The Holocaust through filmmakers' lenses - and two powerful documentaries
New York — Occasionally a critic's life and work come together on a single track. That's what happened when Annette Insdorf wrote ''Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,'' published recently by Vintage Books.
Publicly she is a cinema scholar, movie reviewer, and professor of film at Yale University. Privately she is the only child of two Holocaust survivors, and deeply aware of ''the formative role'' this has played for her.
It was ''to blend a personal legacy with a professional passion'' that she embarked on her latest book. ''I felt the Holocaust in film was a natural thing to address,'' she told me recently. ''And I thought if I didn't do it, who will?''
The result is a thoughtful and stirring account that never lets intellect crowd out compassion. Traveling through many realms of cinema, from ''Our Hitler'' to ''Sophie's Choice,'' it analyzes Hollywood and European versions of the Holocaust in terms of film language, storytelling strategy, and editing technique. Themes and approaches are examined through individual movies, from the ''ambiguity of identity'' in ''The Shop on Main Street'' to the urgent comedy of ''To Be or Not To Be,'' the 1942 classic that inspired Mel Brooks's current remake.
In planning the book, Dr. Insdorf didn't want it to become an act of simple Holocaust commemoration. ''It wouldn't be enough if I wrote only to remember what happened and enshrine martyrs,'' she says. ''My interest stems from the fact that everywhere in the world, and at every time, there's the potential for some of what took place during World War II.''
By its nature, ''Indelible Shadows'' deals with strange bedfellows - the Holocaust, an overwhelmingly serious topic; and movies, usually thought of as mere entertainment. This raises a big question: Are movies and TV shows a proper forum for exploring vast and devastating subjects?
''Trivialization is inherent in TV and often in films on the Holocaust,'' says the author. ''But trivialization is a lesser danger than oblivion. I'd rather there be too many whitewashing soap operas about the Holocaust than nothing at all.''
Dr. Insdorf gives her highest praise to such documentaries as ''Night and Fog'' and ''The Sorrow and the Pity.'' Yet when judging fictional Holocaust films, she doesn't favor the most ''realistic.'' In fact, she says, ''I'm not sure there's any such thing as objectivity in film, even in newsreels.''
Thus her favorite story-films tend to focus on one view of things, never claiming to be all-inclusive. ''The truth has millions of tiny fragments,'' she says, ''and films are only capable of showing a few of them. How could a film encompass all the political, economic, theological, and psychological aspects of the Holocaust, and deal with specific victims from the Jews down, and deal with Nazi mentality and the rest of the world's response?
''The best you can do is choose one tiny fragment and illuminate it well,'' concludes the author, citing such pictures as ''The Pawnbroker'' and ''Mephisto, '' which draw our attention to characters who incarnate certain aspects of the Holocaust.
Is there a major blind spot in Holocaust movies to date? Yes, says Dr. Insdorf. ''They show how terrible things were, and make us cry sympathetic tears for the victim, period. Rarely do they show Jewish resistance. I'm very bothered that so few have dealt with the Warsaw ghetto and other situations when Jews did revolt.''
There are two main reasons for this. First, the existing newsreel footage of ghettos and concentration camps was taken by the Nazis themselves. Hence, Dr. Insdorf says, ''we just don't have the images of what Jewish resistance looked like.''
She also believes ''people today have a vested interest in thinking the Jews didn't revolt,'' because that makes us feel safer. ''We think we would fight back, and thus the same horrors couldn't happen to us.'' But, she says, ''There was political resistance - as well as spiritual resistance - with guns, weapons, or simply fists. I feel there will be more and better films made about this ignored subject.''
Dr. Insdorf's deep feelings about film spring partly from the influence of her father, who told her stories about the small Polish town he grew up in - ''where people often didn't have the money for a decent meal, but would spend their few pennies going to a movie.'' She conceived the idea of ''Indelible Shadows'' while working on a screenplay about his real-life escape from a forced-labor camp.
Her love for books, on the other hand, came largely from her mother, a survivor of two death camps who went back to school when her daughter was nearly grown, and is today a professor of French literature.
Beyond those parental influences, Dr. Insdorf just loves stories - ''to tell them, read them, watch them, and most important, be in them. I don't know if mankind has ever lived, or could ever live, without them,'' she says heartily.
Hollywood is the world's greatest fountain of film stories, but many countries have produced Holocaust movies. How do the American versions stack up to their rivals abroad?
''Not very well in terms of historical accuracy, authenticity, moral integrity, impetus to action, comprehensiveness, or profound reflection,'' Dr. Insdorf answers with a rueful smile.
''But they excel in other areas,'' she quickly adds. ''Spectacle. Craft. And opening the door to themes that otherwise might not be considered by the mass audience.''
Thus she disagrees with critics who say popular movies - with their neat stories and tidy resolutions - tend to close off thought. And she's convinced the Holocaust genre will grow richer as it continues to mature. ''Films on the Holocaust keep coming out,'' Dr. Insdorf says. ''That's heartening. There are so many untold stories that need to be told. Not just to commemorate, but because they can help us lead richer lives by showing the options human beings have for noble or reprehensible behavior. . . .''
Splendid documentariesNew York
Can documentaries be as personal and poetic as fiction films? I'd give an emphatic yes. And if anyone argued the point, my Exhibit A would be two new pictures by Stephen Dwoskin and Richard Levine. I previewed them the other day at the Collective for Living Cinema, which will publicly screen the Levine tomorrow night and the Dwoskin on Sunday.
Dwoskin is known for his intense explorations of form, texture, and mood in vaguely narrative contexts. Shadows From Light, his first documentary, focuses on the surrealist photographer Bill Brandt, whose uncanny images and unearthly atmospheres recall some qualities of Dwoskin's own work.
In the spirit of his subject, Dwoskin takes us on slithery voyages through Brandt's house - a surreal Xanadu - punctuated with views of Brandt photos, including celebrity portraits and nude studies. Narrators guide us with helpful facts and Lewis Carroll quotations. The movie ends with filmmaker and photographer aiming their cameras at each other. Shot in luminous black and white, it's a splendidly expressive picture.
Levine bases his War Stories on footage from Vietnam, including shots of wounded Americans and excerpts from a South Vietnamese propaganda film. First showing the material straight, then repeating and superimposing it many times, he turns the screen into a swirling inferno of supercharged imagery. In counterpoint, a matter-of-fact sound track carries the voices of American veterans regretfully relating their experiences.
Although his techniques are not original, Levine turns them to powerful effect, commenting not only on the war, but on the uses and significance of documentary images. In all, a harrowing yet salutary experience.