursued in the fields of postcolonial and Holocaust

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