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Marcus Stiglegger

Gladiator, or:
The birth of peplum cinema from the spirit of the ancient tragedy

The continuity of the myths

The fact that media of modernity, especially cinema, literature and theater, soon had become the myth reservoir of modernity is not exactly a new idea to media-theoretical writings. Any way it is especially true for epic cinema such as the peplum films of Hollywood between the 1950s and today. Which definition of myth this is especially based on – because there are many – is yet to be clarified. It will not be possible to answer this question exhaustively in an essay like this, but it seems appropriate to outline some basic definitions and approaches to expand further on this idea.
In the context of cultural anthropology myth is recognized as an oral, written or otherwise mediated traditional story with sacred content. In Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1967) Mircea Eliade has pointed out various elements that the myth may contain: 1. In the last instance myths tell a ‘true story’. Myths are based on the existential facts of life (birth, war, death) especially connected to the idea of cultural identity; 2. The mythical fable is sacred, that is: its content is removed from the secular area. 3. The myth is always associated with the time of the origin or creation; this origin does not necessarily belong to an earlier time, but can refer to any form of new beginnings. Consequently, the living mythos is a time in which all times fall into one. 4. The myth contains the justification and basis of the rituals; the myth has therefore morally binding normative force. 5. The protagonist of the mythical fable are usually super human beings.
Myth and life are closely linked and are suitable in particular for a structuralist analysis in the context of regional and social peculiarities, like Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology ([1958] 1963), demonstrated. Likewise a message is ‘formulated and condensed’ within a mythos – equivalent to Roland Barthes’ definition of myths in Mythologies ([1956] 1972). At the center of the myth lies the origin of the world, the people or the culture. It always involves elementary truths that are condensed in mythical narration and experience, even when it comes to the modern myth ‘ of everyday life’ (Barthes), which often revolve around cultural images (self).
If so with Eliade myth is understood as a key situation of a culture, it is also understandable how and why it can be transferred into other contexts. This may also explain, why well known myth collections – such as Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890; abridged 1922) – themselves are a major source of inspiration for international artists.
Another step of the mythos theory is important here: Mythical narrations operate on a level of cyclical repetition. Mythical thinking is cyclic thinking in a way that it works with recurring standard situations, archetypical characters and ritualized actions. This is a close connection to the medium of narrative film: especially in genre contexts, in western cinema, television series and in computer games – but even more so in the Asian film (e.g. Japanese cinema) the transformations of standardized texts is a generic continuum. As if the medium tries to grant permanent presence of the sacred mythical tales in modern formats to seduce its audience. This fact goes well along with the audience expectations demanding similar texts over and over again – which is finally proven by the continuing success of the DC and Marvel adaptations in recent years.1
The medium of film specifically works with either classical myths or mythological motifs (Orpheus, Oedipus, the Fall, etc.), but it can also create its own myths and cults – often charismatic protagonists such as James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, or Romy Schneider become the heroic protagonists of such neo-mythological narratives. Especially stars who die early or under mysterious circumstances, are suitable for the creation of neo-myths, because only their image remains as a cinematic phantom and as a fetishistic ritual – like in the repeated viewing of their films. In this way cult film phenomena can be explained. Cult films are cyclically revived neo-mythological texts.
The protagonists (heroes) of the mythical narrations are often described as beings of supernatural origin. But if we take the social intertwining of myth as given, one can see only the projection of humanity into a religious (or holy) form within these mythical creatures. And again the larger than life quality of Hollywood cinema qualifies as neo-mythology: Global audiences admire iconic heroic characters such as those that have been coined by John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, or Sylvester Stallone. These iconic embodiments of martial archetypes are celebrated for their heroic ability to transcend the human boundaries. They resemble the sacred heroes of ancient narratives. As long as this quality is intact, the audience appreciates these heroes. Problems arise as soon as their mythical status is questioned and ultimately deconstructed. The audience sees this latent longing for a glimpse of otherworldly and divine quality being cheated within the process of deconstruction. Think of Clint Eastwood as a broken veteran in The Beguiled (1970) by Donald Siegel, here the sexual object and playground of a group of women and girls, or John Wayne – who was ill of cancer in reality as well as within the film – in The Shootist (1976), also by Don Siegel, desperately fighting for his heroic final showdown. In these films little remains of the mysterious and always superior ‘stranger with no name’ from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western or from the ‘upright defender of American values’ like John Wayne. The brokenness of the hero not always contradicts its mythical function: In the movies Gladiator (2000) by Ridley Scott, Pale Rider (1983) and Unforgiven (1992) directed by and starring Clint Eastwood the myth itself is the discourse of the films. Although these films deal less naively with their matter than their respective genre-typical sources such as the peplum film or the classic Western of the fifties, they let the heroes reach their goal and fulfill their violent missions nonetheless. As John Wayne in The Shootist dies in the end, he might have taken the lives of some malicious people, but basically he remains a tragic figure; when Gladiator Maximus in contrast kills the tyrant in one last stand he has granted the freedom of a whole empire.
So film generates its own take on myth and has its own superhuman protagonists. Cinema is also suitable as a mediator of myths because it can always be experienced in a relative presence: As the film is ritually re-seen (again: think here mainly of the phenomenon of the cult film), it becomes a genuine, present experience for the dedicated audience. At the same time the cinematic myth revolves around elementary and existential motives: birth, life, death, sexuality, violence, fear, joy, hatred, happiness, etc. It turns out to be counterproductive to regard the mythical content of the film as a kind of regression or more generally to consider even the myth as anxiety or an ‘enemy’ of enlightenment as you can occasionally see in the leftist theory of Theordor W. Adorno and Max Habermas ([1947] 2002). Film, popular culture and myth are closely intertwined in any case. In fact, it is rather the question of whether a cinematic artifact would incapacitate and manipulate the viewer or even be working productively with the myth. The intentionally manipulative American mainstream cinema builds its greatest quality on its mythical quality, even replacing ideology and historical consciousness by generally approachable mythical models. Such as in Ridley Scott’s neo-peplum Gladiator.

Myth and tragedy

Already in early epic cinema narratives – such as David Wark Griffith’s American epic Birth of a Nation (1915) – you can notice a specific dramaturgical structure, which is based on the myth as well as on the classical tragedy. And like the classic tragedy their materials refer to mythical primordial tales and national foundation myths (e.g. the frontier theory). It seems obvious that the epic cinema narrative still hints at elements such as the odyssey of the hero, martyrdom, regicide, the messianic quality of a culture founder and the pathos of the individual demise, which nevertheless may culminate in the victory of the Community. Analyzing the highly successful international historical film Gladiator I would like to illustrate how myth, pathos and ritual are brought in as a quasi-religious motives into a major American film to affect the audience and offer the viewer an ideological model, replacing the lost spiritual and religious trends by a new universal and trans-historical new quality of myth.
Some reflections on the tragic format of this film are important: In a sequence in the first third of the film the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is betrayed by the new Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). He flees towards his homeland Spain to save his native family and farm, but he’s too late: The Praetorian guards of the Emperor have already crucified and burned his wife and his little son. In front of their corpses he collapses in the dust. Behind him in the distance, we see his fertile lands, while in the foreground the charred feet of his family are visible. Ridley Scott’s historical drama Gladiator in this moment achieves the ultimate level of individual suffering that characterizes the efforts of this film to function as a tragedy of classic theatrical format. This tragedy form emphasizes the timelessness of its substance, which functions as an action-driven revenge drama as well as a morally challenging fable.
In Gladiator, the mise en scène is dominated by the pathos of that increased expression of the existential, which today often is blamed for being a platitude or an exaggeration. Here, the Greek pathos refers literally to suffering, passion and affection – elements so effective that even the narrative cinema of the 20th and 21rst century has always continued to use them. Probably the most obvious definition of pathos was given by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller in his writings on dramatic theory (1793). Schiller sees the stage tragedy burdened with the task of moral education of the audience. The stage drama was the ‘poetic imitation of a continuous series of events (a complete action), showing us people in a state of suffering and intends to arouse our pity.’2
From the moral dilemma in which the recipient as a witness of the tragic events a mixture of emotion and desire results: the ‘pleasure in tragic subject’. The moral sensibility of the audience is challenged in the face of this suffering which is partially appropriated by identification and relation with or to the action. An important role is played by the sensuous affections. In sad emotions Schiller recognizes the most effective means because it employs the audience in the tragedy and challenges its moral judgment. To achieve this affect the tragic artist is allowed to mobilize all appropriate means – especially the representation of pathos. In pathos ideally lies the true emotion, the bridge to compassion: the compassion of the audience, which ultimately leads to the urge to take a moral or ethical position. The audience should understand that the protagonist can free himself from the suffering and therefore should be ranked above the purely sensual perception.
In dealing with the sensuous affections the experience of the sublime can be made. According to this model the recipients can observe within themselves that reason triumphs over emotion which makes a moral decision possible. The ambivalent reaction to the confrontation with the sublime is due to the inner split of the human being in sensuous and moral aspects. The tragedy is thus experienced as a pleasure in this confrontation. Interestingly, such a dichotomy is possible, even when an object is at the same time experienced as aesthetically appealing and as morally or ethically repugnant. In such a case, the dilemma of the protagonist is reflected in the ambivalence of the recipient.
To sum these aspects up, the key terms of the tragedy are pathos, pity and fear, emotions that are evoked through mimesis (the imitation of life) and which are dissolved in the catharsis of the concluding ritual. This ritual is often a final judgment or a blood sacrifice performed in a specifically established sacred space (a temple, an arena, a palace – or just a sacred ground signified by a symbolic or eminent border). Additionally films like Apocalypse Now (1979) or Conan the Barbarian (1982) would hardly be conceivable without this template – specifically related to the latent subtext of regicide.
The tragedy is based on the strict acceptance of a rationally comprehensible worldview which can be expressed in clear, rational words and concepts. Thus the tragedy refers to reason, order and harmony. The ancient tragedy, the ‘rising goat chant’, had been preserved by the Greek Aeschylus and Euripides through to the Roman writer Seneca. This leads to the dramaturgical form of five acts that is also reflected in the epic film narrative. These five acts follow a linear fable, presenting a unified, purposeful action, and include the final solution of the dramatic conflict and restoration of harmony. The five act scenario corresponds to following steps:
1. exposure
2. conflict construction
3. collision
4. deceleration and acceleration
5. disaster and reconciliation.3
On a dramaturgical level Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator follows this model by sending the hero on a tragic journey from the battlefields of Germania through Spain and Africa back to the Roman arena, where he kills the corrupt emperor in a fatal duel so the Senate can return to power.
The internal stress of the tragedy was traditionally justified rather by the metaphysical-mythical ritual in ancient theater and later increasingly on the moral level. This moral component also underlies Scott’s model: Maximus is established as a fearless warrior, in whose breast clearly the heart of a simple farmer beats rather than of an ambitious statesman. He rejects Marcus Aurelius’ offer to become Caesar himself, preferring to return to his family and his home country instead. Consequently it is this dream of a quiet family life that Commodus can destroy first, after Maximus has refused to follow him. From that moment on and with the death of his beloved family irrevocably in mind, Maximus (a telling name meaning ‘the ultimate’) becomes an incarnation of revenge. The film’s finale gradually becomes a pagan dies irae (‘day of wreath’) leading to the fall of the tyrant, a despot who embodies the spirit of a ruthless materialism. The focus of this pseudo-historical tragedy – the script refers to some historical figures and facts – is the fate of a man whose only purpose in life is revenge and his own heroic death. This heroic death in the arena is not presented as something negative but staged as a kind of spiritual ‘homecoming’: the restoration of balance and harmony. Along with Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals Maximus enters the Elyzium which resembles his Spanish homeland where his wife and son already await him. But before this redemption the tyrant is killed and the democracy restore. A regeneration through violence is executed – a deeply American maxim that characterizes mainly the Western and Hollywood war movies.
As a further level of challenge of the participating audience the conflict between the individual’s duty towards the community and the personal interests is established in ancient tragedy. Especially in the ancient dramas an often cruel sacrifice by the tragic hero is required to restore the lost balance. René Girard4 points out that there are several expressions for the relationship between violence, desire and divinity admit in the Homeric epics, the term kydos particularly catches the eye: ‘Kydos is a quasi-divine prestige to define as mystical election associated with the military triumph. In the fight […] it comes to kydos. […] The kydos emanating from the fascination with violence.’ It is hardly surprising that in the context of massive re-mythologization of cinema at the turn of the millennium created a film like Troy (2004) by Wolfgang Petersen, who directly relates to Homer’s epics.
The sacrifice demanded by Maximus is final. Although he manages to survive his execution, he is degraded from general to slave. The ‘Fallhöhe’ (German for social and emotional drop height) is enormous and qualifies Maximus as a tragic, suffering hero of classical format. While the structure and dramaturgy of Gladiator follows the classical tragedy, Ridley Scott chooses comparatively opposite means of representation in his mise en scène – the cinematic performance is based on kinetic movement and sensation, the means of modern Hollywood cinema. Gladiator is therefore also encoded as a contemporary action movie in which all major conflicts are discharged on the physical level. All emotions here are evoked on a physical level before they reach a moral dimension. This is typical of the mainstream cinema approach from the 1980s onwards. The result is an international, timeless clarity of the underlying drama. While the ancient tragedy was dialogue based and aimed at intellectual and emotional identification, contemporary mainstream cinema goes for seduction, manipulation and immersion employing all cinematographic means.

Peplum cinema as popular mythology

The historical films of the 1950s and 1960s of the twentieth century were marked by Christian values and ambitions. Films like Henry King’s peplum The Robe (1950) or William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) told Christian salvation and redemption tales. Their pathos followed clearly, though banally, adapted specifications. This Christian impulse is missing in Gladiator, but not the mythical level. Here the identification with the heroically suffering individuum Maximus is established.
In the first shot of the film we see Maximus’ hand sliding through stalks of corn in the golden light of the setting sun. Later we learn that this vision expresses his longing for the return to his home in Spain and the fertile soil of his farm. This paradisiacal country he will reach the end: In the mythical Elysium, the ‘Valhalla’ of Roman legionaries, which unites him with his wife and children again. But before this redemption there are suffering and anger.
Before each battle Maximus grabs a handful of the soil on which he is struggling, smells it and lets the soil or the sand trickle through his fingers. As a farmer he has a strong connection to the earth, even if it is not his own – even to the dry chalky soil of the Roman Colosseum. But he gives us a sensual feeling for the space in which he acts. The film indulges the audience in this moment. In the initial battle the Germanic blood and soil splash equally against the camera, being unclear whether the country or its people are wounded.
Later Maximus enters the Arena with the equanimity of a man who has finished with his life: He fights without hatred. His weapon cuts almost elegantly and quickly through the bodies of the opponents. And in the evening he prays to his ancestors, in the face of small clay figures that symbolize his wife and son. Belief in spirits and ancestor worship mingle in this staging to an indifferent archaic religion, which give an impression of the comfort that lies in this prayer.
An important ritual element of the ancient theater is the persona, the mask, a medium of theatrical transformation. With his first appearance in the Roman Colosseum Maximus selects a mask-like metal helmet that is meant to conceal his true identity in the fateful meeting with emperor Commodus in the arena. At the same time it transforms him into that pure fighting machine, whose bloody craft is free of any emotion. Maximus literally become the avenging mythical half-god-hero of the ancient tragedy. Similar models appear in Scott’s other epic films like Kingdom of Heaven (2000) or Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
It is amazing how persistently those mythical motifs are being used in contemporary cinema. While in ancient drama the most horrific events, bloody body collisions, never took place on the stage, but were described mostly in speech and dialogue, narrative cinema brings those bloody rituals on the screen in graphic detail. While the ancient tragedies were based on ritual performances and mythical narration, a film like Gladiator refers back to both to confront the modern audiences with their desire for archaic, pagan and existential events. To achieve this goal Gladiator sticks to the means of the body cinema (movement and sensation) to evoke feelings and affects that under-represented in the Western industrial societies. Instead of ignoring and avoiding death and war, the film directly confronts the audience with these incidents on ritualistic and mythical level. Scott makes shameless use of the cultural image archive of Western culture, such as in the scene of the triumphal procession of the Emperor in Rome with image quotes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934). Thus Ridley Scott’s epic adventure Gladiator may be seen as a prototype of post-modern neo-peplum cinema with a pagan edge, based on the ancient tragedy and the mythological narration alike.
As a conclusion I summarize the results of this analysis:
1. The classical and contemporary peplum cinema is linked in dramaturgy, construction and choice of subject to the mechanisms of the mythically structured classical tragedy.
2. Elements of classical tragedy actions such as the odyssey, the martyrdom, the regicide and the celebration of individual destruction, culminating in the victory of the community, can be found in the classical epic cinema and neo-peplum again.
3. While in classical era Hollywood films (1930s-60s) biblical salvation stories were dominant, this tendency gave way to a rather pagan perspective, which is meant to be accessible to all kinds of contemporary audiences, but also gives more space to archaic values and ultimately remains ideologically indifferent.
4. Pathos, martyrdom and even transcendence appear as key elements in these cinematic tragedies and appear to be in the service of a true conciliatory but very death-seeking plot construction. The constitution of the community is thereby chosen radically over the welfare of the individual.
Films like Gladiator or The Passion of the Christ (2003) and Apocalypto (2006) by Mel Gibson represent these strategies to seduce their audiences worldwide by serving the lust for mythical pathos of the tragic hero in face of death and destruction. Their ritualistic approach, resembling pre-theatrical forms of religious performance, grants international interest beyond any Christian agenda found in classical peplum films. Neo-peplum cinema like Gladiator is the rebirth of the ancient tragedy fueled by the rage of a pagan god of revenge.

Endnotes:
1. Marcus Stiglegger, Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film (Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2006), 26-28.
2. Friedrich Schiller, Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie (Stuttgart: Reclam 1999), 48, translated by the author.
3. Gérard Schneilin, „Aktstruktur,“ in Theaterlexikon, eds. Manfred Brauneck / Gérard Schneilin (Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986), 1011ff., translated by the author.
4. René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977), 152-154.

Bibliography:
Adorno, Theodor W. / Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2002.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang 1972.
Brauneck, Manfred / Schneilin, Gérard (eds.). Theaterlexikon. Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986.
Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. Trans. Philip Mairet. New York: Harper & Row 1967.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. One-volume abridgement. New York: Macmillan Company 1922.
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books 1963.
Schiller, Friedrich. Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie. Stuttgart: Reclam 1999.
Stiglegger, Marcus. Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film. Berlin: Bertz + Fischer 2006.

Marcus Stiglegger

Out of the graves, out of the rubble …

The German war film in the 1950s

 

 

The war film as historical revisionism

 

The war film as a genre has never had it easy in Germany. Even today people prefer the label “anti-war film” to avoid the impression that a film is guilty of glorifying or trivialising warfare.[i] There is a suggestion that a war film in and of itself exhibits an affirmative attitude – an argument which, when considered analytically, is as difficult to maintain as it is for films which were indeed anti-war films.[ii] The problematic war film discourse may well have its origins in the German position in the Second World War: with the attack on Poland, the occupation of France, the air war over England, the battle for Stalingrad, and not least the “scorched earth policy” in Eastern Europe, Nazi Germany left countless war crimes of Nazi Germany in its wake. In contrast to the United States which intervened as a regulative counterbalance on the side of the Allies, from a German perspective there can be no conceivable utopia of a just war. Both the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS were guilty of committing horrendous massacres including against the civilian population. Underlying all this were the regime’s inhuman policies on deportation and extermination. To depict the war from a German perspective meant it was necessary to deal with this part of the nation’s own history – or to edit it out which is tantamount to historical revisionism.

Therefore a compromise was reached which reflected the historical picture of the postwar period. In the films of the 1950s – and it is no coincidence that these films appeared at the same time as the rearmament of the Federal Republic in 1955 – internal polarities were created which circumvented the embarrassment of a friend-foe polarity which often lent itself to the generic war film from the United States. Instead of the demonisation of an external enemy – from a Nazi perspective undoubtedly the United Kingdom and later the Soviet Union – the enemy was conjured up from within the German ranks themselves. Evil manifested itself in loyalty to the recognisably destructive and corrupt Nazi regime. As a member of a supposedly neutral Wehrmacht, the honest soldier was ultimately well suited to be a tragic identification figure, as “one of the people”, initially only following orders, until he rebels at the pivotal moment.

This rarely takes on the form of a system-toppling revolution, but rather is a precarious revolt by the individual against autocratic tyrannical superiors and which ultimately represented the purported dichotomy between the “people” and the “Führer”. The war films of the postwar period essentially suggest that the simple soldier, the submariner or the gallant airmen was an upright and humane representative of Germany who had sometimes himself become a victim of the fanatical elite. The crimes of the Wehrmacht did not fit into this picture. The German war film of the 1950s confirmed the myth of the upright Wehrmacht which Hitler and the SS had led to ruin. The Holocaust – the persecution and extermination of Jews and other victim groups – was usually discussed only on the periphery and almost never in a visually explicit way. According to the logic of the films, responsibility for the crimes lay first and foremost with Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and other representatives of the Nazi regime. The simple soldier on the other hand served as a suitable point of identification for an audience that only too well remembered the bombings, the fallen relatives and sons, and the invasion of the Allies.

 

 

The war film as a German genre

 

From around 1955 the German war film generated a wave of successful productions which were motivated by the establishment of the Bundeswehr and quite possibly also by historical distance (a decade), and by the Cold War between the USSR and the Western powers. They were not always combat films along the lines of the American model which were primarily concerned with battle experience, but harked back to the tried and tested formats of the barrack yard films of the Weimar period or the ever popular doctor films. The film series 08/15 (from 1954) by Paul May, with Joachim Fuchsberger in the lead role and based on the novel of the same name by Hans Hellmut Kirst, dealt with the lives of ordinary soldiers in the army barracks (“Gunner Asch” and “08/15” became familiar terms for the average man). der arzt von stalingrad (FRG 1957/58, The Doctor of Stalingrad) by Genre-Profi Géza von Radvanyi and based on the bestselling novel by Heinz G. Konsalik blended the war film, melodrama, and the medical film. The character of the doctor appeared here as an unproblematic identification figure – a guardian angel free from all ideology. In more combat-oriented films such as Frank Wisbar’s hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben (FRG 1958/59, Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever) and haie und kleine fische (FRG 1957) the German soldier was depicted as an intrepid and inherently apolitical warrior who of course opposed the Nazi system.

Even the feature films which were directly based on historical characters offered a “critical perspective” when portraying the resistance to Hitler. This is true of the spy thriller canaris (FRG 1954) by Alfred Weidenmann as well as for the Stauffenberg drama of der 20. juli (FRG 1955, The Plot to Assassinate Hitler) by director Falk Harnack. With die brücke (FRG 1959, The Bridge) Bernhard Wicki ultimately created the bitter endpoint of this blossoming of the German war film and in so doing successfully avoided the ideological traps that had exposed his predecessors to criticism. The following text will analyse the war films of the period according to their motifs and approaches and thereby show how these films summarised the social mood of those years.

 

 

The construction of the dissident

 

ein leben für deutschland – admiral canaris: the alternative title of canaris almost overarticulates what this biopic promised its audience at the time. It constructed a hero of the resistance against the criminal regime of the Nazis, and someone who was also in and out of the upper echelons of the leadership. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (O. E. Hasse), head of German counterintelligence between 1937 and 1944 is – so the film reveals – more than critical of the Hitler regime. This eventually brings him into the circle of conspirators against the “Führer”. As a result of this, the chief of security Heydrich (Martin Held) becomes his most dangerous enemy. Heydrich tries to undermine the system from within and in so doing mirrors Adolf Hitler’s earlier insidious subversion of the Weimar Republic.

After Heydrich’s assassination at the hands of Czech dissidents, Canaris temporarily assumes control and warns – in vain – against a war with the Soviet Union. When he joins the conspirators of 20 July he is unmasked by ardent Nazis, removed from his position, and executed as a traitor. He thus becomes a mythical hero of the insurrection, of the failing regicide, who although unable to change the course of history nonetheless shows that there were “upright Germans” even in times of terror. However, measured against the historical figure, this mythologising strategy reveals itself to be a nostalgic image that shamelessly condones historical revisionism. The film also became a censorship case because before the film’s release and following pressure from the Foreign Office, the FSK (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft or Voluntary Self Regulation of the Film Industry) recommended the removal of newsreel images of the crowds cheering Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg. People were reluctant to be reminded of the popular reception which facilitated Hitler’s road to power.

Weidenmann’s production is interested in the elitist but unequivocally moral German of integrity. O. E. Hasse plays Canaris as a superior agent who foresees the downfall of the system in its excess of power. With technical tricks and at the side of beautiful women he projects a type of superior white “elite man” which anticipates a famous British counterpart: James Bond. Unlike his English colleague he has to pay for his rebellious spirit with his life. The German intelligence service is portrayed here as a highly effective and forward-looking institution which to all intents and purposes could have prevented the war – had the upright officer class remained in power. Weidenmann’s film conveys the attitude of “Hitler’s right-wing opponents” around Stauffenberg, who would have indeed eliminated the unpopular tyrant, but who would also have affirmed militarism as a power bloc.

In the same year Helmut Käutner filmed the international success des teufels general (FRG 1954/55, The Devil’s General) based on Carl Zuckmayer’s play and with Curd Jürgens in the title role.[iii] Like canaris the film constructs a spy story around members of the Wehrmacht and SS who are clearly characterised as good or evil. The conventional hierarchy of loyal Wehrmacht officer, SS collaborator, and SS bully is spun out effectively. The film takes place in December 1941. Air Force General Harras (Curd Jürgens) is a bon vivant with a penchant for women and alcohol. Although he is known as a cynical opponent of the Nazi regime, the SS seeks to establish contacts with him for strategic reasons. SS-Gruppenführer Schmidt-Lausitz (Viktor de Kowa) tries to win over Harras at a party but the latter only has eyes for the young Dorothea. Against the warning of his friend Oderbruch (Charles John), Harras ignores the SS threats. He is immediately arrested. His two-week captivity makes him realise that in the Air Force he has made a pact with the devil. In order to take a counter-stance to the regime, he keeps secret a design fault in one of the new aircraft prototypes and in so doing Oderbruch hopes to weaken the its combat effectiveness. Despite further harassment from the SS, Harras protects his friend and at the end he climbs into one of the faulty machines to fly into the airport control centre.

Filmed in Hamburg and Berlin, des teufels general formulates in the same way as canaris the mythical image of the critic of the regime and saboteur in the leadership ranks of the Wehrmacht harassed by the fanatical SS. The protagonist’s end is presented as a soldier’s suicide against the backdrop of a fatefully sombre overcast sky. Helmut Käutner demonstrates in such directorial moments his desire to go far beyond the source play cinematically. Underscoring this ending is the allusion to Airforce General Udet, friend of the author Carl Zuckmayer, who was reported to have crashed in 1941 during a test flight, but who was actually shot. Käutner changed numerous details to make the criticism of the regime clearer and to raise Oderbuch and Harras to the status of clear identification figures. The commercial success of the film and several awards proved him right, even if he had once again affirmed the myth of the upright Wehrmacht and the devious malignant SS.

 

 

The simple soldier as victim of a system of injustice

 

While the aforementioned films thematised resistance among the decision makers of the Nazi regime, a whole series of productions was devoted to the individual hardships and the spirit of revolt among the common soldiers, the so-called Landser. Based on the novels of Hans Hellmut Kirst, Paul May filmed the trilogy 08/15 beginning in 1954 and ending the following year with the second part and 08/15 in der heimat.[iv] The first part takes place in the years before the war and has links with the barrack yard comedies of the Weimar period. In the film we experience the training and bullying in a Wehrmacht barracks from the perspective of Gunner Asch (Joachim Fuchsberger).

Asch adapts and takes sides with his sensitive comrade Vierbein who is almost tortured to death by the “slave-driver of the company” Platzek (Hans Christian Blech). In the second part we meet the protagonists again in the winter of 1942. The section led by Lieutenant Wedelmann (Rainer Penkert) is stationed on the Eastern Front. The non-commissioned officer Vierbein (Paul Bösiger) is meant to be obtaining radio sets in Germany whilst Asch is able to act strategically to relieve Wedelmann’s bullying. Just as they are about to withdraw, the Red Army soldiers strike. Asch loses his comrade Vierbein in battle. The third part takes place again in Germany during the last days of the war. Asch’s battalion is scattered and left to its own devices. The military leadership has disappeared. The fighting had stopped, but Lieutenant Asch pursues his plan of bringing several war criminals to justice.

All three films describe the war events as the everyday life of the soldiers. In military jargon “08/15” meant routine actions which were not to be questioned, even injustices, and to which the soldiers had become accustomed.

This was the experience that the bestselling novels of the veteran Kirst wished to convey and which was welcomed by former Landser as authentic, but which members of the General Staff accused of amounting to “nest-fouling”. The film trilogy creates a lively, entertaining picture of numbing routine with the experienced images of cinematographer Heinz Hölscher. Consequently, the films function somewhat as anecdotal military comedies and avoid overly drastic settlement with Prussian drill. Much more, a joyful vitality shines through in the face of terror and the film spreads a mischievous humour. Again, it is made clear that those responsible for war crimes were the men in the command post: the ordinary soldiers were not to blame.

Frank Wisbar, who had initially emigrated to America, was more consistent in what was later called his “war trilogy” which started with the navy adventure haie und kleine fische (FRG 1957). Based on the novel by Wolfgang Ott (1954), this absorbing U-boat film dramatises one of the most remorseless fronts of the Second World War. The titular metaphor (“sharks and little fish”) which distinguishes minesweepers and submarines refers once again to the rank and file (the “small fish”), who are prey to the generals and the “Führer” (“the sharks”). Wisbar’s film tells the narrative from the perspective of four friends and sailors, Teichmann (Hansjörg Felmy), Heyne (Horst Frank), Stollenberg (Thomas Bride), and Vögele (Ernst Reinhold) who are selected from a minesweeper in 1940 and allocated to a submarine crew. The very first engagement at sea results in one death and several casualties. Unrequited love leads Teichmann to volunteer for a risky submarine mission. When the submarine is hit by a British destroyer, only eight sailors are saved including Teichmann.

As the title suggests, Wisbar is entirely on the side of ordinary servicemen who fight to the best of their knowledge and belief for survival and repeatedly experience their own powerlessness. The example of Heyne, who commits suicide when he learns about the death of his Jewish father in a concentration camp, serves as an indication of the inhumanity of the Nazi system. The famous theme song Verloren, vergessen (“Lost, Forgotten”) by Lotar Olias and Peter Moesser prosecutes a claim for recognition for the selfless military sacrifices of the fallen. Time and again, Wisbar integrates real newsreel excerpts – including in his later works – so that the film has a contemporary feel: haie und kleine fische creates a dense simulation of the submarine war, but remains ideologically indifferent. This is legitimate as long as the film is an attempt to shed light on individual fates in borderline situations, not a reflection of the society of that time. haie und kleine fische is an intensive reflection of the mood of those years in which the war is still a very vivid memory.

The equally successful combat film hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben based on the literary work by Fritz Wöss refers in its title to a quotation of Frederick the Great in the battle against the Austrians: “You damned rascals, do you want to live forever?” We witness the downfall of Paulus’ army at Stalingrad, widely reproduced in historical newsreel images, from the perspective of the idealistic, National Socialist-educated Lieutenant Wisse (Joachim Hansen). The ending is dominated by the lingering prophetic chorus of the Russian propaganda: “Stalingrad – mass grave” Based on detailed research, Wisbar recounts here the attrition of the individual as a consequence of a fatal military logic. In order to manage with relatively simple means of production, Wisbar creates a montage of documentary material from the historical battle with studio-created street scenes. His idea of the authenticity of representation also led to the recruitment of genuine war veterans as extras. In order to leave the audience alone with the ending, Wisbar dispensed with closing credits.

 

 

Stauffenberg – the conservative dissident

 

For many decades Claus von Stauffenberg was considered an aristocratic hero figure in the fight against the Nazis. Current discourse, however, emphasises the assassination attempt as an act of “right-wing resistance” against Hitler since the circle from which Stauffenberg came was in no way interested in overcoming militarism[v]: he was a conservative dissident representative of a group of military personnel disappointed by the Nazis but who had nonetheless come to power through Hitler. Georg Wilhelm Pabst was a filmmaker interested in early psychoanalysis and, based on this idea, developed inter alia an exemplary portrait of the political events through which the Nazi Reich came to collapse.

der letzte akt (The Last Ten Days) was made by Pabst in 1954/55 in Austria and is a long-forgotten chamber drama about the last days in the Führer bunker. Based on a book by Michael A. Musmannoi,[vi] the situation is described from the perspective of Richard Wüst (Oskar Werner), a holder of the Knight’s Cross but critical of the regime. Wüst is sent to request reinforcements from Hitler (Albin Skoda) but fails in his attempt to gain admittance. We experience the collapse of the system with him. Wüst is only received when Hitler decides to blow up the tunnels of the Berlin U-Bahn, a source of shelter for the population.

Pabst’s film was the first German postwar film to depict Hitler. The film only attracted small audiences in Germany but interest was greater abroad. The author of the original text later became a judge at the Nuremberg Trials. Although he and Pabst consulted Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge during their research, they respected her request not to appear in the film herself.

After he had told his version of the end, Pabst set about making es geschah am 20. Juli (FRG 1955, It Happened on July 20th) in which he reconstructed Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt of 20 July 1944 in a quasi-documentary form using Erich Maria Remarque’s novella as a basis. Some actors of the previous film kept their roles (for example Willy Krause as Goebbels). As if following the agenda of the day, the film begins like on the morning of 20 July with Stauffenberg (Bernhard Wicki) flying to the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia where he is to place the briefcase he has already prepared under Hitler’s desk. Unexpectedly Hitler survives the attack but the conspirators have already launched their coup, “Operation Valkyrie”. When Stauffenberg arrives in Berlin, the “Führer”, who has been spared from death, has already ordered the suppression of the conspiracy. Stauffenberg is executed in the Bendler Block.

In this film Pabst also avoided the presence of too many Nazi symbols and flags – a picture that newer productions correct. In addition, the director established a spiritual level by having Stauffenberg attend church before the assassination. There, the shocked sacristan comments on his appearance with the line, “I will never forget the face. He had something to arrange with God!”[vii]

Like his co-writer Günther Weisenborn, Falk Harnack was a member of the left-wing resistance and made a parallel film der 20. Juli, also in a semi-documentary style and which to some extent addresses the preparations for the assassination attempt in greater detail.[viii] Apart from their style, the Stauffenberg films strongly resemble earlier resistance films where the positive utopia of effective damage to the dictatorship was linked to the dictatorship’s own protagonists rather than having the theme of resistance “from below”. This also distinguishes the West German point of entry from DEFA films which placed the dissident common soldier or prisoner at the centre.

 

 

Dissident war films: Childhood as the last victim

 

The highly emotionally charged, often melodramatic war film that aimed at identification was soon joined by the dissident war film, a typical example being kinder, mütter und ein general (FRG 1954/55, Children, Mother, and the General) based on the novel by Herbert Reinecker. The film is set towards the end of the Second World War when the regime has lost its power of seduction and most Germans are fearing for their own survival. Nevertheless, young male volunteers are still being won over for the war effort. When a group of fanatical high school students leaves for the front, their mothers determine to bring their sons back. In the Dornberg detachment they encounter army straggler who is stationed there in a unit with disillusioned veterans and stubborn Nazi zealots. In the face of the boys’ idealistic delusions, a disillusioned soldier helps the mothers to hide their sons in a barn before they depart. The film functions over long stretches as a dialogue-driven chamber drama in which different political positions are played out. Fittingly, many of the male and female actors come from a theatre background, amongst them Hans Mahler who later became director of the Hamburg Ohnsorg Theatre. Strikingly, in contrast to the German version the international versions of the film finished on a more pessimistic note: the boys are transported to the front. This film could be seen as a melodrama that distinctly feeds off the emotionality of the mothers towards their sons rather than relying entirely on the criticism of the war policy of the Nazis.

Bernhard Wicki’s now incomparably more famous war film die brücke based on the novel by Gregor Dorfmeister (published in 1958 under the pseudonym of Manfred Gregor) received numerous awards including an Oscar nomination. It depicts the final days of the war in 1945 in a small Bavarian town in which seven still underage boys receive the militarily senseless command to defend a bridge before the advancing American troops. The only adult involved in the mission, Sergeant Heilmann, does not survive long. Left alone to complete their mission, the schoolboys lose their life one after another. At the end when the Allied tanks advance, only one of them is still alive.

False pride, a martial male image, the loss of the father, and the ideological demonisation of the enemy: Wicki makes it clear that these will lead the children to certain death. In the current discourse on child soldiers in the Arab and African context, this model could be re-discussed since die brücke shows emphatically how the Nazi regime was able to hold out for such a long time at the expense of the most vulnerable.

Wicki increases the height of the tragic fall by having the teacher, Stern – who is to blame for their political indoctrination – plead for the boys, not realising that they are to be sent to the home front after one day’s training. The film conveys the image of an innocent but deluded and abused youth[ix] and in doing so has similarities to the redemptive Wehrmacht films, the difference here being that it is indeed about naïve schoolboys.[x] The Florian Geyer Bridge in the Cham district of the Upper Palatinate which can be seen in the film no longer exists, but a plaque refers to this iconic film which more than others before it has created a concentrated image of seduction and destruction in the context of the Second World War. Therefore, it is this work which formulates the clearest appeal against war of the West German war films of the 1950s and offers an effective antidote to the previous revisionist works. The bridge and the children who defend it – that is Germany at the end of the Nazi regime. With the final sentence Wicki recalls another anti-war classic, all quiet on the western front (US 1930): “This occurred on 27 April 1945. It was so insignificant that it was not mentioned in any military report.”

 

[i] See also Thomas Klein, Marcus Stiglegger, Bodo Traber (eds.): Filmgenres: Kriegsfilm. Stuttgart: Reclam 2006.

[ii] Marcus Stiglegger: Kriegsfilm. In: Thomas Koebner (ed.): Reclams Sachlexikon des Films. Stuttgart: Reclam 2002, pp. 375–378.

[iii] Ulrike Weckel: Geheimnisse eines Kinoerfolgs: Die Verfilmung von des teufels general 1955. In: Gerhard Paul (ed.): Das Jahrhundert der Bilder, Vol. 2: 1949 bis heute. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2009, pp. 130–137.

[iv] Knut Hickethier: 08/15, 08/15 – 2. teil, 08/15 in der heimat. In: Klein, Stiglegger, Traber, et al, pp. 101–106.

[v] Cf. Wolfgang Venohr: Stauffenberg: Symbol des Widerstands. Munich: Herbig 2000.

[vi] Michael A. Musmanno: In zehn Tagen kommt der Tod. Augenzeugen berichten über das Ende Hitlers. Authentische Darstellung der dramatischen Ereignisse der letzten Wochen im Führerbunker der Reichskanzlei. Munich: Droemer 1950.

[vii] Robnik Drehli: Geschichtsästhetik und Affektpolitik. Stauffenberg und der 20. Juli im Film 1948–2008. Vienna: Turia-Kant 2009.

[viii] Claudia Dillmann, Ronny Loewy (ed.): 2x 20. Juli. Die Doppelverfilmung von 1955. Frankfurt: Deutsches Filminstitut 2004.

[ix] Klaus Kanzog: “Warten auf das entscheidende Wort”. Pubertät und Heldenwahn in Bernhard Wickis die brücke (1959). In: Klaus Kanzog (ed.): Der erotische Diskurs: filmische Zeichen und Argumente. Munich: Schaudig, Bauer, Ledig 1989.

[x] Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss: Die Filmlegende Bernhard Wicki: Verstörung – und eine Art von Poesie. Berlin: Henschel 2007.

Marcus Stiglegger

Beyond Good and Evil?

Sadomasochism and politics in the cinema of the 1970ies Paper held February 9th, 2007, at FU Berlin conference ‘Performing and Queering Sadomasochism’

1. The 1970ies proved to be 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). Together 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: The pornographers Robert Lee Frost and Don Edmonds brought the so called Sadiconazista-films to the cinema with the Canadian productions Love Camp 7 (1969) and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974). These films which, following a trivial structure, take a voyeuristic look into the concentration camp brothel and a pseudo-medical experimentation centre. Although this exploitative use of holocaust motifs caused a huge scandal, these films are still extremely successful in the form of home media. The Ilsa film starring playboy model Dyanne Thorn even gave birth to a number of direct and indirect sequels. Italian cinema did also experiment with the connections between sexuality, politics and history, albeit on an artistically higher level. In her psychodrama The Night Porter (1973) the former documentary filmmaker Liliana Cavani further develops some realisations from her previous documentary series on the third Reich, and tells the story of the fatal reunion of a SS man (Dirk Bogard) and his former victim (Charlotte Rampling) in the form of an amour fou. 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. Cavani’s film is both the representation of the continuing Nazi mentality, even after the war was finished and (arguably) an attempt at a psycho-sexual adaptation of the concentration camp system. Lina Wertmüller’s Pasqualino Settebellezze / Seven Beauties (1975) takes a more satirical slant: a Sicilian macho man falls into the hands of an female SS-thug, who makes him her ‘sex toy’. The split level narrative in Wertmüller’s film takes it to a level well above that of the Sadiconazista-motifs, and it develops through its fragmented montage a kind of ‘baroque world theatre’ on the screen. Although Pier Paolo Pasolini’s modernised Marquis-de-Sade adaptation Salò/120 Days of Sodom (1975) is rather a film about the fascist tendencies in Italy of the present day – as Pasolini stated –, it is still true that in this apocalyptic scenario the filmmaker has constructed an oppressive microcosm of the concentration camp system, which was only really understood for the first time 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. It seems evident that all films mentioned in one way or the other develop a sadomasochistic model based on the principles of totalitarian politics and hierarchies. At first sight they seem to take the simple and wrong equation of sadomasochism and fascistic politics as a fact.

2. This phenomenon of mingling politics and sadomasochistic sexuality has sometimes been referred to as ‚il sadiconazista’. This term derives from the Italian pulp fiction of the 1960ies, where sexuality, cruelty and politics mingled to an exploitative and pornographic entertainment fare. It seems useful to transfer this term to the medium film, especially as the exploitative films in the wake of The Night Porter expanded on the unhistorical equation of sadomasochism and totalitarian politics. This also marks the huge difference between the reflected arthouse film of Cavani, Wertmüller, and Pasolini compared to the exploitation films of Sergio Garrone, Cesare Canevari, Bruno Mattei and the like. These exploitation films cash in on the same basic model to simply skip the reflective aspect of the forerunners. The English term exploitation already marks this technique of simply ‘exploiting’ a serious topic such as the holocaust, the inquisition, the slavery system, the prostitution or simply life in prison to reduce it to its sexual and violent content. Especially in the late 1960ies – when the rules of censorship were handled more liberally worldwide – there was a wave of exploitative films, many of them combining sexuality and violence in a way in which they provided a semi-sadomasochistic psychodrama. In many cases we can find a very popular and honourable forerunner being copied afterwards on a cheaper production level. Between 1968 and 1982 not only certain film directors specialized in making exploitation films, but production companies focussed on the ever growing market: Fulvia and S.E.F.I. Cinematografica in Italy, Eurocine in France and Erwin C. Dietrich in Swizerland, to name a few. All of them became involved in making women-in-prison movies, sometimes also dealing with Sadiconazista-elements. Most of the Sadiconazista-exploitation-films were not shown in cinema or on video in Germany, but some of them turned up as main examples in the British video-nasties-debate of the early 1980ies. In Phil Hardys ‘Encyclopedia of Horror films’ (1992, S. 315) he takes Sergio Garrone’s SS Camp 5 – Women’s Hell / Lager SS 5- l’inferno delle donne as a stand in for all the Sadiconazista-films of the time: ‘The box-office-success of Liliana Cavani’s picture about the pleasures of being tortured in a Nazi concentration camp, The Night Porter (1974) and, in America, the repulsively adolescent and racist torture-camp movies of Don Edmonds (Ilsa – She-Wolf of the SS, 1974), triggered the nostalgic fantasies of explicit as well as crypto fascists, spawning a filmic equivalent of the established literary porn sub-genre, ‘il sadiconazista’. Garrone contributed two filmic atrocities to this variation on the woman’s prison movies, SS Experiment Camp / Lager SSadi Kastrat Kommandantur (1976) and the one from 1974 which simply exploits ‘entertaining’ thrills such as Jewish women being undressed and divided into prostitutes and victims of medical atrocities. There is the obligatory Nazi lesbian, a crude abortion scene and a hefty smattering of assorted tortures. […]’.

3. The term ‚pornographic’ is a problematic one – especially in this context, on the borderline between exploitation and hardcore cinema. It seems more accurate call most of the Sadiconazista-films ‘sexploitation’, while a serious film like Saló is actually closer to Susan Sontag’s definition of pornography as a convention within the arts, which she outlined in her essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ (1969). Films and novels ‘qualify as pornographic texts insofar as their theme is an all-engrossing sexual quest that annihilates every consideration of persons extraneous to their roles in the sexual dramaturgy, and the fulfillment of this quest is depicted graphically.’ As in Georges Bataille’s transgressive prose (like ‘The Story of the Eye’ / ‘Histore de l’oeil’) – Sontag stresses out – the true obscene in artistic pornography will always show an affection towards death. In this sense she points out the special meaning of sacred rituals, the rite of passage and the sacrifice within pornographical contexts. Pornography therefor has a ritualistic structure. Concerning the exploitative Sadiconazista-phenomenon one can state that these films neither carry a political message nor do they represent real pornography or even violent pornography – therefor I think Phil Hardy is going too far in his opinion on the target audience. These films simply try to reduce their artistic forerunners The Night Porter, Seven Beauties, Salò, and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) to a sadomasochistic fantasy in order to gain entertainment out of a pure imaginative destruction drive. Historical elements as well as true sadomasochistic dialectics are abused here and transformed for this aim.

4. Susan Sontag has also reflected extensively on the fetishising of Nazi symbolism and iconography in sadomasochistic rituals in her essay ‘Fascinating Fascism II’: ‘In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. […] But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic?’ Sontag writes this – taking in consideration a militaria book called ‘SS-Regalia’ – to reflect further on the erotic attraction of the SS uniform. It is a well-known fact that military uniforms are handled as a sexual fetish. In her book ‘Fetish’ (1996) Valerie Steele states: ‘Military Uniforms are probably the most popular prototype for the fetishist uniform because they signify hierarchy (some command, others obey), as well as membership in what was traditionally an all-male group whose function involves the legitimate use of physical violence.’ The uniform seems to be an abstraction of the martial in the form of fashion. It symbolizes the belonging to an elite and embodies dominance and attraction. Especially the black service tunic of the SS can be seen as the ambitious trial to combine eccentric chic, elitist elegance, and death symbolism. But as Susan Sontag remarks: ‘[…] uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms – which are erotic material and photographs of SS uniforms are the units of a particularly powerful and widespread sexual fantasy.’ Although her essay discusses a military antiques fact-book this idea is also true for the appearance of SS-uniforms in the cinema of the 1970ies. In the context of entertainment the presence of SS-uniforms in fiction films has its own rules of reception – in contrast to the documentary for example. Sontag suspects that the dramatic pathos of the SS-uniform serves as the basis of this presumed effect: ‘SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity’. Not only Sadiconazista-films refer to the dramatic effect of the SS-uniform. There are also plenty examples of different genres making use of the sexually charged appeal of these elements: Star Wars (1976) by George Lucas, Ken Russell’s biopic Mahler (1976), Alan Parkers Pink Floyd – The Wall (1981), Richard Loncraines film of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1995), Paul Verhoeven’s SciFi-Satire Starship Troopers (1997) or the Casablanca-parody Barb Wire (1995) by David Hogan, to name a few.

5. The works within the Sadiconazista-complex can be divided by their motivations into various directions: – films that try to create some basic assumptions about fascist systems; – films that chose the totalitarian compulsory system as a radical and frightening historical background, on which rather interpersonal obsessions are played out: In Night Porter by Liliana Cavanis the director tells the story of a passionate relationship, marged by dominance and repression, this relationship is emotionally charged by the historical background, heavily loaded by the recipient’s knowledge; – films that push forward the totalitarian compulsory system as a dramaturgical justification, in order to wallow in widely acted sadomasochistic excesses: Sergio Garrone, the Italian old hand director of Lager SS 5 has stated in an interview that it is only possible to justify the drasticality of the pictured cruelty if one is basing it on that historical background (the national socialism). What all films have in common is the connection between sexual contexts and stereotyped pictures of the national socialism. The relationship between the executioner and the victim is being sadomasochistically transfigured and transferred on a level of sexual passion. The result is a cultivation of un-politicizing and un-historizing the phenomenon of national socialism. It is therefore possible to turn the picture of national socialism by laws of popculture into a toy of popaesthetics. What especially strikes here is the annihilation of time-levels in some of the discussed works: Lina Wertmüllers Seven Beauties as well as Cavanis The Night Porter and her later film The Berlin Affair (1985) are told in intricate convoluted flashbacks; the historical component is being transferred to the subjective and therefore “obtional” world of remembrance of the single protagonist, thus it reaches a nearly mythical quality which doesn’t allow an approach towards the historical phenomenon anymore. The concentration camps in Seven Beauties and The Night Porter look like dantesque limbos, filled with existential and sexual nightmares. As far away as the exploitative scenarios of the Sadiconazisto-Genre may be from the National socialist reality, it may still be possible to recognize a sequence of standardized situations based on the documented scenes of that time, this can be found in all thematically relevant films: the arrival of the concentration camp prisoners and the selection on the platform; the roll call out on the free places between the barracks; the actions in the brothel camps; the disastrous punishments and tortures (it is here where some critics observe the sadomasochistic appeal); executions; medical experiments; the massacre. By a comparative study it seems astounding that those elements appear as well in artistic ambitious as in exploitative films.

6. I would like to prove these theses by using Cavanis The Night Porter: When the young wife of a conductor , Lucia, recognizes the night porter Max as a SS-officer to whom she was a slave to back in the concentration camp, this incident breaks up her marriage. Her husband leaves for Frankfurt and she rebounds with Max after some agitated doubts. Because some other former Nazis recognize in her a cumbrous witness from the past, they force Max to kill Lucia, an order which he refuses to follow. Instead he withdraws with her to the loneliness of his small apartment and they turn in isolation from the environment. His former comrades besiege the house and threaten Lucia. After a time full of privation the as-good-as-dead-couple leaves the apartment and they are shot at dawn on a Donau bridge. It seems that the way of lovers can only lead up to their common death, just following the tradition of amour fou, this unconditional crazy love which has a long history in the conventions of European cinema – and both of them devote themselves in complete stylisation (him in his black fancy uniform, her in her childhoodlike-dress). It is the place of death – a lonely steelbridge at dawn – which bears the characterization as a rite of passage. Cavani seems to suggest that there is a world for lovers, but it it’s not ours. It is also the camera that departs from the action, right at that moment. The place of action turns into something stage-like, the protagonists to small figures who fit right into the outlines of their surroundings. It seems less important to the director to develop a political microcosm as to design a plausible mechanism for an unconditional desire. Every step of the encounter between Max and Lucia takes the role of a key scene, and far more drastical than usual in the genre of melodrama. Many actions and incidents grow to be allegoric and mythisized. It’s the desire that seems to be unconditional and, in the end, brings the surrender. It seems consequent that even destructive acts of love serve as loving proof, the best example being the split up between Lucia and her husband, when she recognises the hopelessness of her desire. Only one experience of pain seems to be appropriate when it comes to the intensity of her feelings: When Max enters the hotel room for the first time, he slaps Lucia in the face, the coming-to-be-love-nest full of broken glass is just a drastic symbolization for their frenzy. When Max visits his former lover Bert, who is gay, this meeting culminates into a strange sort of ballet at the beginning of the film. Max – using a single haunting spotlight – is lighting up the silent gestures of the dancer, who – although grown old by now – still seems fragile and even kind of young. Whereas Max acts like a puppeteer, spooky surrounded by the shadows, it is Bert who seems to dedicate all of his elegant gestures devotedly to him. This homoerotic ballet seems to take the same position as we can find in a comparable scene of vision in a portrait of Nietzsche which Cavani made in 1976, Beyond Good and Evil, in which Nietzsche is watching a homoerotic ballet of two persons. We also find here the clear isolation of characters, who can only embody their own cosmos. It is an isolation of characters based on relativisation of their social relationships; they are – even in The Night Porter – reduced to pragmatical relationships (mainly professional) and they lack an emotional ground which is then violently claimed back within the amour fou. The relationship between Max and Bert, the homosexual, is also affected by a vague gentle compassion which contrasts the established circumstances and can therefore only flourish secretly. When those relationships come out in the open the result is a chain reaction which can only bring a downfall. The film gives a hint that Bert may shoot the couple simply out of jealousy.

7. To sum it up it can be said that the Italian Exploitationfilm of the Seventies is the one which prosecuted and boosted up the stereotyping of pictures from national socialism and the Holocaust, even when it only got lukewarm support. The American film Ilsa – She Wolf of the SS became emblematic for the Sadiconazista-Genre. It fulfils all formerly described categories, has been released on DVD and is even to be distributed as a print on a T-Shirt. There is no debate whether or not those stereotypes have made an impact, because they certainly did: I have formerly been saying that even Steven Spielberg has pointed out to these mechanisms in Schindler’s List. So Sadiconazista may be – as a drift – a curiosity out of the off-limiting Seventies but the sexualisation of the picture of the Nazi-torturer has positioned itself deeply within the contemporary and popcultural consciousness in Europe, Japan and America. To conclude I want to use a polemic comment by Michèl Foucault in 1976 about the Sadiconazista-phenomenon: “This is a massive misapprehension about history. Nazism was not brought upon by the crazy folk of Eros in the 20th century, instead it was brought upon by those bourgeois people, and by that I mean the nastiest, stiffest and most disgusting ones that one can imagine. Himmler was some sort of a farmer who married a nurse. One has to considerate that the idea of the concentration camps was a result from the fantasies of the shared illusions of a nurse and a hen-breeder. Millions of people have been killed there, so I’m not saying that in order to devitalise the accuses which have to be made against this operation but rather to disenchant it from its erotic values one combines it with.” Or, as Martin Büsser is saying: “The occidental society has taken de Sade in by such an amount that they can only imagine it now as the last form of lose sexual freedom in the form of the faschistic tortures und murders. How indigent is our supply on education!” On the other hand there are few films depicting sadomasochistic sexuality which manage to be so fatally convincing in creating such a microcosm besides Liliana Cavanis The Night Porter. After its scandal is long forgotten it may be the right time to re-discover this great and multilayered melodrama, a film truly located ‘beyond good and evil’. Translation: Kathrin Zeitz

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.

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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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