Archival Spaces 262
International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Uploaded 5 February 2021
On 1 November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated 27 January as “International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” in order to commemorate the liberation by Soviet Russian forces of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 January 1945. According to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The purpose of International Holocaust Remembrance Day is two-fold: to serve as a date for official commemoration of the victims of the Nazi regime and to promote Holocaust education throughout the world. UN Resolution 60/7 also specifically rejects any form of Holocaust denial, and encourages national and local governments to physically preserve geographic sites of the so-called “Final Solution.” Finally, the resolution condemns all forms of religious intolerance, as well as incitement to violence against any minority ethnic or religious communities.
I began this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day by tuning into a virtual concert on Zoom, sponsored by the German General Consulate/Stephan Schneider and the Holocaust Museum L.A./Beth Kean, which featured pianist Morris Ernst playing selections from various composers who had been driven into exile by the Nazis, including Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Arlen, Eric Zeisl, Arthur Lourié, as well as Viktor Ullmann, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Walter Arlen is still with us at 100 years(https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2019/08/16/happy-birthday-walter-arlen).
In the evening I watched The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017,Nki Caro), one of now over 1000 films that touches on one aspect or another of the Holocaust. The color film, starring Jennifer Chastain, relates the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, a Polish zookeeper and his wife, who were responsible for rescuing several hundred Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. An international co-production, shot in the Czech Republic with American funding, the film focuses, like Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg), on the “Righteous among the Nations,” those non-Jews who risked their lives to save victims of the Holocaust. The film is certainly worth watching, although as some reviewers opined, the animals are handled with more emotion than the emaciated ghetto inhabitants. The exception is Shira Haas, the diminutive Israeli actress who shined in TV’s Shtisl (2013- ) and Unorthodox (2020), who steals the show as a pubescent girl raped by two German guards. But the ending, which finds the Polish family reunited and undamaged offers a feel-good moment for audiences and allows them to forget that the Jewish survivors invariably lost their whole families and often remained traumatized for life. Visualizing the Holocaust is fraught with difficulties, even when intentions are good.
The first Holocaust film I ever saw was Erwin Leiser’s Mein Kampf (1960). I was eleven years old when my parents went to a drive-in to see the film, leaving us children in the back seat to sleep. I didn’t. I watched, understanding little. However, the images of naked women being chased into the gas chambers were burned into my brain, making me worry about my own family. But it was in college when I saw Night and Fog (1956), Alain Resnais’ short documentary that the true horror of the Holocaust hit me. I had to run to the bathroom to puke when the shot of the mountains of hair came on the screen. I felt the materiality of those objects as stark symbols for the absent lives, snuffed out in an industrial process of genocide. The power of Resnais’ film lay in its highly poetic commentary by Jean Cayrol over images of the abandoned camps at Auschwitz, endlessly tracking along barracks walls, showing mountains of suitcases, shoes, clothing, and hair, all that remained of millions of victims. By then, I also knew my dad had been a concentration camp survivor, though not a death camp. It is one reason I became a life-long student of the Holocaust, beginning with my dissertation on anti-Nazi Films.
The first Nazi Konzentrationslager (KZ) camp I saw was Terezín/Theresienstadt, which I visited with my parents in 1965 when I was fourteen. Because it was an old garrison town that had been converted to a ghetto, I didn’t completely comprehend that the town had been a death camp. Much later I saw the Nazi documentary Theresienstadt (1944), wrongly identified for decades as Hitler Gives the Jews a City, and Alfred Radok’s The Distant Journey (1950), which used stylized imagery to visualize the town’s horrors. Not that any single film can make sense of the Holocaust. Indeed, the Holocaust cannot be adequately visualized in any one film and the Nazi KZ sites themselves only give an inkling of the genocide unless accompanied by educational tools. But memorial sites can have an emotional impact.
Travelling to Italy to see my parents in 1979, I and a fellow student stopped in Dachau at my suggestion. We spent several hours in the camp and museum, then talked for hours about German history as we drove on to a village in Austria where Thomas’s grandmother lived. I explained to him that Dachau was much like Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, the work camp where my father was incarcerated, but that inmates were not expected to survive. They were not extermination camps, like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. At his grandma’s I noticed several photos in the sitting room with young men in SS uniforms. When Thomas asked his grandma about them, she started beaming, proudly explaining that her husband had been Gauleiter; two of her sons (T’s uncles) were in the elite SS unit, Leibstandard Adolf Hitler. Thomas was in such shock that he had developed a psychosomatic illness by the time we got to Italy. Thomas associated his grandmother with care-free summer holidays as a child, and only now realized that his immediate family belonged to the front line perpetrators.
My own epiphany about the true extent of the Holocaust and the industrialized nature of the Nazi genocide came when I travelled to Oświęcim/Auschwitz in 1988. I had binge-watched Claude Lazmann’s Shoah (1986) on video, before screening it at George Eastman Museum, but even that film didn’t give me a sense of the monstrous geographic space of Birkenau’s death camp. First goingtoAuschwitz I (work camp), the tour began with a short Russian documentary, made in 1945, which did not even mention the word Jew and featured a Catholic funeral. Finding the death camp (Auschwitz II) also took some energy, since there was no signage anywhere. When I finally did, I couldn’t believe the size of the camp. The ramp was over a mile long. Just stunning. Another shock was to see that ordinary Poles were living in the house of Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, while other Poles lived in newer housing within 100 feet of the gas chambers. Seeing the real camp also made me realize that some of the most famous Holocaust films failed to differentiate between work and death camps, including classic examples, like Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948) or Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo(1960).
Given the fact that 63% of Millennials and GenX do not know that six million died in the Nazi genocide, we can never have enough films about the Holocaust.
If you want to sign up for email announcements of my blog, scroll down to the bottom of page 1 on this site.
Archival Spaces 261
My 50 Years in Film Studies
Uploaded 22 January 2021
After my freshman year at Ohio University, which ended prematurely with the Ohio National Guard occupying campus in the wake of the Kent State killings, I transferred to the University of Delaware, because my parents had moved there from Germany and I was able to attend as an in-State student. I still wasn’t sure whether I would declare English or History my major, but I did have to find off-campus housing, due to lack of dormitory space. One of my three flat mates at the Colonial Gardens Apartments was Joe Johnston, who had ambitions to become a filmmaker, so the apartment began filling up with film books, which I started to peruse. You mean one can actually study this stuff? I was intrigued by the mixed media – images and texts – of most film books at that time, but sensed only much later that this was in fact a new field, not overcrowded with dozens of dissertations on Shakespeare or the Franco-Prussian War.
I was not a film buff but a reader, although I had started going to Ohio U’s excellent campus film programs the year before, seeing a number of Ingmar Bergman films, which perplexed me, as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968), which infuriated me. And I did have an early epiphany about film’s power, when I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey (1968) in high school, which baffled and impressed me. In any case, in January 1971, the middle of my sophomore year, the University of Delaware instituted a new experimental “Winterim” program which allowed students to take a 1-3 credit, pass/no record course on a topic of interest, outside of the usual academic requirements. Joe and I discussed signing up for a lecture/film series dedicated to Sergei M. Eisenstein, then he disappeared to New York. I, of course, had no idea what I was getting myself into or that film study would morph into a fifty year professional career.
The Eisenstein course consisted of afternoon sessions, where Gerald R. Barrett lectured and discussed the assigned readings, followed by evening lectures and screenings open to the public. We met for the first time on January 6, 1971 with a screening of Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), accompanied by UD Professor Stephen Lukashevich’s lecture on Eisenstein’s use of Russian History, and ended with a screening of Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) and a lecture by Professor Barrett, summarizing the two week course. Barrett, who was teaching in the English Department as an ABD, had organized the course and was particularly interested in film studies, later becoming my first mentor.
There followed in quick succession, Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946), Strike (1925), Potemkin (1925), Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), The General Line (19239), ¡Que Viva Mexico! (1932) and Alexander Nevsky (1938). While most of the lectures were given by UD professors from the departments of history, art history, and music, Martin A. Gardner, a New York film critic, and John B. Kuiper, Head of the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, presented talks on Russian drama and The General Line, respectively.John had written his dissertation on Eisenstein at the University of Iowa in 1960. Ironically, I had no memory of him when we met four years later at LOC, while I was visiting as a George Eastman Museum intern; nor could I have anticipated that he would become my boss at GEM thirteen years later.
That lack of memory was probably connected to the fact that I was indeed totally over my head. Not only were all the prints dupey 16mm copies, probably rented from Audio-Brandon, but the silents were also shown without musical accompaniment, as was the practice at the time; no restorations with full orchestral scores. Hardly a great introduction for someone who had never seen a full-length silent film. That Eisenstein’s films are intellectually challenging, goes without saying, even if you possess the critical vocabulary, which I certainly didn’t. But I was fascinated, especially Potemkin, and Mother, the latter possibly because it more closely conformed to my underdeveloped viewing experience.
The assigned readings included excerpts from Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art, Ivor Montague’s Film World, Dwight MacDonald’s essay on Eisenstein and Pudovkin, as well as selections from Eisenstein’s Film Form, Film Sense, and Film Essays. The readings were also difficult for a beginner, especially the Eisenstein texts. I read, but it would take several years of rereading and reviewing, before I actually understood.
Another student in the Eisenstein course, George Stewart, became a life-long friend, and we both followed up by taking Jerry Barrett’s “Intro to the Art of Cinema” course in Spring semester of that year. For that course, I wrote a final research paper on the Czech New Wave, which had been getting a lot of press in America at that time. I had been in Prague until five days before the 21 August invasion in 1968. When I went to pick up my paper at the end of the semester – a habit students no longer engage in – Barrett ask me, whether he could publish it in a book he was writing on teaching film studies. The book never appeared, but now I was hooked, deciding to make film my career. I subsequently took a number of other film courses with Barrett and started writing film reviews for the UD student paper, The Review. I admit, I liked to see my name in print and loved watching movies. I was just waiting for Jay Cocks to move on at Time, so I could take his place.
If you want to sign up for email announcements of my blog, scroll down to the bottom of page 1
Archival Spaces 260
Restoration of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924)
Uploaded 8 January 2021
A courageous little distributor of classic and silent films, Flicker Alley has just released a blu-ray-DVD dual format edition of Paul Leni’s canonical Das Wachsfigurenkabinett / Waxworks (1924), directed by Paul Leni. This new digital restoration, carried out by the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin and the Cineteca di Bologna, offers a completely new visual experience. I had previously seen a number of different 35mm prints, while researching the German-Jewish photographer/cameraman, Helmar Lerski, but all of them originating from the nitrate master positive at the British Film Institute. Seeing Waxworks in this new digital version revealed many visual details previously hidden in the patina of the emulsion, but digitality has its own pitfalls.
Waxworks is considered by film historians to be a “pure” Expressionist film, like The Cabinet of Caligari and Genuine (1920), all films defined by their expressionist décor, visual design, and acting style, in contradistinction to more realistic Weimar era films, like The Last Laugh (1925) and Metropolis (1927), which have been said to display expressionist lighting and camera angles. Interestingly, Waxworks, as the last pure expressionist film, is also the first to highlight expressionist lighting, as it would be inherited by American film noir, thanks in no small part to Jewish émigrés from Berlin. Not surprisingly, Waxworks opens, like Caligari, on a fairground, a place of wonder in German cinema, as well as the first home of cinema.
Waxworks relates the stories of three historical figures, depicted in a fairground wax museum, Haroun al Rashied, the Caliph of Bagdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper. In the film’s frame story the attraction’s owner hires a young journalist to create stories for his wax figures, which in their cinematic incarnation are played by Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, and Werner Krauss, respectively, the three most famous actors of the era, while a young William Dieterle impersonates the writer. Interestingly, the three stories are not weighted evenly in terms of length – indeed a fourth episode, Rinaldo Rinaldini was never shot, due to budget issues, although the figure is clearly visible in the attraction’s line-up – nor are the episodes stylistically similar beyond some expressionist features.
The 1001 Nights sequence is relatively evenly lighted (except later night scenes), in order to highlight the outrageous set design, a riot of intestinal passageways, rotund architecture, oversized balloon-like headdresses, and obese bodies. The shorter Ivan the Terrible story intensifies the gaze on elongated, tortured bodies, their agony inscribed on faces in high key lighting. The final Jack-the-Ripper sequence turns the journalist narrator into a subject, as he dreams, the serial killer is stalking his sweetheart, the proprietor’s daughter. Only roughly five minutes in length, the sequence is a densely constructed series of superimpositions, in which the hero and heroine are haunted by the phantom image of Jack, the Ripper. Not only are the episodes shorter, but their central characters are progressively less developed with Werner Krauss literally a ghost without a solid body.
According to Jürgen Kasten’s Der expressionistische Film (1990), the Berlin premiere version of 12 November 1924, began with the Ivan episode, then Jack, then Haroun al Rashied, but was changed shortly after. Budget issues and a lawsuit by the screenwriter Henrik Galeen delayed the production which probably began in Summer 1922, and caused the elimination of Rinaldini, with shooting completed in November 1923.
It has long been my contention that Helmar Lerski, the film’s cinematographer has been unjustifiably ignored in favor of Paul Leni’s highly stylized and abstracted sets. While comedy and playful set design dominates the first story, the Ivan and Jack episodes, in particular, allow Lerksi to create filmic space solely with light, through high key close-ups and intensely lighted figures within a black frame. This manipulation of cinematic space through light matched Lerski’s practice of making close-up photographic portraits, for which he often used black velvet, wide-angle lenses, and a battery of Jupiter lamps and mirrors, to eliminate all superfluous visual information, and thus better explore the landscape of the face. The Jack the Ripper sequence’s almost cubist visual design, layering superimposition over superimposition, would not have been possible without Lerski’s framing of bodies against black back-drops.
The new restoration’s carnivalesque tinting and toning seems to emphasize the intense pools of light that structure the images (excepting the Haroun al Rashied episode), but digitality also flattens out space, thus intensifying the effects of Paul Leni’s abstract stage and costume design. Indeed, the tinting turns even scenes with movement from background to foreground into two-dimensional spaces, given the saturation of the tints. The digital image flattens space, obliterating any sense of fore and background, because scanners remove grain and sharpened all data, eliminating depth cues base on focus. But viewing habits are changing, so many may prefer such images.
Apart from the two discs (DVD & Blu-ray), the set includes a handsome booklet, an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Julia Wallmüller from the Deutsche Kinemathek about the restoration, a conversation with Kim Newman, as well as a bonus of Paul Leni’s short crossword puzzle films, Rebus-Films Nr. 1 (1926).
If you want to sign up for email announcements of my blog, scroll down to the bottom of page 1