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The world is full of spirits – there is a world beyond our imagination. Who knows what lives between heaven and earth – between life and death. Who knows where souls go when death finally arrives. All animistic cultures believe in the soul and in spirits. Japan has its Shinto religion which builds a perfect spiritual background for the traditional and the new ghost stories – a culture in its own right. But we do not have to turn to the Far East… At the end of the Nineties we witnessed the rise of another cinematic new wave: the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers. These films – among them THE OTHERS, THE NAMELESS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE – create a special vision du monde, influenced by catholic ideas of guilt and sacrifice, occult rituals, and ancient myths. This article will try to shed some light on this phenomenon and present the key elements of a special kind of European suspense cinema that is slowly but steadily acquiring a cult following.

Abandoned souls

A mother, Grace (Nicole Kidman), and her two children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) are living at a lonely country estate. It is the year 1944, briefly before the end of World War II. Walls of fog are covering the English countryside in autumn. Grace’ father and her husband are missing in action, the house-keepers have mysteriously disappeared. Out of the blue, it seems, a trio of caretakers appears at the estate: a friendly old lady, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a mute girl (Elaine Cassidy), and a grumpy old butler, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes). They could not have been aware that Grace was looking for servants, but as they are in the right place at the right time, they are hired… This is the beginning of Alejandro Amenabar’s film THE OTHERS (2001), a gothic dream-play inspired by Henry James’ classic novella of psychological horror ‘The Turn of the Screw’. This is a least what it seems…

But the young mother has more severe problems: her children both have a deadly allergy to light. They have to live in darkness by day, the curtains must be closed all the time. In their isolation the children seem to have developed a disturbing obsession: they report strange noises, curtains are opening and closing by themselves, piano music is playing… A family of ghosts seems to visit them from time to time. As the film lingers through the gothic twilight of the foggy surroundings, Grace tries to unveil the secret. Some day her husband returns home, but his behaviour is as strange as everything in the house. He is apathetic, like a living dead person. And finally the housekeepers are threatening the children.

The last sequence presents one final twist to the almost classical storyline: the point of view changes to neutral observation and it turns out that we have spent one and a half hour with a family of ghosts. All the obsessions and neuroses find their explanation in the fact that the ‘ghost’ haunting the mansion are the real people living in the house, who are not aware of their neighbours in another dimension. THE OTHERS is not a real terror-movie but a highly stylised drama about the loneliness of abandoned souls, living in a half-world between our world and the beyond. Amenabar created a sterile surrounding, often missing any atmospheric sound, totally reduced to elementary sounds. The visuals are dominated by brownish and golden colours, often washed out, monochromatic, sometimes covered by rising mist. THE OTHERS live in a world between the boundaries: a world of fog and darkness. But they still have the urge to preserve their essential family values. Grace desperately tries to save the family. She is blind to the fact that everyone around her is devoid of life and vitality. Amenabar’s film breaks the rules of ‘reliable narration’ that genre-film normally depends on. But at the same time his film does not lie. He simply demonstrates the subjectivity of cognition and narration. THE OTHERS is not a film about death – it is in fact a film identifying with the dead, a bleak portrait of useless longing for life.

Even in his earlier cinematic efforts, Amenabar concentrated on the darkest aspects of existence: TESIS (1996) is a tense thriller about snuff-films produced at a film school. As a female student realizes that a teacher and other students are involved in this macabre project she finally has to fear for her life. OPEN YOUR EYES (1999) – which was remade in the USA as VANILLA SKY (2002) – tells the baffling story of a successful womaniser (Eduardo Noriega) who is trapped between two different women, one of which tries to kill him in a car crash. But he survives and is forced to wear a mask to hide his horribly damaged face. More and more reality-levels seem to shift. His consciousness begins to jump between past and present. The mystery of the film is finally solved in the science-fiction-context: he is struggling with implanted memories while his body is frozen to wait for better medical care in the future. Even here the ambitious director brings to life a cold and stylised film-noir-world, the artificial dream-state of a haunted and disturbed character – perfectly executed in the first sequence in which Cesar (Noriega, here named after the somnambulic hero of Robert Wiene’s CABINET OF CALIGARI) wakes up in the morning, gets up and drives downtown – only to realize that he is the only living person in this world. Then the bell rings again… But where does imagination end and reality begin? Cesar as can be seen as one of those twilight creatures, an abandoned soul lost between memories of the past and an imaginative present.

Another dark ghost-story, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001) by Guillermo del Toro, offers its audience a gothic-horror-variation of Agustí Villaronga’s intense TBC-asylum-drama EL MAR (1998), which also takes place in the time of World War II. Del Toro’s film is paradigmatic for this New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers, especially for its monologue, which is spoken by an old male voice over images of an abnormal embryo with a comb-like spine: “What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain perhaps? … A sentiment suspended in time? … like a blurry photograph … like an insect trapped in amber?” The ghost as a phenomenon questions the nature of life and death, of reality and imagination. It transcends the physicality of the human body and signifies the existence of a soul…

The world of DEVIL’S BACKBONE (a reference to the embryo of the title sequence) is very complex, and there are several possibilities of defining its ghost-like nature… In an impressive top shot we follow a huge black bomb falling down to earth and crashing into the inner yard of an isolated mission estate in the desert. The year is 1939, the Spanish Civil War. Ten year old Carlos, whose father was killed in battle, is brought to the mission, which now has the function of an orphanage. There he discovers the secrets of this estate: the unexploded bomb in the yard is a constant threat to the people, like a ticking time-bomb; in the basement below the kitchen, the ghost of Santi seems to live, a boy who was drowned there and finds no peace; and there is Jacinto, an angry young man who spent his whole youth in the mission and now tries to rob the gold that Carmen, the headmistress, and her elderly husband Casares guard for the rebels. Carlos soon realizes that Santi has been killed by Jacinto for he had discovered the young man’s secret longing for the gold-treasure. Now he speaks to Carlos to warn him: Something terrible is going to happen… Indeed, as Jacinto violently tries to get his hand on the gold, a huge explosion kills many of the boys and Carmen. The survivors are locked away to be killed later. But the boys manage to drown Jacinto in the fountain where he had killed Santi. Casares unlocks the door and the boys escape.

The film reaches its turning point right in the last frame where the old man Casares stands in the shadow. In the background we see the boys run away. Casares repeats his introducing monologue, closing with the insight that he himself is a ghost, having been killed in the explosion long before he could have freed the orphans. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE can be seen as classic gothic fiction, like THE OTHERS very similar to Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’. For a long time the film shifts between psychological and metaphysical levels of reception. It is never made clear whether we see Carlos’ subjective visions or an objective incident (dealing with the supernatural). It also appears very strange that the film starts with an old man reflecting the key phenomenon and then switches to a young boy. We could easily take the old man’s voice as the adult voice of Carlos – but the turn in the end changes the perspective radically: With the shadowy ghost of Casares the film finally enters the world of fantasy. Del Toro’s best film to date is therefore closely connected to the ‘unreliable’ narration of THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS which are also told from the viewpoint of the dead. And yes – a ‘ghost’ is probably everything that Casares mentions: a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over – like an insect trapped in amber… But what happens if the dead envy the living?

THEY’RE WATCHING US (2002) by Norberto López Amado in a way refers to Robert Harmon’s Horrorthriller THEY (2002) about living shadows behind the mirror terrorizing and kidnapping the unhappy chosen few who are able to be aware of ‘them’. Amado’s dark film tells the story of police inspector Juan (Carmelo Gómez) whose sister disappeared in a mysterious manner during a school play. In the present Juan has a family of his own with two children. But a new case will knock his life out of balance: During his research on the disappearance of a wealthy businessman three years before he discovers that during the past decades thousands of people have disappeared without a trace. The final proof of the disappeared man’s life is a videotape – filmed via a mirror – on which Juan discovers strange shadowy creatures who seem to exist in a twilight-world between life and death. Even in the city and on the subway he begins to see those shadows, appearing in reflecting surfaces. He discovers that these are abandoned souls who never totally passed away into the realm of death. Now they envy the living and therefore terrorize them. Juan realizes that his children, especially his daughter, see them as well. Even in his past the shadows were there and pulled his little sister over to their side. To save his little daughter the policeman sacrifices himself: He enters the real ‘night-train’ into the abyss. In the last sequence we witness that he is still present for his daughter – who is the next of the chosen ones, but with a shadowy guardian angel on her side…

Amado’s film creates a very dark and brooding atmosphere via stylistic means that we know from Jaume Balaguero’s films THE NAMELESS and DARKNESS: monochromatic, mainly brown and green colour-schemes, a low frequency drone on the soundtrack, high-contrast chiaroscuro-lightning, and finally the discovery of occult symbolism (within a dream sequence). Juan is yet another haunted soul (as in DARKNESS), a dark father figure that becomes a threat to his family (especially when he shoots at his children in panic). He is the original source of evil within the family – although that is not his fault, for he is a victim of the twilight world himself. The only way to save himself and his kin he has to sacrifices himself for the benefit of a (fleeting) peace. In the end it is clear that he passed the curse over to his daughter. The idea of self-sacrifice to restore the order is clearly a very conservative element in most of these Spanish films. On the surface, a scepticism concerning supernatural and spiritual elements seems to dominate that slowly passes away. Without being explicitly ‘Christian’ or ‘catholic’ in their attitude these films nevertheless glorify conservative Old Testament ideas of martyrdom and redemption.

Pain and sacrifice

Deeply connected with Spanish mysticism is the myth of pain, sacrifice and martyrdom. It comes therefore as no surprise that the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers often contain connections of physical pain, spiritual suffering and redemption.

THE NAMELESS (1999) by Jaume Balaguero, the most complex key-film in this context, goes far beyond any moral ideas: here we come to know the leader of a sect that glorifies pain and agony and longs for the total destruction of individuality. The believers are called THE NAMELESS for they loose everything except the ability to give and receive – pain and agony. Their guru had once been the victim in a Nazi concentration camp, but the conclusions he drew from his painful experiences is not the fight against inhumanity but the celebration of pure and total agony. This is a truly radical model, and the film deals quite consistently with it: The female protagonist – the mother who seeks for her daughter – will finally realize that her ex-husband belongs to the cult and uses their daughter as a means to provide her with the greatest pain of all: She will loose her beloved a second time. The adolescent girl shoots herself in front of her mother (and that’s the end of the film!). From this point of view everything that happened throughout the film has been in vain: the reporter dies in vain, the mother’s hopes are destroyed. Her future is bleak. In Balaguero’s film we are confronted with total nihilism. The world as he sees it is built of guilt and latent evil that can break through the walls at any time. It comes as no surprise that his follow-up circles around ‘darkness’ itself … the end of everything. Total nothingness.

In KILLING WORDS (2002) by Laura Maná the attractive psychiatrist Laura (Dario Grandinetti) is in a desperate condition: Bound to a chair he kidnapper forces her to watch videos that show him a vicious serial-killer. At the same time he shows her his list of victims – and her name is already at the end. The killer begins to play a cruel game with her: in case she wins, she will be free – but if she looses, he will extract on of her eyes. And so forth… – This kind of sadistic cruelty to an unwilling victim seems essential to catholic societies. It reminds us of the great success Mel Gibson’s idea of the PASSION OF THE CHRIST had in Latin America, Italy and Spain. Catholic dominated culture seems obsessed with violent sacrifice, passionate suffering and redemption through violence. And the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers perfectly mirrors this moralistic excess.

IMPULSE (2002) by Miguel Alcantud  shows some similarities to KILLING WORDS but appears to be more of a psychological drama than a thriller. Here a young suicidal woman, Sara (Ana Risueno), witnesses an act of murder by a passionate serial killer, Jaime (Daniel Feire), – who is an elementary-teacher in his everyday life. The attractive and cultivated man pushes someone in front of an underground train. What appears as an accident is actually part of a killing spree. Jaime has this uncoordinated impulse to kill people spontaneously, sometime in a row, sometimes within several weeks. Later he collects the newspaper articles on his victims from the internet. Supposedly out of her latent death wish, Sara starts to blackmail the killer. She says that she has filmed the murder. Between the two disturbed characters, a strange relationship begins to grow, one that circles around the fatal ‘impulse’ to take lives… Secretly Sara hopes that Jaime will finally help her to find – death. This could have been a suspenseful thriller filled with sadomasochistic subtexts etc. but turns out to be a very tame psychological drama about a lonely woman in trouble. Music – in this case very jazzy –, advanced photography, and eccentric editing contribute to an existential seriousness that finally damages the sensual and metaphorical impact of the idea. What could have been a most intimate gaze into the human abyss is in fact a conventional and lame vehicle for ideas. In the last frame Sara finally sits in the bathtub with the blade in her hand to slit her wrists while Jaime is filming her with a video-camera – but she refuses. This strange love between two people obsessed by death gave her power to live – a macabre ending in its own right.

Father, Son, Unholy Spirit

A dark male figure slowly walks through a dimly lit hallway toward us. Photographed from a low angle central perspective, such shots remind us of classical gothic horror films. They are also a key framing device in the Spanish mystery thriller, mainly focussing on one of the most important protagonists: the evil father. We see such shots in Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness (2002) and The Nameless, as these films build up the whole drama around the haunted, possessed and threatening father who is unable to protect his family.

Also based on a novel of British writer Ramsey Campbell (the author of NAMELESS) is SECOND NAME (2001) by Paco Plaze, a dark psychological thriller that appears to be a kind of prototype of this New Wave along with THE NAMELESS. This time the plot is told from the perspective of a young woman Daniella (Erica Prior) who used to have a very close relationship with her caring father. Right at the beginning of the movie this man commits suicide – seemingly out of the blue. Daniella is shocked – and even more so when his grave is discovered empty some days later. Since the police doesn’t care too much about the vanished corpse, she takes the investigations into her own hands. Soon her father’s body is found at an old cemetery: mutilated and bound with barbed wire to a piece of wood. Her research lead sher into two different directions: the first one is connected to a strange professional hitman who seems to follow her and collects photos of Daniella; the second track has to do with a religious sect called the ‘Abrahamites’. They believe that biblical Abraham did in fact kill his first-born child – and that the bible is interpreted erroneously. To gain success in life, the ‘Abrahamites’ ritually kill their first-born children. And that’s the key to both the evil-father theme and the solution of Daniella’s father’s suicide. The woman soon realizes that a lot of people are involved in the death-cult, even her father who tried to run away from his ‘ritual duty’. Like THE NAMELESS this film has a downbeat shock ending that seems to affirm the continuity of the ‘Abrahamitic’ cult.

Paco Plaze, for whom this is his debut to feature films, does not have the stylistic strength of Balaguero, but SECOND NAME succeeds in several aspects: it has a very bleak piano-score, spiced up with gothic chorals; it makes effective use of make-up and violent special effects, and it features some impressive camera angles. Nevertheless the theme of the evil father is not very elaborate in this film – simply because it is split up into different characters. Nonetheless, SECOND NAME presents a whole society based on the concept of a destructive patriarchy. From this perspective the female point of view makes absolute sense. Unfortunately, it is not Plaze’s talent to build up tension as effectively as THE NAMELESS or the supernatural examples mentioned above. The highlight may be Daniella’s discovery of a dead child buried under a tree in the garden of her close relatives. At that point there seems no way out of this destructive system…

Jaume Balaguero’s DARKNESS also culminates in a ritual executed by a possessed father getting deeper and deeper into a fatal system. But the genre-context is completely different: the film simply works on the basis of elements taken out of THE SHINING (1980) by Stanley Kubrick and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) by Stuart Rosenberg. A family with two children moves into a Spanish country house where something seems wrong. The mentally unstable father drifts more and more into the obsessive idea that there is ‘something’ in the past of the house, while the adolescent daughter Regina (Anna Paquin) discovers bruises on her younger brother’s (Stephan Enquist) face and body. She tells her mother (Lena Olin) – who is very passive and ignorant – that she suspects her father of violating the boy. Annoyed by an aggressive father and an ignorant mother Regina escapes to her Spanish boyfriend Carlos (Fele Martínez) to help her. As the films offers up some genre-quotes, director Balaguero is finally in his element: Connected with a scientist, a friend of the family (Giancarlo Giannini), the disturbing truth about the house is revealed. It was once owned by three strange women who used to performs human sacrifices in praise of the World Serpent (Uroboros). Beneath the living-room-floor is a ritual place where a number of young boys were sacrificed. When the last blood is spilled darkness itself will cover the earth. The father-turned-abuser in this case seems to be the last chosen ‘high priest’ to close the circle. But things are not as they seem: Not his son has to die but he himself. And he is finally killed by his family as he became a threat to their lives. Unfortunately this preventive killing closes the circle. Finally darkness is raised… Rarely has a film bathed in such apocalyptic ideas: In the end, light simply disappears out of the frame. Total DARKNESS is raised. The cult of the evil father has succeeded. The supposed ‘bringer of life’ is really the destroyer of everything.

At another place: Santiago de Compostela 2002. Jacobo (Juan Diego Botto), a young sculptor of twenty years, returns to his hometown after many years. His mother is mentally ill and lives in an asylum. Jacobo wants to care for her and visits her. In the asylum he meets some figures his doomed past whom he would have preferred to forget. They remind him of strange incidents of his past from which he tried to escape his whole life: Xavier Villaverde’s WHEN THE BELL Chimed 13 (2002) finally turns out to be the ultimate evil-father-drama. In the first sequence we see him as a young boy trying to copy the art of his father. When the father arrives he is dissatisfied with his son’s work. Actually it is the night when he wants to leave his wife together with his son – ‘to protect him from the mentally unstable mother’ as he says. But right at midnight, when the bell chimes, the mother seems to shoot her unfaithful husband. As Jacobo remembers just at that time the bell chimed once more: 13 times. All his life he secretly believes that this incident had been of supernatural origin. This belief is linked to his mother’s obsession that her husband never really died and is haunting her with his ‘eyes in the walls’ around her.

Indeed Jacobo soon meets the ghost of his father in an old cathedral where the sculptor was supposed to build a marble statue. The evil ancestor wants to force his son to fulfill the unfinished work. Jacobo – who is not as talented as his father – agrees. In a strange supernatural act their hands melt together within a clay sculpture. The young man is now obsessed by the ghost of his aggressive father. Not quite himself any more, he tries to rape the woman his father once loved. His mother dies of a heart attack, and the woman is killed by accident. Every act of resistance against the will of his father results in another catastrophe. But with the skill of his father’s hands Jacobo finally manages to finish the statue.

The film makes it increasingly clear that this is only one side of events: Jacobo’s point of view. A young girl who loves him tries to solve the mystery surrounding Jacobo and realizes with the help of a befriended psychiatrist that our antihero suffers from schizophrenia – like his mother. His father seems to live within him. Villaverde’s direction shifts between supernatural horror and sophisticated psychological thriller. In the film’s final within the cathedral we reach the level of latent guilt again: The bell did actually not chime 13 times. Between 12 and 1 there is one hour lost in Jacobo’s memories. And the viewer can guess what really happened: The little boy killed his father himself – trying to stop the man from beating up his mother. When this truth is revealed Jacobo is freed of his haunting visions. Or so it seems – for the final sequence shows him in his father’s working place now threatening his own little son. But he again manages to keep control…

WHEN THE BELL CHIMED 13 may not be as strong as the cinematic predecessors – but this film works perfectly within the father/son/unholy spirit-context: the generational conflict is being passed on from one generation to the next like a virus. Villaverde makes prominent use of sacral locations, especially the cathedral, where father and son create a huge crucifixion scene in white marble. Even the showdown takes place in the tower of the cathedral. The sacred place can not protect the victim’s of destructive patriarchy.

The ‘rightful path’

As we have seen, the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers celebrates, in a very stylish and at the same time strikingly conservative way, the battle of occult versus Christian powers. They show a world of permanent temptation – the latent seduction to go the ‘wrong path’ willingly. Even if they show characters with a connotation of ‘innocence’ – e.g. the children – the seed of evil is already present. The innocent become guilty simply by being the tool of evil – as shown to great effect in the end of THE NAMELESS. The only way to be granted redemption is through self-sacrifice – a totally violent act to purify the ‘stained’ world.

Most of these Spanish thrillers avoid admitting that they are constructed within a system of catholic guilt complexes. They focus on the stated opposite: the occult world, the shadow world, the twilight zone. In these destructive circles of fate, the protagonists get punished for their involvement in occult rituals and practices. On the visual level of the films, this is represented by a conflict of ancient symbolism and the icons of Christian belief. In this context, it is also quite very fascinating that, despite being mainstream films, the films I have discussed also avoid happy endings: in the end there is either the destruction of the protagonist’s soul, ultimately his death, or – as in DARKNESS – apocalypse itself. Through the back door, a restrictive moral, a kind of reactionary ‘medieval’ Christian vision du monde, sneaks in. And this is truly frightening.

Cinema as Historical Archive?
Representing the Holocaust on film

Presented at the IPP conference 2006, University of Mainz (GER)

Note:
To reflect on historical, social and political events could be considered the ‘duty’ of the audiovisual media, in particular narrative television and cinema. The great success and the influence of programmes and films such as HOLOCAUST and SCHINDLER’S LIST on public opinion about historical events prove that the worldwide audience is more open for fictionalized history
than for more challenging documentary work, like Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH. This poses the question: Has cinema finally reached the status of an historical archive for some audiences. If this is the fact it would be the goal of film studies to analyse the specific value of such representations, especially in the case of a significant phenomenon, like the according to Lanzmann ‘un-filmable’ Holocaust. The findings of such an analysis may well be trivialization and not representation of history. In my article I will
attempt to break down the history of holocaust cinema into several phases and take a closer look at recent films like THE GREY ZONE (2002) that effectively challenges many of the rules set by former ‘Holocaust-cinema’ – and offers a new perspective on a topic that usually only regenerates established images.

*

Significantly it was by no means the historians, who made the decisive contribution to the long term establishment of the problematic term ‘holocaust’ – and the crimes connected therewith – in both the European and the north American collective consciousness and memory. They may have critically researched sources, documented their findings, published textbooks and produced documentaries on and around the topic, but when compared with the effect by one television melodrama, a family saga, staged in the midst of vicious of Nazi-war-crimes, suddenly their efforts seem to have little value other than that of confirming the historical accuracy of the scenes of persecution and extermination of ‘imaginary’ figures. The four part television show Holocaust, whose transmission in 1978 was followed by around 100 million viewers in the U.S.A , was seen in West-Germany one year later by an audience of 16 million . From a media-historic perspective, the television event Holocaust can be described as a decisive point in the social roll of television as a medium of mass communication. Knut Hickethier comments on the effects the series had on the formatting of public television as follows:
“The defining television event at the end of the 70’s was the transmission of the American series “Holocaust” (1979), which showed the murder of European Jews by the Germans. In setting its focus not on social criticism and resolving the past but rather on fictionalisation and entertainment this film marks a turning point (…) The success was considerable, and uncontested. The series was accused of emotionalising, trivialising, and falsifying history”.
In Germany, Holocaust made a lasting, one could almost say the first, deep impression, especially on the sons and daughters of the perpetrators. The fact that this impression can be traced back to the transmission of a commercial television mini-series, which intentionally slipped under the customary ductus of distanced impartiality, has to be seen as an important indication of a strong change in the social and medial handling of history in general and the history of the genocide of the third Reich in particular. From then on the mass-extermination practiced under the Nazi regime had a name, which everyone knew. At the same time the expression of sober documentation of the complex topic was unavoidable in order to further develop the staging of scenes in successful socio-dramas.
The lasting effect of this phenomenon can still be seen today, especially in the many ‘made-for-the-box office’ cinema films of the 1980’s, which attempted to cash in on the success of Holocaust. Parallel to the change in the televisual handling of this sensitive topic it is also possible to trace a general change in attitude towards the subject: Cinema: Films were produced purely on the basis of the commercial and aesthetic considerations of the entertainment industry (dramaturgy, imagery, casting in conjunction with Hollywood’s star system). The fact that among these, there were also productions, which, by means of a complex narrative and the more considered use of forms of expression, left television far behind them, can be seen in films such as Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982). However these more demanding films also fuelled the debate, which today still questions the legitimacy of ‘artistic’ processing of the Nazi genocide. According to Matías Martínez, art cannot possibly ignore the largest crime of the twentieth century, yet at the same time such art is essentially impossible, “(…) because in the opinion of many, the holocaust, defies aesthetic portrayal, in a special, perhaps even unique, way”. In this respect Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) marks a turning point. As in its case, the questionable symbioses between commercial and the ethical production is widely acknowledged, by both the public and critics, to have been a success. ”Unlike Marvin Chomskys and Gerald Greens Holocaust the Hollywood film seemed, in the opinion of the critics, to have resolved the conflict between popular reception, aesthetic content, and appropriate thematic” . Schindler’s list can also be seen as a turning point in another respect. If one looks at the film as a social phenomenon (which it unquestionably was and is), various modes of interpretation present themselves, two of which will be referred to here.
Firstly, one can speculate that in the film Schindler’s List a trend, which started in the 70’s with the mini-series Holocaust, came to a provisional end in the 90’s: Little by little a culture of remembrance, which attempted to find access to the events and environment of Nazi terror by way of fictional film and always searched anew to defining methods of staging, established itself next to that of the immediate witnesses of the concentration camp terror, the victims and the perpetrators. However, because the witnesses are now increasingly withdrawing from public life, both new and old films need to be critically analysed regarding intention and principle.
Secondly the arrival of Schindler’s List made clear the importance of film as an archive, whose influence on the formation identity in present day culture is ever growing.
If we accept that film, as an archive, exists as a threshold between the cultural and communicative/collective consciousness, only by way of the critical reflection of the viewer and discourse about old and new films, then this paper can be understood as a proposal for the critical handling of the film as cultural archive.
The representation of Nazi genocide in the form of feature films is a subject which has already been widely discussed and documented. As one can imagine, the filmic representation of events under the Nazi occupation developed sluggishly at first, then feeling its way, underwent several ‘experimental’ phases, until by the end of the 1970’s it had developed into a form of filmic mediation which could be compared to ‘Auschwitz literature’, in which a unique iconography of genocide and the concentration camp developed. This process of development ended, in effect, with the television series “Holocaust”, even here it is necessary to look from the cinema to the television in order to be able to take all relevant intermediate interaction into account. This instructive overview covers all films after 1945 which explicitly handle the events of the holocaust, not films which merely busy themselves with the Nazi regime (or came in to being earlier than 1945).

The Post-War Years: 1945-1960

Film theorist Béla Baláz remarked in a review, which was only made accessible after his death, that the polish film Ostatni etap (1947) by Wanda Jakubowska had founded its own genre, and in so doing he almost prophetically lent the ‘holocaust film’ an emblematic character similar to that of ‘Auschwitz literature’. Jakubowska’s film reconstructs the fate of a group of female prisoners, she utilises both professional and lay actors, survivors from Auschwitz, who return to the camps barracks two years after the end of the war. Numerous standard situations in filmic Holocaust representation are to be seen in the film: the roll-call, informing on ones fellows, torture, and in particular the nightly arrival of the prison trains, to swirling flakes of snow or ash and sludgy muddy ground… Alain Resnais quoted this scene in Nuit et Bruillard, George Stevens integrated it completely into a nightmare sequence in The Diary of Anne Frank, and lastly, Steven Spielberg reconstructs the scene authentically in Schindler’s List. In his essay ‘Fiction and Nemesis’ Loewy stresses that this film, which reconstructed these events directly after the historic horror of their passing, is regarded as an historical document (Fröhlich et al 2003, S.37).
Shortly after the end of the war a German Jewish producer Arthur Brauner and his CCC-production company produced a film about the Holocaust: Morituri (1948) by Eugine York. In a sober documentary style the film tells the story of a group of fleeing concentration camp prisoners and Jewish and polish families who are hidden in a wood awaiting the arrival of soviet troops. Parts of the film have an affinity with the novel ‘Das Siebte Kreuz’ (The Seventh Cross) by the Mainzer author Anna Seghers, which also tells the story of the flight of seven prisoners, who are hunted mercilessly by the camp commandant. The commandant has constructed seven crosses, of which only the seventh remains empty, as one of the prisoners is successful in his escape thanks to the charity of a handful of villagers. Fred Zinnemann had already directed the un-pathetic feature film The Seventh Cross in 1944, with Spencer Tracy in the lead, the film was however first shown on German television in 1972.
With regard to the concentration camp system, one of the most important filmic documents of the 1950’s is not a feature film but rather an essay film. In Nuit et Bruillard/Night and Fog (1953) Alain Resnais cuts material which he himself produced together with scenes of the liberation of the death camps, in which masses of dead were found and filmed by allied troops. In his very subjective, poetic film Resnais established a technique which is also of importance for later holocaust-film: ‘meaningful montage’, which reflects on the connections between history and memory, between past and present. In this respect the influence of this widely screened non-fiction film upon later fictional cinema films is not to be underestimated.

Orientation: The 1960’s

One of the most drastic and effective stories of a prisoners fate is the Italian film Kapo (1960) by Gillo Pontecorvo: Susan Strasberg plays a young Jew, who ‘rises’ to the rank of warden or ‘Kapo’ in the camp system and from this position torments her fellow prisoners. The film portrays the woman’s moral dilemma in uncompromising images. Kapo shows the painful dehumanisation of the prisoners so vividly in order to make the point that survival in an extreme situation is often contingent on the suffering of our fellows. Sadly, because the director died in an accident while still filming, only fragments of Andrzej Munks Pasazerka/the passenger (1961/1963) remain: On a cruise a former Kapo-woman recognises one of the passengers as being a former prisoner. The film was presented in the cinemas as a mixture of film sequences and photographs. A tragic monument, from which one gets the impression that this was the most ambitious attempt to handle this theme up to now – by means of a complex montage this film was to interweave past and present.
In 1963 in the DEFA studios Frank Beyer filmed Nackt unter Wölfen. Based on the novel by Bruno Apitz the film handles an episode of uprising in the Buchenwald concentration camp in which political prisoners successfully manage to hide a child. Beyer’s film places the roll of the political prisoner in the forefront, especially in the uprising and in so doing cultivates a so called ‘socialist realism’. According to East German critics in stead of ‘martyrdom’ he presents the story of a successful uprising against tyranny. West German critics however, reacted more sceptically, remarking on the one sidedness of the action and the one dimensional virtuousness of the resisting prisoners. It is clear that in this case one can not speak of a realistic representation of events.
Sydney Lumets dark New York city drama The Pawnbroker (1965) tells the story of the Jewish pawnbroker Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), who is haunted by his memories of the concentration camp, which mix themselves with his present (a gang war). Lumet’s film was, aside from the passenger, the first holocaust film to mixes the past and present by way of ‘meaningful montage’ (Anette Insdorf), a dramaturgic technique which was often used in later productions to add an air of authenticity. One can find a similarly structured use of flashbacks in Karl Fruchtmanns television film Kaddisch nach mein Lebenden (1969): the plot centres on the trauma suffered by the protagonist, who was tortured by a fellow prisoner. The man, who later lives in Israel, becomes analogous with the viewer, an affected witness plagued by memories of past injustice. The director also dedicated later works to the discussion of the destructive effects of an ideology on the individual.

Scandal and Experiments: The 1970’s

The 70’s were, an extremely productive decade for many nation’s cinemas,: the seed of former revolutionary years began to grow and brought forth astounding film productions in America (New Hollywood), Germany (New German Film) and in Japan (New Wave). With this new progressive tendency and the simultaneous relaxing of censorship came an enormous wave of exploitation films, which began to push the boundaries of the portrayable in the direction of sensationalist entertainment. This exploitative trend did not even shy away from the holocaust theme: with the Canadian productions Love Camp 7 and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974) the pornographers Robert Lee Frost and Don Edmonds brought the so called Sadiconazista-films to the cinema. Italian cinema also experimented with the connections between sexuality, politics and history, albeit on a higher level. In her psychodrama Il portiere di notte/The Night Porter (1973) the former documentary filmmaker Liliana Cavani further develops some realisations from her previous series on the third Reich, and tells the story of the fatal re-meeting of an SS man (Dirk Bogard) and his former fantasy victim (Charlott Rampling). As the couple re-start the destructive relationship under now different circumstances, they land on the execution list of a group of SS veterans, who wish to remove all witnesses to un-pleasantries, in order to erase the past and, in so doing, their own guilt. Cavanis film is both the representation of the continuing Nazi mentality following the war and (arguably) an attempt at a psycho-sexual adaptation of the concentration camp system Although Paolo Pasolini’s modernised Marquis-de-Sade adaptation Salò/120 Days of Sodom (1975) is rather a film about the fascist Italy of the present day, in this apocalyptic scenario Paolo Pasolini has constructed an oppressive microcosm of the concentration camp system, which was only really understood when the film was recently re-shown in cinemas. Here the mechanisms of power and production have liberated themselves and are running amok in the collapsing fascist republic of Salò. The scandalous success of these three films also inspired the production of a series of concentration camp sex-films in Italy.
A rare satirical production, the East German comedy Jakob der Lügner/Jakob the Liar (1974) by Frank Beyer appeared in the mid-seventies. It tells the story of a Jewish man (Vlastimil Brodsky) who creates and spreads rumours about the advances of the Red Army, in the Warsaw ghetto, thus strengthening the hopes of the ghetto inhabitants. The criticism against the film was directed towards the ambivalent effect of Jacobs lies, which were thought to placate the ghetto inhabitants with a feeling of security and therefore cripple their spirit of resistance (Anette Insdorf).
One of the most consequential feature film portraits of a perpetrator is Götz Georges presentation of the Auschwitz Commandant Rudlof Höss (here: Friz Lang) in Theodor Kotullas Aus einem Deutschen Leben (1977). The film shows key episodes from Höss’s biography, his journey from being a Freikorpsman to the SA and SS and up to the war crimes tribunal, which sentenced him to death. With a distanced and minimalist coldness we are shown the inhuman rationality with which he organised the gassings in Auschwitz. Here the representation concentrates on the perpetrator and shows the unimaginable horror from a distance. Breaks are found in single moments, such as when Himmler’s eyes meet those of a prisoner and then look nervously away.

An iconography of it own: The 80’s

The most important impetus for intensive media discussion of the holocaust thematic was the four part American television series Holocaust (1978) – a term which was used to describe the Nazi genocide against the Jews in particular, and later became synonym for this genocide. Marvin Chomsky’s epic series follows the fortunes of two families in the third Reich both on different sides of the genocide: the Jewish family Weiss and the German family Dorf. Where as one family has to flee, and is deported, Eric Dorf (Michael Moriarty) joins the SS and becomes implicated in organising the holocaust. The series was criticised for its melodramatic and oversimplified structure, which clearly followed the successful family epic Roots, which told the story of the enslavement of Africans in the southern states of the USA. Regardless of its trivial aspects the series Holocaust made a massive impact, comparable only to that of Spielbergs Schindlers List, and must therefore be recognised as a milestone in holocaust dramatisation.
The block buster Sophie’s Choice (1982) by Alan J.Pakula is another film which makes use of the concept of ‘meaningful montage’. A melodrama about the polish catholic Sophie (Meryl Streep) who survived a concentration camp because she attracted the attention of an SS officer, who then posed her the question, which destroyed her life: he asked to choose which of her children should be spared death. The film tells of this harrowing event by way of long flashbacks from the midst of its melodrama structure. As in Il portiere di notte the victim is not of Jewish origin, Sophie is even able to secure herself a special position by stressing her Christian heritage. Palukas film reconstructs the scenes of the concentration camp in faded, monochrome images, a style which, can be seen as an own iconography and was later adopted by other productions, occurring sometimes as ‘an empty quotation devoid of meaning ’(Matthias N. Lorenz) e.g. recently in Brian Singer’s X-Men (2000).
With an elaborate and in places naive naturalism the Arthur Brauner production of Europa, Europa from Agnieska Holland focuses on the story of a Jewish boy’s spectacular escape, he first find sanctuary with the communists, then with the Nazis and finally he is educated in a Napola (national political educational institution), until it is dismantled at the end of the war. Unlike Volker Schlöndorffs pathetically simplified Michel Tournier adaptation Der Unhold / The Ogre (1998), Holland’s film is, alone by means of its fable/story, able to distance itself from the dark fascination of the re-staged Nazi spectacle.

After Schindler’s List: The 1990s

In the early 1990’s all filmic work on and around the holocaust stood in the shadow of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994). Liam Neeson plays the industrialist Oscar Schinlder, who saves the lives of several hundred prisoners in Poland, by giving them work in his factories. Spielberg shows the relationship between the socialite Schindler and the concentration camp commandant Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) as an ambivalent almost dialectic relationship. In an interview the director describes Göth as being “the shadow which Schindler cast”. The film makes use of elaborate historical reconstructions of ghetto and camp life, but never the less concentrates the events of the film on a few key figures, which brings its melodramatic structures to the fore front. The use of typical Hollywood ‘thrill’ scenarios (such as the ‘selection’ or the march to the shower room) were widely criticised, that said, few other films have managed to awake such broad public interest for this historical event. Another ground for controversy was that the ‘Shoa’ foundation, which was financed from the films profits, was also responsible for the collection of eyewitness accounts world wide.
Four films of the nineties dealt wit the Holocaust thematic in a comical way: La vita bella / Life is beautiful (1998) by Roberto Benigni can be partly taken as a remake of Jakob der Lügner, which was also re-made by the American director Peter Kassovitz as Jakob the Liar (1999) with Robin Williams in the title roll. In Michael Verhoeven’s Mutters Courage (1995) we are told, by means of brechtian meta-reflection, the tragic-comic story of the mother of poet Georg Tabori, who himself appears as narrator. The mother survived the Jewish deportations by managing to win the favour of an SS man. In Train de vie (1998) by Radu Mihaileanus the prisoners apparently deport themselves in order to escape persecution. However in the end the whole story is revealed to have been no more than a camp prisoners fantasy. Due to its bitter end this film can be seen as the darkest of the ‘holocaust comedies’.

The present day

Following Schindlers List only one ambitious feature film has succeeded in creating a convincing Warsaw ghetto drama: The Pianist (2002) by Roman Polanski tells of the historic events surrounding the suffering, fighting and death in the ;forbidden zone’, from the extremely personal point of view of the Jewish pianist Szpilman (Adrain Brody). In this mature work Polanski creates a mostly un-pathetic reconstruction of this human drama, which does not shy away from the protagonist’s physical deterioration. At around the same time Tim Blake Nelsons film Grey Zone (2002) using the typical New York actor troupe (Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi) recreates the story of the Jewish ‘Sonderkommandos’ in Auschwitz. For the first time in a Hollywood-production Nelson creates images according to eye-witness-account that no film before dared to present: the privileges of the Sonderkommandos, they dinner meals with red wine, people having a break on stairs outside the crematory, the green lawn around the crematory being watered artificially. These images – although historically correct – seem cynical, artificial, metaphoric. But yet this film may be closer to the fact than Schindler’s List. For the average viewer Spielberg’s film seems more accurate simply because his sharp edged black and white images are congruent to the image-archive the film- and media-industry has reproduced so far. Images of images seem more historical than accurate reconstruction. Being the opposite of The Grey Zone, another film falls in every trap on the way: Jeff Kanews Babij Jar (2002) should have been the glorious finale of Arthur Brauners work on the holocaust, however through its simple structures and stereotypical staging the film hardly even portrays this unimaginable massacre, in which over 30,000 people were killed in two days. “To show, how it was“ does not mean mixing the documentary with the fictive – as this film does -, neither does it mean recreating an historical event by means of media influenced images. To really be able to create an impression of the ‘horror’ still requires artistic vision, a gift, pars pro toto, to find sounds and images for an event, which one hardly dares to imagine. Film history contains such portrayals, of such events, but they are rare and must be attempted and re-attempted. For that reason the chapter on the artistic portrayal of ‘an imagined place of horror and suffering’, is a long way from being at an end.

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