LI STS AN D C HAI N ... Ethnic Cleansing, Holocaust Allegories and the Limits of Representation

Ethnic Cleansing, Holocaust Allegories and the Limits
of Representation
Résumé: S’interrogeant sur l’hypothèse généralement acceptée que l’image peut
libérer les discours réprimés, censurés ou marginalisés dans la sphère publique,
l’auteur utilise la notion de “l’image dialectique” élaborée par Walter Benjamin pour
examiner trois oeuvres: SA-Life, une anthologie de vidéos documentant les attaques
serbes sur Sarajevo; Sarajevo Ground Zero, une remise en contexte des même
vidéos pour diffusion en Amérique; et Schindler’s List de Steven Spielberg, film souvent décrit comme une allégorie de la guerre en Bosnie.
After the war we reassured ourselves that it would be enough to relate a single night in
Auschwitz, to tell of the cruelty, the senselessness of murder, and the outrage born of apathy; it would be enough to find the right word and the propitious moment to say it, to shake
humanity out of its indifference and to keep the torturer from torturing ever again…. A
naive undertaking? Of course. But not without a certain logic.
Elie Wiesel, “The Nobel Lecture”1
he plethora of films and videos to emerge from Bosnia in the wake of
its civil war points both to the power and impotency of images. In the
face of violent, genocidal actions, local filmmakers picked up video cameras in order to document events and bear witness to the atrocities that had
become such a large part of their day-to-day existence. While many of the
films and videos to emerge from and about Bosnia–especially from the
1993-94 period–address the inaction of the western world to the plight of
Bosnians, others document the genocide in the Balkans first-hand. Still
others attempt to shift the ideological paradigms of public discourse surrounding the war in the West from an “ethnic” perspective to one that centres on the right-wing nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic.
VOLUME 9 NO. 2 • FALL • AUTOMNE 2000 • pp 23-42
Yet, in this purported age of the hyper-real, where the multiplication
of images supposedly connects the viewer to a wired world which Marshall
McLuhan would have envied, it is imperative to reflect upon why the
images of atrocities that emerged from Bosnia failed to achieve the kinds
of political action and intervention that the producers wished to generate.
If one steps back and considers this divergence between intentionality and
reception, a series of questions emerge: Can images break down the barriers of self-censorship and denial often erected by viewers in the face of
images of atrocities? Can images provoke action by the State or within the
private and public spheres? How might these processes function? To begin
to understand the boundaries and barriers faced by present-day imagemakers in the Bosnian context, we might first consider one of the key historical antecedents, the representational quagmires created by efforts to
represent the Nazi Holocaust.
The irreducibility of such an incomprehensible event as the Holocaust to
a narrative “explanation” is apparent in any textual attempt to represent it.
For years, this dilemma has been central to the writings of Holocaust survivors and historians; Elie Wiesel’s Night, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz
and Art Spiegelman’s Maus are key examples of this struggle.2 The problem
these writers faced was not that they did not have stories to tell. Instead,
what Holocaust survivors and historians slowly noticed was that the
Holocaust could not be easily encapsulated: there was a multitude of stories to tell, and one inevitably led to the next as the writer tried to capture
images and moments which could embody the totality of the experience.
In the process, the texts of many Holocaust survivors became as much
about rewriting past histories, reconstructing past events, and turning
these events into archetypal narratives, as they were about examining the
past itself. This made sense, as it was the desire of these authors to both
keep the past alive and prevent it from repeating itself that drove their narratives and themselves forward.
In recent years, the study of how the Holocaust can be properly historised, narrativised, and remembered has come to the forefront of
Holocaust studies. Indeed, the notion of trauma has become a key issue in
the analysis of the Holocaust and memory. Unlike the first generation of
Holocaust historians who, as Levi noted, believed that to document just
one moment of the horror of Auschwitz would “shake humanity out of its
indifference,”3 the next generation of Holocaust historians concerned
themselves as much with the problems of historiography proper as with
24 Scott MacKenzie
the need to unproblematically document the past. Lawrence Langer, for
instance, argues that in re-telling the Holocaust, one must avoid the formal unity often found in traditional narrative-historical accounts, precisely so that one can avoid the need to totalise the experience.4 Others, such
as James Young, examine the often conflictual relationship that historians
have with video testimony, and the problems the historian faces with firstperson memories of the Holocaust standing in for the event as a whole.
Indeed, Young argues that video testimony does not provide us with access
to the historical events embodied within the recounted narrative of the
survivor; instead, it offers the viewer an account of “the making of testimony and [the survivor’s] unique understanding of events.”5 Here, the context of memory becomes as important as the context of events. While it is
beyond the scope of this essay to survey all the relevant debates on trauma, memory, post-memory and the Holocaust, it is instructive to note that
the kinds of theoretical debates which surround the events of fifty years
ago have a current resonance in the wake of the civil war in the former
While the works of Holocaust historians of both generations attempt
to bear witness to the horror of the Holocaust and struggle with the contradictory problems inherent in both representing genocide and the limits
of historiographic practice, other writers on the Holocaust have used the
boundaries which exist at the limits of representation to their own ends.
Here, I am thinking about the various forms of historical revisionism that
have developed in Germany and elsewhere since the 1970s. German writers and historians, such as Ernst Nolte and Michael Stürmer, have consistently argued that the Holocaust be seen as part of larger historical movements, such as modernisation and industrialisation, or as one among many
twentieth century genocides.7 Indeed, these debates have filtered their
way into German popular culture, with the wide-spread success of films
such as Joachim C. Fest and Christian Herrendoefer’s Hitler: A Career (Hitler:
eine Karriere, West Germany, 1977). The effect that these texts have is one
of historical stabilisation, where the Holocaust becomes a narrative with
reasons, causes, beginnings, middles and ends.
Saul Friedländer contends that this drive to narrate and understand
began in Germany during the war and continues, in different forms, to this
day. He writes that the function of these texts is “to put the past back into
bearable dimensions, superimpose it upon the known and respected
progress of human behaviour, put it in the identifiable course of things,
into the unmysterious march of ordinary history, into the reassuring world
of the rules that are the basis of our society–in short, into conformism and
conformity.”8 Friedländer sees the drive to narrate and normalise the
Holocaust as an attempt to absolve Germany of its sins, to bring about
what Jürgen Habermas, writing about revisionist German histories, has
called “a kind of settling of damages.”9 In this context, “explanation” is
equated with the repressive nature of Rankean historical narratives of
“progress.” This repressive elision is what concerned Walter Benjamin
when he contended that, “[T]here is never a document of culture that is
not simultaneously a document of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free
of barbarism, so barbarism taints the tradition through which it has been
transmitted….”10 Historical narratives of progress, then, elide the complexities and hierarchies of lived experience and in doing so, do violence
to these very experiences.
More recently, these dilemmas in regard to representation have become a
concern for both filmmakers and cultural critics. In an age where film and
media theorists see the proliferation of images in culture as both utopian
and apocalyptic, concern over the image’s ability to both capture and
obliterate the real becomes paramount, and Holocaust cinema magnifies
such issues of representation as the audience’s potential belief in the ontological certitude of the image, the oft-cited “immediacy” of film, and realist cinema’s supposed power to replicate the “real.” Yet, paradoxically, cinematic images, especially within a narrative context, are often replications
of other images, of other mediated texts, which already exist in tandem
with historical pasts and our understanding of them. Because of these tensions within realist, representational images, the mimetic powers of the
cinema seem to give out in the face of the unimaginable reality of the
Holocaust. Nevertheless, Holocaust films continue to attempt to understand the Nazi atrocities by recreating the era, the images, the events.11
Documentary film does not offer an escape from this quandary. The
use of archival images of the camps, recontextualised in order to “reconstruct” the Holocaust, is the key example of this process of narrative stabilisation within non-fiction Holocaust films. At first glance, it would seem
that these images would offer the viewer unmediated access to the historical moment. Yet, in this context, the problematic equation of sight with
knowledge becomes particularly acute. An image, be it photographic or
cinematic, no matter how immediate, has little explanatory value of its
own without recontextualisation, which typically involves discursive practices such as inter-titles, talking heads, and voice-overs. It is these devices,
more so than the images themselves, that give the text a context.
26 Scott MacKenzie
Drawing upon Roland Barthes’ writings on the photograph, Susan
Sontag argues that the use of archival footage leads to the necessity to
“anchor” the image. In her analysis of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film
From Germany (Hitler: eine Film aus Deutschland, West Germany, 1977), Sontag
To simulate atrocity convincingly is to risk making the audience passive, reinforcing witless stereotypes, confirming distance, and creating fascination…. Like its simulation as fiction, the display of atrocity in the form of photographic evidence risks being tacitly pornographic. Further, the truths it conveys, unmediated, about the past
are slight. Film clips of the Nazi period cannot speak for themselves;
they require a voice–explaining, commenting, interpreting. But the
relation of the voice-over to a film document, like the caption of a
still photograph, is merely adhesive.12
In Barthes’ own words, “[T]he text constitutes a parasitic message designed
to connote the image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second-order signifiers. In other words…, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now
the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image.”13 This process of
anchorage necessarily removes the image from its position as historical
sign and recontextualises it into the present-day discourse of the new cinematic text.
Given these unresolved issues of representation and the fact that films
and videos continue to be made about the Holocaust and other atrocities,
such as the more recent events in Bosnia, perhaps it would be best to adopt
a different tactic in examining Holocaust films as cultural artefacts–beginning with the recognition that they are, more often than not, sites of great
contestation as to their meanings and functions. To examine how Holocaust
images, “images of the unrepresentable,” manifest themselves as sites of
cultural contestation, I wish to turn to two texts: first, an anthology of
videos entitled SA-Life (Bosnia, 1993), which was assembled by Bosnian
director Ademir Kenovic of SaGA (Sarajevo Group of Authors) in order to
document the Serbian attacks in war-torn Sarajevo, and then, Steven
Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (USA, 1993).
One of the key image inter-texts continuously invoked to contextualise
the images emerging from the Bosnian war was their perceived association
with images from the Vietnam War. And indeed, there are some similarities,
An example of informational captions in Sarajevo Ground Zero.
to the extent that the images coming out of Bosnia were not as “controlled”
or censored as those of America’s post-Viet Nam engagement in the
Persian Gulf. Yet the Gulf war itself changed the reception of the images
that came out of Bosnia; in 1990s America, images were trusted far less
than those of the newscasts of the 1960s and ‘70s.14 Indeed, this distrust
led Jean Baudrillard to famously proclaim that the “Gulf War did not take
place.”15 It was the explicit intention of the video-makers associated with
SaGA to challenge the apathy of the “viewing public” after the Gulf war
and to off-set the effects of media news outlets (most notoriously CNN),
which in many ways turned events of both major and minor importance
into “media events.” Consequently, SaGA’s videos offer us the chance to
examine both the strengths and limitations of alternative media attempting to intervene directly in the public sphere.
SA-Life and its American cousin, Sarajevo Ground Zero: SaGA’s Films of
Crime and Resistance (1993), attempt to synthesise the use of the camera as
witness and as political tool. In this synthesis, the processes of production
and distribution are as important as the images themselves. SA-Life, argues
director Ademir Kenovic, is a political act which documents the past in
order to change the present, so that a different future can be imagined. A
New York Times article on SA-Life states that “in terms of sheer shock value…,
Kenovic’s film [sic] might qualify as the Rodney King video of the Bosnian
28 Scott MacKenzie
From “Military Promotional Films For the City’s Defence,” Sarajevo Ground Zero.
war.”16 This implies that Kenovic’s tape, because of its graphic nature and
the immediacy of its images, will produce mass and multiple responses
within both dominant and alternative public spheres and that whatever
knowledge can be derived from the text will pale in comparison to the
excess of meanings that will proliferate around the images themselves.
No doubt, these discourses will be different inside and outside of
Bosnia. This is magnified by the fact that the tape was edited and distributed in markedly different forms in Bosnia and in North America. In
Bosnia, the compilation video offered stark and violent images from the
streets of Sarajevo, with no commentary or explanation beyond the
diegetical material within the videos themselves. These videos are incredibly diverse, including: Blood and Water, a harrowing video in which a truck
drives up and collects mortared bodies in the street (this is cinéma vérité at
its most extreme, as one of the men collecting the bodies looks at the camera and picks up a flap of skin from the top of a shattered skull to reveal
the teeth. The camera then begins to shake uncontrollably); Wedding in
Sarajevo, a video diary of a young woman who marries the corpse of her
lover and subsequently finds out she’s pregnant; Confession of a Monster, an
interview with a 20-year-old trained killer who confesses to mass rapes and
murders; Military Promotional Films For the City’s Defense, a self-professed “propaganda” video to promote and recruit for a civil militia to defend the city
The bride-widow-mother-to-be in “Wedding in Sarajevo,” Sarajevo Ground Zero.
from Serbian nationalists; and Help Bosnia Now, a “Do They Know it’s
Christmas?”/Band Aid style rock video, set in the devastated Olympic Park
in Sarajevo.
SaGA’s project is diametrically opposed to that of someone like
Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah (France, 1985) who, in his scathing
critique of Schindler’s List, writes: “If I had stumbled on a real SS film–a secret
film, because filming was strictly forbidden–that showed how 3,000 Jewish
men, women and children were gassed in Auschwitz’s crematorium 2, not
only would I not have shown it but I would have destroyed it.”17 The filmmakers of SaGA, on the other hand, believe that any positive action within the public sphere that can result from their images of horror makes their
distribution worthwhile. In fact, SaGA uses a variety of approaches: while
Blood and Water resembles the kind of footage Lanzmann would destroy,
Confessions of a Monster’s closest aesthetic cousin is Lanzmann’s own Shoah.
Kenovic was willing to recycle these images in many formats, in order to
address as many publics as possible. For instance, some images were recycled for the art-cinema circuit in a film directed by Kenovic–along with
Ismet Arnautalic, Mirsa Idrizovic and Pjer Zalica–entitled MGM Sarajevo:
Man, God and Monster (MGM Sarajevo: Covjek, Bog, Monstrum, Bosnia, 1994).
The SaGA directors, therefore, regarded affect as the most important
aspect of their work, and were willing to produce very different videos for
30 Scott MacKenzie
Susan Sontage interviewed in Sarajevo Ground Zero.
the highly contrasting audiences they imagined they might possibly reach.
Indeed, it could be argued that the Bosnian directors modified
Benedict Anderson’s notion of national identity as imagined community.
Instead of identifying a national community, they identified cinematic
ones that shared a common language (in this case, cinema aesthetics) and
imagined what the preferred mode of address for each audience grouping
would be. In the Bosnian context, these videos were shot as documents and
diaries, as ways of preserving the actions undertaken in Sarajevo.
Watching them, one can not help but feel both drawn in and divorced
from the events on the screen. Much of this has to do with the fact that
the extra-textual context needed to understand the images, beyond their
sheer shock value, is tied to the lived experience of the Bosnian context.
After a public screening in Bosnia, Hrvoje Batinic, of the Open Society
Fund in Sarajevo, stated, “I think [the videos are] important as [a] document for the times that will come. I have seen my very life, I mean, that’s
the truth what we saw. That’s what we [are] living in Sarajevo. It was transferred in the movie. The whole complex of feelings and emotions.”18
Clearly, these videos reaffirm the ontological certainty that the
Bosnians already had in relation to their lived experience. They supposedly reflect all the complexities that one feels in a city under siege, but this
has much more to do with the projections of the viewers than with the
The opening of “Confessions of a Monster,” Sarajevo Ground Zero.
videos themselves. The videos, on their own, are somewhat atemporal, as
they need the contexts of the audiences’ experiences to complete their
meanings. The comparison between Kenovic’s tape and the Rodney King
video is instructive: if political action can ensue from images, then it
emerges from discourses exterior to the tape itself, although the images on
the tape can function as a prompt–if a highly contingent one–for contestatory readings of the images in the public sphere.
These images of Sarajevo first made their way to Western Europe and
North America via the film festival circuit, with screenings at the Cannes,
San Francisco and Montréal film festivals, among others. For these screenings, German director Werner Herzog and American Zoetrope producer
Tom Luddy (producer of Apocalypse Now! [USA, 1979], among many other
films) helped Kenovic re-edit the video images. This process, however, did
not involve re-editing the video themselves; instead, Herzog and Kenovic
concentrated on the order of the different segments. Both filmmakers
believed that screening these images, which they claimed were not “diluted” in the manner of the evening news, would provoke social and political
awareness, and therefore action within the public sphere. However, their
greatest imperative was simply for the images to be seen—as if seeing the
images would be enough to prompt the spectators to take action. As
Herzog stated, “There has always been a lot of superficiality in the daily
32 Scott MacKenzie
The “monster” confessing in Sarajevo Ground Zero.
news coverage. Everything going on there [in Sarajevo] is kind of shocking. You can’t get accustomed to it. This is part of the chronicle, and
whether it’s boring or not, melodramatic or not, or moving or not, it must
be shown.”19
When these tapes were offered for television broadcast in the United
States, major network news organisations would not air them, despite their
positive critical reception at film festivals. The networks were “done” with
Bosnia. Part of this rejection had to do with the videos’ ideological point
of view. A press release describing the video states, “Throughout this war,
SaGA, a multi-ethnic group of Bosnian filmmakers, has braved the bullets
and the mortars to document and explain what’s happening to the society
they know best. Based in Sarajevo, they have produced startling films
reflecting their own perspective, that this is not an ethnic war but aggression by right-wing nationalists.”20 American media, however, when it
referred to the Bosnian conflict at all, continued to characterize the
Bosnian war as an ethnic conflict, rhetorically distancing it from the concerns of the West.
Consequently, American director and independent television
producer Danny Schechter re-edited the images into a news magazine and
renamed them Sarajevo Ground Zero (USA, 1993), which was distributed as
the first “video chain letter,” a decision that was taken after the news netLISTS AN D CHAI N LETTERS
works turned down the broadcast of Globalvision’s production. That is,
Schechter and Kenovic decided to send out copies of the video free and
ask the recipients to pass them on, make dubs, and request further copies.
The flyer, which came with the video chain letter, had the following heading: “If you lived in Bosnia, you might be dead already.” The flyer goes on
to say,
Most chain letters are idiotic. Or a way of having fun. This one is
serious. Deadly serious. It is about a city and its people. Who face
death. In this holiday season of 1993. Sarajevo is the city. Genocide
is the threat. No joke. That’s why we have sent you this video tape.
So that you can’t say you didn’t know. So you will act. And get your
government to respond. A documentary that TV stations won’t
show. Please watch it. Bosnians are “living” it. Show it to at least five
friends. Alert the Press. Lives are at stake. Don’t Break the Chain.21
By re-packaging SA-Life into a “video chain letter,” Schechter and Kenovic
changed the format of the video drastically: clips were included from the
Bosnian videos shot by SaGA, but talking heads such as New York Times correspondent John Burns and author Susan Sontag (who was directing
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo) were added. Burns and
Sontag, among others, are present to give the images a context that would
be palatable for North American viewers.
Yet, in this context, the images are secondary to the voices. The existence of the videotapes is celebrated without many of the images themselves being present; whenever the images are about to become too graphic, too “real,” the video cuts away to another talking head. For instance, at
the moment of the most harrowing scene in Blood and Water (where we see
the mortared heads and the camera shaking uncontrollably), there is a cut
to John Burns explaining the scene, so that his commentary, rather than
the image, carries the moral and political weight of the video. To some
extent, this was an attempt to de-politicise the videos, or, more precisely,
to recontextualise their discourses into a point of view that could, on a formal level, parallel the kinds of strategies deployed by dominant American
media conglomerates. This, however, did not change the dominant media’s
attitude toward Bosnia, and it is to this issue that I wish to turn now.
If both the American and Bosnian versions of the footage are inadequate means of generating an understanding of Bosnia, what is left? As Ron
Burnett reminds us, “Images, whether they be video or film, generate the
possibility of meaning and communication. They invent and reinvent
34 Scott MacKenzie
more often than they depict. These processes of transformation may not
naturally open up discursive spaces for audiences and may not lead to the
kind of exchanges and interchanges that produce the possibility of social,
cultural, and political change.”22 What is left, then, is not images themselves, but the process of distribution. The “video chain letter” is based on
the premise that the simple existence and distribution of images will lead
to social awareness and political intervention. It does not matter if the
images offer access to the “real” in an unmediated fashion; what matters is
their circulation in a manner whereby each viewer decides who the next
one will be, and thereby becomes part of a process which builds a web of
connections that is intended to produce discourse and action in the public
sphere, away from the video monitor. Image-makers, then, no longer need
to be concerned with “accurate” representations of the unrepresentable;
instead they should be concerned with distributing their images in ways
that generate discussion, debate, and affinities within the public sphere.
If SA-Life is an attempt to use a variety of image-making and distribution
strategies to intervene in the public sphere, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List
is an attempt to engage a variety of cultural discourses with images
designed for mass audiences attending commercial movie houses.
Spielberg’s film is concerned with the image as fact, as simulation, as allegory, as metaphor, and as testament. It becomes, therefore, a site for many
debates about the nature of representation and about image-making as a
short-cut to political awareness and action.
Quoted in a New Yorker article, Jeffrey Katzenberg, then CEO of Walt
Disney Studios (now a partner with Spielberg in Dreamworks SKG), says,
“I think Schindler’s List…will affect how people on this planet think and
act…. I don’t want to burden the movie too much, but I think it will bring
peace on earth, good will to men. Enough of the right people will see it
that it will actually set the course of world affairs.”23 This belief that the
reconstruction of a partially-imagined past will somehow inevitably affect
the future is endemic to the discourses surrounding Schindler’s List. Spielberg
encouraged this over-investment in the image through his attempt to
adopt the aesthetic style of a 1940s newsreel, and thereby offer viewers the
ontological certitude that supposedly accompanies images presented as
accurate representations of the past. While the images may be fictional,
they are regarded as “realist” fictional images. But what does “realist” mean
in this context? It would seem to mean that the image conveys the “truth”
or, more appropriately, the appearance of the “truth” of actual historical
events. As Jonathan Alter of Newsweek put it, “Across the world, moviegoers believe Oliver Stone’s myths about the Kennedy assassination. If there’s
any justice, these same millions will now believe Spielberg’s truths about
the concentration camps.”25 The power of the realist image, in this
instance, is envisioned as transcending politics, ideology and the real.
If we are to take in any way seriously this view of Schindler’s List, the
notion of myth needs to be expanded upon from its vernacular definition.
Of use here is the work of Walter Benjamin who, in his “Theses on the
Philosophy of History,” and his incomplete Passegen-werk, proposed a
dialectical model of history which embraced the roles played by myth and
the commodity in his mapping of what he called the “dialectical image.” In
brief, the four different, but inter-related historical functions of the “dialectical image” can be schematised in the following manner: as “natural history,” the cultural artefact holds the trace (Spur) of its past to the time of its
production; as “mythic history,” it embodies the fetish of what it has
become, displaced from its mode of production and cut off from its trace;
as “historical nature,” the cultural artefact functions as allegory or as a ruin,
representing the historical past through the context of the present; and as
“mythic nature,” it functions as the wish image of the future projected onto
the cultural artefact.26
Benjamin’s conceptualisation of the “dialectical image” gives us insight
into images of an historical moment like the Holocaust, which is both necessarily historically specific (a unique event in history) and trans-historical
(we cannot concentrate on its specificity to such an extent that we disregard recurring genocides and repeat the mistakes of the past) and therefore requires a model which points to the inter-relatedness of the past and
present. For, the simulation of the past in Schindler’s List is, in fact, a discourse of both the past and present and a wish image of the future. The film
is about “now,” not just “then,” and about understanding the “now” through
the transparency of the simulated past. As “natural history,” the film is tied
to the historical past and the present of production, to Spielberg’s desire to
bear witness to the Holocaust. Yet, Spielberg also wishes to re-invent the
past in a present-day context. As “mythic history,” the black-and-white
images of the cinematic past are Spielberg’s historical traces transformed
into a fetish of what has come to stand in for the Holocaust.
In many ways, archival images function as Spielberg’s memory of the
Holocaust–the same role that Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity
(France, 1970) and Hotel Terminus (USA, 1987), Alfred Hitchcock’s Memory
of the Camps (UK, 1945/rel. 1985) and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (France,
1955) play in contemporary culture. J. Hoberman picks up on these issues
36 Scott MacKenzie
when he writes, “In an age when even children understand that the image
of an event transcends the event itself, Schindler’s List is obviously more than
just a movie.” But just what is this excess? Hoberman goes on to state,
“Why does it take a Hollywood fiction to make the Holocaust ‘undeniable’? Is it true that movies have the power to permanently alter history?”27
Is it indeed? The fact that the past can be linked to and through images does
not necessarily mean that it will be permanently altered; instead, it points to
the role of images as sites of mediation and memory within culture.
In Benjamin’s terms, then, “natural history” is tied to “mythic history”
when the film stands in for the moment it supposedly represents.
However, Schindler’s List glosses over many of the particulars of the historical past in favour of a present-day re-articulation of the events. As
Spielberg states, “I recreated these events, and then I experienced them as
any witness or victim would have. It wasn’t like a movie.”28 Here, the lines
between “natural” and “mythic” history, the historical past and its reconstruction, are blurred. They become more so with comments such as, “The
SS had a lot of marksmen, and just for fun, placing bets, they threw babies
out the windows alive and shot them like skeet. I wouldn’t show that in the
movie. I couldn’t, even with dolls.”29 Beyond the highly problematic slippage Spielberg engages in here on both the discursive and symbolic level
(as he implies he couldn’t throw dolls or real babies out the window to
recreate this image in his film), he also divorces past from present through
simulation: what Spielberg believes actually happened is secondary to the
kind of images he feels he can show and recreate.
The film also addresses present-day reality. As “historical nature,” the
text supposedly addresses the present of Bosnia: the Nazi Holocaust
becomes a meta-narrative on ethnic cleansing today. The film has certainly been discussed along these lines, but this discourse is obviously historically contingent and, for the most part, extra-textual. Through extra-textuality, Schindler’s List has become a crucible into which any and all takes on
the Holocaust, on ethnic cleansing, and on suffering in general can be
poured. As a film about the Holocaust, it is referred to in headlines such
as, “Germany has a date with its past at Schindler Opening”30; as allegory,
it has been described by Spielberg as a response to ethnic cleansing in
Bosnia; and as a text on pain and suffering in general, it is, Spielberg
claims, “no more a Jewish story or a German story than it is a human story.
It is simply about racial hatred.”31 Depending on the context, then,
Schindler’s List takes on a multitude of cultural functions that are called upon
to contextualise the present through the memory of the past. As “historical nature,” the film addresses the process of understanding in the present
through the re-articulation and re-interpretation of the past: the past
becomes an allegory for the present. The immediacy of the black-andwhite images signifies “history” and, in a paradoxical way, makes the
images seem more relevant to the present. Or as Benjamin wrote, “Every
image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own
concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”32
Finally, to extend the analysis of Schindler’s List as “dialectical image,”
one could argue that as “mythic nature,” Schindler’s List is the wish image of the
future; this is where Katzenberg’s hyperbolic discourse is relevant. The
over-investment in the commodity, in the image, as the way out of the present and into the future, speaks to the utopian desire for change and social
action, but also to the inability to act in a revolutionary manner. Schindler’s
List, then, can be seen as a text of the Holocaust that, within the public
sphere, demonstrates utopian possibilities by going beyond the particulars
of the narrative and offering audiences the potentiality of analysing cultural events trans-temporally. Yet we must remain cautious. Although the
film recombines past, present, and potentialities of the future, but is not a
text of elision in the sense that Friedländer describes, we must remember
that watching a film is not, in and of itself, a revolutionary act: actions
must proceed from the viewing experience.
Furthermore, the role of the image as “dialectical image” does not necessarily mean that the tensions and ambiguities found in representation
inevitably open up progressive discursive spaces. In one of the last statements he made, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda stated,
Gentlemen, in a hundred years’ time they will be showing another
fine…film describing the terrible days we are living through. Don’t
you want to play a part in this film, to be brought back to life in a
hundred years’ time? Everybody now has the chance to choose the
part which he will play in the film a hundred years hence. I can
assure you that it will be a fine and elevating picture.33
What is perhaps surprising about this statement is that Goebbels was not
specifically addressing the collapsing German war effort, but instead making reference to Viet Harlan’s Kolberg (Germany, 1945)–a German Gone
With theWind–a film that was supposedly made as an allegory for the defensive position Germany found itself in at the end of the war.34 Kolberg
rewrote history for the most unscrupulous of reasons. We should take heed
of Goebbel’s statement as a commentary on the power of the historical
image in the cinema.
38 Scott MacKenzie
Indeed, to a certain extent Goebbels believed in the power of the
image along the same lines as Benjamin, Spielberg, and Kenovic. This is
not to claim that Benjamin, Spielberg or Kenovic demonstrate fascist tendencies; instead, it is to point to the fact that politicians, propagandists,
filmmakers and philosophers, on both the left and the right, attempt to use
the complex powers of the moving image–and, more specifically, the
image’s ability to capture the illusion of the real in all its myriad contradictions–to their own ends.
Again, without tarring Spielberg or Kenovic with a fascist brush, it is
worth noting that, as David Thompson writes, “Schindler’s List is a very good
movie, good enough to let us realise that movies are never good enough
and that they threaten to replace life. We should never forget that in its
short history the medium has regularly appealed to fascists, the ideology
that treasured showmanship.”35 It is therefore theoretically important and
politically imperative to keep the tensions which lie under the surface of
the moving image alive in a dialectical manner, and to recognize that in
recasting the real world into the “real” of the cinematic image, filmmakers
can re-imagine the world, but they can also relegate it to the totalising
realm of a propagandistic simulacra.
Elie Wiesel, among others, has argued that the major conundrum facing
the writers of Holocaust literature is “How is one to tell a tale that cannot
be–but must be–told?” He does not have an answer to this question,
except, perhaps, to continue to write in spite of the conundrum, and perhaps this sheds some light on the use of film and video as a means of political intervention. Direct, causalist models of the production of meaning
should be questioned, but the creation of these texts must continue, as
they are sites where, perhaps, the dialogues brought forth by the images
can lead, in a highly varied and contingent manner, to social action.
François Truffaut, writing about Resnais’ film, states, “For a few hours, Night
and Fog wipes out the memory of all other films.”36 The question we are left
with is what happens after those few hours? The cinema is again the mediator here, and not the “real.” How can we go beyond the confines of the
screening room and therefore beyond the confines of another set of
images as cultural sites for our experiences? Should films like Night and Fog
or Schindler’s List or Blood and Water wipe out the memory of other images, or
have us re-invest in histories and experiences that we, more often than not,
gloss over in our daily existence?
While we must continue to have a healthy scepticism towards the
images we consume, at the same time, audiences must also be cautiously
receptive to the highly contested and conflicting discourses they can, at
times, bring about in the public sphere. We should examine the image as
a means to enter into a dialectical relationship with the present and the
past, to uproot historical determinacy and to hear and see the way the past
echoes through the present. To gain insight into what takes place in the
world today, to understand both Bosnia and revisionist histories, we must
use images and the ambiguities, controversies and contingencies they raise
as starting points in cultural critiques, not as ends in themselves. Echoing
Benjamin, Jean Cayrol’s final voice-over in Resnais’ Night and Fog, is instructive in relation to the questions posed by history, representation, and the
The crematorium is no longer in use. The devices of the Nazis are
out of date. Nine million dead haunt this landscape. Who is on the
lookout from this strange tower to warn us of the new executioners?
Are their faces really that different from our own? Somewhere
among us there are lucky Kapos, reinstated officers, and unknown
informers. And there are those of us who refuse to believe this from
time to time. We look at these ruins as if the old concentration camp
monster were dead under the debris. Those of us who pretend to
take hope as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the
plague of these camps. Those who pretend to believe that this all
happened in one time and one place, and who do not think to look
around us, or hear the endless cry.37
Given the most recent Balkan war, it is obvious that Spielberg’s film did not
fulfil the utopian promise envisioned by Jeffrey Katzenberg. SaGA’s videos
also did not prevent further ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And documentary and fictional images–images as a means of testament, of propaganda, of patriotism–were used by both sides of the conflict to further
their aims (the most recent and perhaps most bizarre example of this is the
broadcast of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather [1972], Oliver Stone’s
Salvador [1986] and Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men [1974] on Serbian
television as anti-American propaganda).38 Despite the limitations of representation, images of atrocities still do offer us the possibility of dialoguing with the image, and in doing so, offer us a model of how images can
function in a political manner within the public sphere.
40 Scott MacKenzie
Elie Wiesel, “The Nobel Lecture” in Wiesel, From The Kingdom of Memory (New York:
Schocken, 1990), 244-245.
See Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Collier,
1959); Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (New York: Pantheon, 1991); and Elie
Wiesel, Night (London: Penguin, 1961).
Levi, 244.
Lawrence Langer, “Preliminary Reflections on the Videotaped Interviews at the Yale
Archive for Holocaust Testimonies,” Facing History and Ourselves News (Winter 1985):
James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences
of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 171.
An excellent survey of the debates surrounding memory and the Holocaust can be
found in Berel Lang, The Future of the Holocaust: Between History and Memory (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1999).
See, for instance, Ernst Nolte, “Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will,” Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, 6 June 1986.
Saul Friedländer, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, trans. Thomas
Weyr (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 106-107.
Jürgen Habermas, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate,
trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 229-240.
Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 288.
These debates are covered in great detail in Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film
and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Susan Sontag, “Preface” in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Hitler: A Film From Germany (New
York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1982), x.
Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message” in Stephen Heath, ed. Image/Music/Text
(London: Fontana, 1975), 25.
The issue of how the coverage of the Gulf War changed America’s perception of media
coverage in general, and how the viewer’s relationship to the image on the screen was
therefore radically redefined, is ably covered in Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV War
(Boulder: Westview Press, 1992).
Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1995).
Andrew Meier, “In Sarajevo, a Video View Taped from Ground Zero,” The New York
Times, 23 May 1993.
Claude Lanzmann, “Why Spielberg Has Distorted the Truth,” Guardian Weekly, 3 April
1994: 14.
Quoted in Sarajevo Ground Zero: SaGA’s films of Crime and Resistance (video, USA,
1993, Ademir Kenovic and Danny Schecter).
Meier, 1993.
SaGA/Globalvision press release, “The First ‘Video Chain Letter’ to Save a City,”
December 1993.
Ron Burnett, “Video/Film: From Communication to Community,” in Nancy Thede and
Alain Ambrosi, eds. Video the Changing World (Montréal: Black Rose, 1991), 60.
Stephen Schiff, “Seriously Spielberg,” The New Yorker, 21 March 1994: 98.
The practice of invoking the Holocaust in black and white or sepia tones in order to allegorically index the “real” has flourished since the release of Spielberg’s film. The most
recent example can be found in Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), where the real historical
moment of the Holocaust is invoked in sepia tones at the beginning of the film to parallel, in an allegorical manner, the oppression of the fictionalised Mutants later in the film.
Jonathan Alter, “After the Survivors,” Newsweek, 20 December 1993: 115.
Buck-Morss, 211-212.
J. Hoberman, “Myth, Movie and Memory,” The Village Voice, 29 March 1994: 24.
David Ansen, “Spielberg’s Obsession,” Newsweek, 20 December 1993: 115.
John F. Richardson, “Steven’s Choice,” Premiere, January 1994: 92.
Claudia Eller and Marjorie Miller, “Germany has a Date With its Past at Schindler
Opening,” Montréal Gazette, 1 March 1994: C5.
Associated Press, “‘Pain is Pain’: Spielberg Tells Students Schindler’s List is About All
Racism,” Montréal Gazette, 13 April 1994: C1.
Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Benjamin, Illuminations:
Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken, 1955), 255.
Quoted in Rudolph Semmler, Goebbels: The Man Next to Hitler (London: Westhouse,
1947), 194.
To make this film, Goebbels redirected as many as 5,000 troops from the Western front,
to be used as extras. See David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema 19331945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 234.
Thompson, 50.
François Truffaut, The Films of My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew (New York: Touchstone,
1978), 304.
Jean Cayrol, “Nuit et brouillard: Texte intégral” L’Avant scène du cinéma 1 (1961): 54.
Translated as “Night and Fog,” in Robert Hughes, ed., Film: Book 2—Films of Peace and
War, trans. Robert Hughes and Merle Worth (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 255.
Maggie O’Kane, “One Man in The Bullseye,” The Guardian, 10 April 1999: 5.
SCOTT MACKENZIE is Lecturer of Film and Television Studies at the
University of East Anglia. He is co-editor of Cinema and Nation
(Routledge, 2000). His most recent work has appeared in Public, p.o.v. and
Screen, and he is presently completing a book-length study of Québécois
cinema, national identity and the public sphere.
42 Scott MacKenzie